Answering the phone in Japanese seems like easy business. Moshi moshi. Most people know this "telephone hello" even if they don't know any other Japanese words.
But if you say "moshi moshi" every time you answer the phone in Japan, you'll end up in bad situations. There are several ways to answer the phone in Japanese. And you need to know the right situation for the right greeting.
But "moshi moshi" is an odd phrase. It doesn't mean "hello" literally. And there's a reason it's mostly (but not always) used on the phone.
- What Does Moshi Moshi Mean?
- When Should You Use Moshi Moshi?
- Other Ways to Start a Japanese Phone Conversation
- Why Do Japanese People Say Moshi Moshi?
- Never Say "Mushi Mushi" Again
What Does Moshi Moshi Mean?
If you want a quick, conversational overview of the meaning of moshi moshi, check out the video Koichi made years back. It features a cat, so you'll definitely like it.
"Moshi" actually comes from the verb mousu 申す, which is a humble form of "to say" (iu 言う). In the Edo period, it was used in normal conversation when speaking to someone of higher status. Initially, the words used were moushiagemasu 申し上げます, moushimasu 申します or mousu 申す. These all mean "I'm going to say (talk)." Eventually it was shortened to "moushi" (申し) and was used to catch somebody's attention, like saying "hey!"
Technically, when you say "moshi moshi," you're politely saying "I'm going to talk" twice. But it feels more like, "Hey, dude."
In short, the politeness level of the conjugations goes like this:
申し上げます > 申します > 申す > 申し
There are quiet a few options in this "moshi moshi menu" so be careful about which one you use in which situation.
When Should You Use Moshi Moshi?
You should use "moshi moshi" primarily when answering the telephone. But only when you receive a phone call from friends or family.
If there is a long pause or a lost connection during the call, you can use "moshi moshi" to make sure the person is still on the line (again only when the call is from a friend or family member).
For example, when your friend's voice becomes choppy, you can say moshi moshi kikoemasuka? もしもし聞こえますか？ which means "Hello, can you hear me?"
That's the way you'll use moshi moshi 90% of the time. If you're answering the telephone and it's someone other than family or friends on the other line, don't say moshi moshi. There's another set of words to use. We'll get to those later.
You're not going to use moshi moshi off the phone too much. But when you do it'll usually be to get someone's attention. If your friend is spacing out, you can wave your hand in front of their face and say, "moshi moshi."
Or, if you see someone passed out on the sidewalk, you can tap their shoulder and say, "moshi moshi!"
There is one more non-telephone use of moshi moshi that's now defunct. According to 20世紀B級ニュース (20th Century B-Grade News) people complained about police officers in 1913. Back then, police would stop people by saying oi oi おいおい, kora kora こらこら or oi kora おいこら. All of these are impolite ways to say "Hey!"
So on March 6th, 1913, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police announced that officers would no longer use such crude language. Instead they would shout "moshi moshi" to get someone's attention or stop a robbery. Police don't say this anymore, but it may still be on the books as official police conduct.
Other Ways to Start a Japanese Phone Conversation
If you're receiving a call from family or friends, moshi moshi is the way to go. But never use it in business situations. It's considered rude because it's a shortened phrase.
Younger Japanese people don't always know not to use "moshi moshi" in formal telephone calls (Honestly. Kids today!). A "moshi moshi" may shock a sempai or two when young kids start making phone calls.
How can you keep from making such a terrible faux pas? Here are alternate ways to receive calls (politely).
The easiest and safest way to answer the phone is saying hai はい. It means "yes," but on the phone it serves the same function as "hello." Just remember to identify yourself and your company right after.
- Hello, this is Tofugu, LLC.
- Hello, this is Koichi at Kanemochi Co., Ltd.
Note: Japanese people usually use their family name on the phone. A more polite form of "です" would be preferable as well. See the example below.
- Hello, this is Satou at Suzuki Co.,Ltd.
Let's say you answer the phone and identify your company but not yourself. The person calling might ask what your name is.
