The Japanese is an amazing culture and a funny language, but not an easy one to learn… unless you are Japanese or Chinese and able to read ideograms or Kanji for a huge head start. Once in Japan, if you don’t want to be feeling completely lost in translation, one of the first thing you need to learn is how to say “yes”. The thing is, Japanese people have many, many different way to say “yes”. Let me introduce you the most used ones.
This is the proper way to say “yes”. However, it generally has a kind of militaresque tone and repeating it continuosly will make you a “yes man”. It may be useful if you want to show great respect for someone, but sometimes it creates too much distance. The tricky thing for “Hai” is that it is also used when you want to say “no”. In fact, Japanese people hate to say “no”. It sounds not polite in their culture, so when they don’t agree with you instead of begin with “iie” (no), they will probably start with an “Hai”…but add “things can also be in that way, which is the opposite you have just stated”
- So, so, so
Literally it translate the English “so it is”. Japanese people use it a lot in conversation: “so, so, so” or the variations So, da, ne – or the more polite “So, des ne” or “Son, nan da” -. These are the most colloquial forms to say “yes”.
This is the kind of yes you usually hear when the person is not really interested in what are you saying and will grunt a nasal “unn” or “uhm”. Sometimes though, it is just because he does not want to interrupt you. As usually in Japanese it’s all a question of nuances. It is not what you say, it is “how you say it”.
eeeeeeeeeh, uuuh, ooooh
This is the Queen of the Japanese expressions. (As for the King, I’ll tell you next time). It is used usually to express “astonishment, surprise, wonder”, like “is it for real?” (not to be confused with “really”, which translates with the widely used “honto ni” or the more slangish, cool “maji de” ).
But like Patanjali, when asked how many different yoga asanas (positions) there are in the sacred sutras, he replied wisely “one for every man on this Earth”, we can also say that there are many “eeeeh” “uuuh” “oooooh” for every japanese person. Just be aware “e” is the vowel you can stretch longer, while “u” is the shorter.