Learn

Tweet of the Week #48: Phone Call Turns Awkward With Japanese Homophones

Learn how to answer (or not) the phone in Japanese with this week's viral tweet.

By 4 min read

Let’s admit the truth: phone calls belong to the dark ages. Who doesn’t dread having to make a phone call, when texting would be so much less stressful?

In fact, fear of the phone is a real thing with a fancy scientific name, “telephonophobia,” to denote the feeling of anxiety whenever you hear a phone ringing.

Animated GIF

Now picture yourself making a phone call in Japanese

For many Japanese language learners, making a phone call is the ultimate leap of faith in their language skills. Phone calls in Japan typically involve a furious onslaught of incomprehensible Keigo punctuated with an angry “ka?” question particle to signal that it’s your turn to speak.

But the toughest part of navigating a phone call in Japanese? It has to be distinguishing between Japanese homophones—words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings. 

Unfortunately, the existence of a very large number of homophones plays an important role in the overall complexity of Japanese. Even for professional translators and native speakers, variations between several homophones are sometimes too subtle. While in writing, kanji solves some (but not all) of the ambiguity of homophones, in speaking, it’s much harder to tell the difference.

“He’s wha–?!”

This tweet proves that homophones cause confusion even for Japanese people. While you probably wouldn’t use the word “parasite” (kiseichuu) as much as the verb “be home for the holidays” (kiseichuu) in your conversations, that’s not the case for this parasitology lab. 

寄生虫きせいちゅう学研究室がくけんきゅうしつは、内線ないせんでかかってきた電話でんわに「はい、寄生虫です。」と対応たいおうすることがある。

内線 :プルルルル

研究室:「はい、寄生虫です。」

内:「Aさんをおねがいします。」

研:「帰省中きせいちゅうです。」

内:「えっ?(混乱こんらん)」

研:「えっ? 」

= At the parasitology laboratory, we respond “yes, this is parasite” when we get an internal phone call.

Phone extension: *ring ring*

Laboratory: “Yes, this is parasite.”

Caller: “I would like to speak to Mr. A.”

Laboratory: “He is parasite (back home on holidays).”

Inside: “… What? (Confused)”

Laboratory: “Huh?”

With kiseichuu also meaning “under regulation/regulated” (規制中きせいちゅう) you quickly understand how context is crucial for both speakers to stay on the same page! 

How to answer a phone call in Japanese

Because ignoring your phone ringing for the fifth time today won’t get you anywhere, prepare yourself with this quick list of words and expressions to know. 

In Japan, people answer the phone saying もしもし or はい, following with their name. 

  • もしもし、ジョンです= Hello, this is Jon.
  • はい、マリです= Yes, this is Mary. 

もしもし is a little bit casual, so if the caller could be a business relation, you’d better go with はい. 

Alas, we cannot cover all the phone situations you might find yourself in, but here are some expressions you should keep in your hat to ask the speaker to repeat or speak slowly. 

  • すみません、もう一度いちどねがいします。= Excuse me, could you say this one more time?
  • すみません、もっとゆっくりはなしてくださいませんか。= Sorry, could you speak slowly, please?

Keep in mind that speaking at a slower pace might not always help you understand what’s being said. So you can maybe ask for the person on the other end of the phone to speak with easier words, or even if they can switch to English.

  • すみません、やさしい 日本語にほんごで話してくださいませんか。= Sorry, could you use easier Japanese, please?
  • すみません、英語えいごでお願いします。= Excuse-me, could you speak English?

Can’t hear the person on the other end (or just want to pretend that you can’t so you can get the phone call over with)? Use these phrases below.

  • お電話がとおいです。= Literally, the “phone is far,” meaning you don’t clearly hear the speaker. 
  • すみません、こえません。= Sorry, I can’t hear.
  • すみません、わかりません。= Sorry, I don’t understand.
  • Finally, to end a call, you’ll either use ではまた (very casual) or 失礼しつれいします.

Vocabulary

Japanese Romaji English
寄生虫きせいちゅう学研究室がくけんきゅうしつ kiseichuu gakukenkyuushitsu parasitology laboratory
内線ないせん naisen internal line
かかる kakaru come (phone call)
電話でんわ denwa phone
寄生虫 kiseichuu parasite
対応たいおうする taiou suru answer to
ことがある koto ga aru has happened in the past, it happens
プルルルル pururururu onomatopoeia for a ringing phone
研究室けんきゅうしつ kenkyuushitsu laboratory
ねがいします o negai shimasu please
帰省中きせいちゅう kiseichuu be back home (= hometown, country…) for the holidays
混乱こんらん konran confusion
えっ? ee? uh…?
規制中きせいちゅう kiseichuu under regulation
 もしもし moshi moshi hello (on the phone)
 はい hai yes
 すみません sumimasen excuse-me, please
もう一度いちど mou ichido one more
もっと motto more
ゆっくり yukkuri slowly
はな hanasu talk
…くださいませんか。 …kudasaimasen ka Could you…? Would you…? (more polite than the request form ください)
易しい日本語にほんご yasashii nihongo literally “kind Japanese”
英語えいご eigo English
 とお tooi far away
 こえる kikoeru can hear
 わかる wakaru understand
ではまた dewa mata see you later
失礼しつれいします shitsurei shimasu goodbye (on the phone)

For more on learning Japanese

Related

Work

8 Side Jobs for Foreigners to Make Extra Money in Japan

As the gig economy model grows abroad, Japan’s government is now encouraging workers to take second jobs. Here’s our pick of the best side hustles for foreign workers.

By 6 min read

Learn

How to Apply to a Japanese University

A step-by-step guide for international students who want to apply to a Japanese university.

By 12 min read

Explore

Top Things to Do in Aichi Prefecture: A Guide to Traveling in Central Japan

From temples to ninjas to robots, join the journey to the heart of Japan with GaijinPot in this video.

By 13 min read