You would use moushimasu 申します, the humble form of "say," after your name. But only use it if the person on the other end has identified themselves. It's weird to use "moushimasu" if you don't yet know who you are talking to.
- A: はい、スズキ株式会社でございます。
- A: Hello, this is Suzuki Co., Ltd.
- B: スズキ株式会社のどなたですか？
- B: Who am I speaking to?
- A: 佐藤と申します / 佐藤太郎と申します
- A: This is Satou. / This is Taro Satou.
It might be more polite to mention your full name when asked to identify yourself, especially if your family name is common.
"Thank you for your call"
Another way to answer the phone is to thank the person who called with odenwa arigatou gozaimasu お電話ありがとうございます. This means "thank you for calling."
- Thank you for your call. This is Takahashi at Tanaka Co., Ltd.
Note: Depending on the company, "Kabushikigaisha" (Co., Ltd.) can come before or after the company name. Saying a company name correctly matters in Japanese culture. It's considered rude to mess up a company's name, even if it's just the "co., Ltd." part.
"I appreciate all you have done for us"
You can also go a step further and thank the caller for everything they've ever done ever.
The phrase is itsumo osewa ni natte orimasu いつもお世話になっております or osewa ni natte orimasu お世話になっております. Use these two on the phone in business situations. There are other variations for other kinds of conversations too.
- I appreciate all you have done for us. This is Itou at Bacon Pizza, Shibuya branch.
It may seem odd in English, but it's a common greeting in Japan. Say this as soon as you pick up the phone.
"I've received this forwarded call"
When you receive a forwarded call in a business situation, say odenwa kawarimashita お電話変わりました.
If it's a casual conversation, you could just say, もしもし[name]です. If a call is forwarded, the caller already knows the company and the call was forwarded to you. So just say your name.
But, if the call was forwarded from a different department, you might want to say your department name and your name.
- I've received this forwarded call. This is Watabane in the accounting division.
Fun story: Instead of "odenwa kawarimashita," some people say oden wa niemashita ka オデン煮えましたか?, which means "Is the oden cooked yet?" Apparently someone tried this five times at his job, and four out of five people didn't notice.
As I mentioned before, you can use "moshi moshi" one the phone when there's a long silence or you can't hear the person on the other line. But this is not okay for business situations.
Instead say osoreirimasu 恐れいります meaning "pardon me." After that, say you're having trouble hearing. But do it indirectly.
Use "the telephone seems to be distant," which is odenwa ga tooi you desu お電話が遠いようです.
This way it's nobody's fault. The telephone just went far away. Don't say okoe ga tooi お声が遠い or "your voice is distant" because that's blaming the person who you are talking to.
- Pardon me. The telephone seems to be distant. Could you say that again, please?
Why Do Japanese People Say Moshi Moshi?
We've got the moshi moshi vocab down pat. Use it on the phone and sometimes elsewhere. But why say it at all? Why not say "konnichiwa" or one of the other forms of hello in Japanese? Why does the telephone get its own special hello?
Historically, there are a three explanations.
Explanation 1: Foxes can't pronounce moshi moshi
What does the fox say? Not moshi moshi, apparently.
Foxes can't pronounce moshi moshi properly. "Why would I care about foxes when answering the phone?" A valid question. If you're not aware of the dangers foxes pose to you and your loved ones, read this article about Kitsune, the magical foxes of Japanese fairy tales.
In short, magical foxes (called kitsune in Japan) are powerful and nasty creatures. They can shapeshift, create illusions, and love to screw people over. So if a malevolent kitsune were calling you on the phone, it would be bad news. That's why Japanese people started to say "moshi moshi" when answering the telephone. According to legendary Japanese folklorist, Lafcadio Hearn, foxes can't speak words fully.
