Everybody takes to using various short cuts and methods for memorizing vocabulary terms or phrases when learning a new language. And for learning Japanese, it is no different. It is not uncommon to be studying pronunciation of a foreign language and think, "this word sounds like…" in order to help you remember it. One of the fun things about learning Japanese (at least for English speakers) is that it can allow for the possibility of being creative with mnemonics. A mnemonic device is defined as a technique that aids information retention and memorization. In my time of being around the Japanese language, I have heard English expressions, or joke phrases, that are not quite puns, that sound like Japanese words and phrases, and are popularly used as mnemonic tools. One of the most famously used being, "don't touch my mustache". Can you guess what that means?
Quick Tip: How To Say "You're Welcome"
- You're Welcome
Greetings and general pleasantries are typically some of the first vocabulary words one learns when studying a foreign language. With Japanese we learn "hello" as konnichiwa, "goodbye" as sayonara, "good morning" as ohayo, and "thank you" as arigatou, to name a few. Here's a quick tip: when trying to remember how to say "Good Morning" in Japanese, it may help to recall Ohio, like the state. And if you ever find yourself forgetting how to say "You're Welcome", all you have to remember is "Don't Touch My Mustache".
The exact origin of the use of the phrase "don't touch my mustache" is unclear, though some personal accounts date it back to being commonly used in World War II, and some speculate that perhaps it started with Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan. However it first came about, the idea behind it is that the English phrase "don't touch my mustache" is thought to sound very similar to the Japanese word for "you're welcome", which is dō itashimashite どういたしまして.
You may have to try to say it a few times. Or say it rapidly all together so it sounds like the phrase is slurred, but it does seem to replicate a similarity in its sound.
Don't Touch My Mustache in Pop Culture
Extending past the confines of the Japanese language classroom, the idea that the phrase "don't touch my mustache" sounds similar to どいたしまして in Japanese has been alluded to in a couple of instances in American pop culture.
"A Majority of One"
A first example is from a 1961 movie titled "A Majority of One" starring Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell, and directed by Mervyn Leroy. Alec Guinness stars as Mr. Koichi Asano, a Japanese businessman. Rosalind Russell stars as Bertha Jacoby, a Jewish widow from Brooklyn who ends up moving to Japan when her son-in-law Jerome, who works for the government, has been promoted to a position stationed at the American Embassy in Yokohama. Although in the beginning things between Mr. Asano and Bertha are rocky, eventually Bertha is able to warm up to him. This film is a love story which explores lessons learned in tolerance and prejudice in a time after the war. There is a scene in the film where Guinness and Russell are having a conversation and she asserts that she knows a little Japanese including "you're welcome, which sounds like 'don't touch my mustache'". You can listen to the conversation here.
"Toy Story 2"
What might be the most popular reference to "don't touch my mustache" appeared in Pixar's Toy Story 2. In Toy Story 2, the sequel to Pixar's original Toy Story, the hero Woody is stolen by a toy collector who wants to sell Woody and other toys he has collected from the same "Woody's Roundup" franchise to a museum in Tokyo, Japan. This sound clip is from a scene where Al, the Toy collector, is finishing up a phone call with the Japanese investor from Tokyo. They have just accepted his offer for Woody and feeling ecstatic, Al hangs up the phone call with "Don't touch my mustache".
Interestingly enough, Toy Story 2 was not Pixar's last phonetic reference to a Japanese vocabulary word. They included another one in 2001's Monsters Inc. In Japan, store employees to greet their customers by saying irasshaimase いらっしゃいませ when they enter the store or restaurant. In Monsters Inc, whenever somebody entered Harryhausen's Sushi Restaurant, its employees shouted "Get a paper bag!" which was intended to be a phonetic reference to Irasshaimase. What do you guys think? Do they sound similar?
Don't Touch Dug Up Potatoes
Transitioning from don't touch my mustache to don't touch dug up potatoes, another fun fact about mnemonic gag expressions is that sometimes they can go both ways! A popular Japanese memorization aid is the expression 掘った芋いじるな (hotta imo ijiru na), which is a way of studying how to say "What time is it now?" in English. Translated literally to "don't touch dug up potatoes", it was first recorded to have appeared in a language study textbook written by Nakahama Manjiro, also known as John Manjiro.
Manjiro was a fisherman who hailed from an area now knows as the Kochi Prefecture of Japan. He and his four brothers were shipwrecked and rescued and taken to Honolulu. He decided to stay on board his rescuer's ship and was consequently one of the first Japanese people to visit the United States. He studied English for a year in Massachusetts and in 1850 made way for San Francisco before returning to Japan in 1851. Upon his return to Japan, Manjiro worked as an interpreter and translator for the Shogunate, advising on foreign matters. He wrote a book called 「英語練習帳」which can be roughly translated to English Learning Workbook in which the "hotta imo ijiruna" approach is referenced for transliterating English into Japanese.
Other "This Sounds Like…" Expressions
In order to complement some of the phrases brought up in the article today, I thought it would be fun to look into some other "sounds like" phrases that could be used for increasing one's Japanese language vocabulary. So, here is a short list of a couple other expressions I've been introduced to from friends and discovered on the internet that I thought were worth sharing:
- ありがとうございます = Arigatou Godzilla-Mouse
- Thank you
- 危ない = Have an Eye!
- いただきます = Eat the yucky mess
- Said before eating / Let's Eat!
As you can see they kind of somewhat barely resemble the original thing word. Which brings me to my next question:
Is it Passable for Japanese?
While many such expressions including the ones mentioned above may be useful in creating memorable associations with Japanese phrases and vocabulary which in turn could assist with language learning, could they actually be useful as passing for spoken Japanese? They are clever, many are humorous, but for the most part I feel as though they only vaguely resemble the Japanese phrases they are trying to reproduce. Perhaps if spoken with a swift tongue, "don't touch my mustache" could be recognized as "doitashimashite", but assuming that the universal association between "don't touch my mustache" and "you're welcome" in Japanese does not exist, if it's enunciated too clearly, it might be missed. And similarly, if a Japanese person were to ask me about the time using "hotta imo ijiruna" I would almost certainly have to ask them to please repeat the question. But regardless of whether you have heard the mnemonic before, or it's something new for you, or if it happens to be a personal principle that you live by, now you know that if you ever need to say"you're welcome" in Japanese, all you have to do is remember "don't touch my mustache".