- "…a fox knocks at doors with its tail. If you open, then you will see a man, or perhaps a beautiful girl, who will talk to you only in fragments of words, but nevertheless in such a way that you can perfectly well understand. A fox cannot pronounce a whole word, but a part only—as "Nish . . . Sa. . ." for "Nishida-San"; "degoz . . ." for "degozarimasu, or "uch . . . de . .?" for "uchi desuka?"
And from this the moshi moshi myth was born. The idea of foxes' speech impediment eventually evolved into the legend of their verbal achilles heel, "moshi moshi." Or so it stands to reason.
Explanation 2: Ghosts can't say moshi twice
This theory was uncovered by Friend of Tofugu (or FOT), Gakuranman. You can read all about his explanation on the Gakuranman blog. This origin of moshi moshi is similar to the fox explanation above, which gives validity to both.
Apparently, Japanese ghosts can only say "moshi" once. Why? I dunno. Ghost logic. Some things in life (or the afterlife) are just the way they are.
Let's say, you're walking around in the Edo period and see someone you know. You want to call out to them. But it's nighttime and pretty spooky. If you get close to them and say "moshi," they may get scared. That means an embarrassing yelp at best or a reflexive punch in the face at worst.
So you speak out "moshi moshi." This ensures the listener that the voice calling out to them on this dark and spooky night is, in fact, a human friend. Not an inhuman fiend.
Explanation 3: Telephone operators did it
And now for the explanation that seems the most plausible because it's actually supported by facts.
On December 16, 1890, telephones were first introduced to Japan. Today, this date is telephone day (denwa no hi 電話の日) in Japan. At the time, only rich people were were able to afford telephones. Being rich, they were used to talking down to others. Thus, the standard "telephone hello" was oi oi おいおい or "hey YOU!" The person on the other end would respond with Hai, you gozaimasu はい、良うございます or Hai, you gozansu はい、良うござんす. Both of these are humble ways of saying, "Yes, I'm ready" meaning the person calling is ready to talk.
Of course, this abrupt "hey YOU!" got on people's nerves when telephone operators used it. So the "oi oi" was changed to moushiagemasu 申し上げます.
"Moushiagemasu" was eventually shortened to mousu mousu 申す申す for male operators and moushi moushi 申し申し for female operators. Some male operators still used "oi oi" for a while though.
The person who made the change to "mousu mousu" or "moushi moushi" on the telephone was Shigenori Katougi (加藤木重教). He was an electrician for the Ministry of Engineering and went on to work for anaka Seisakusho (田中製作所). He traveled the United States in 1889 to study their telephone system.
During his visit, Katougi-san learned Americans say "hello" when answering the phone. Katougi's American hosts asked what the telephone greeting was in Japan. He wasn't sure what to tell them. It was either "oi oi," "moushiagemasu," "mousu mousu," or "moushi moushi." It would have required a lot of explanation (about as much as this article). So he just decided to tell the Americans that Japanese people say "moshi moshi" and it means "hello."
This gave him the idea of a standardized "telephone hello" which he brought back to Japan. Soon after in 1893, the term "mousu mousu" was shortened to "mosu mosu" and "moushi moushi" was shortened "moshi moshi."
But after a while there were fewer male telephone operators than female. So "mosu mosu" eventually disappeared and "moshi moshi" became the standard. Historians say this happened in 1902, and both men and women used "moshi moshi" after that.
One cute story from this era (which may or may not be true): There is a song "usagi to kame" (rabbit and turtle) in Japan. The song starts with the lyrics "moshi moshi kame yo kame san yo."
The story goes: an operator answered a telephone call with "moshi moshi." The man on the other line answered with "kame yo." Both were so tickled they sang the rest of the song together.
Never Say "Mushi Mushi" Again
By now I'm sure you're a big moshi moshi fan. You'll wear moshi moshi t-shirts. You'll stick a moshi moshi sign in your front yard. You've gone beyond the avoidance of the erroneous "mushi mushi." You know when to use which telephone hello and why it's used. Welcome to the moshi moshi elite.
Next time you answer the phone you'll certainly not offend any Japanese businessmen. Or invite trouble from devilish foxes.