Japanese thrives on context.
Although it has a reputation for being unusual in that regard, in fact context is important in nearly all languages.
In addition to the linguistic context of a specific sentence, many languages also have special rules for specific social or cultural contexts.
In English, for example, the way you speak to a co-worker your age will be different than the way you speak to your direct supervisor, and both will probably be different than how you speak when you’re at home talking to your children.
Japanese has a fairly complicated system of language called keigo (敬語) used to show respect when speaking in more formal situations.
Although it’s typically referred to as a system of “honorifics,” keigo also involves respectful and humble forms of verbs, as well as what linguists call “nominalization” or turning verbs into nouns.
In Japanese, that typically means adding する or one of its respectful or humble equivalents to the end.
All of these come into play with today’s topic, the Japanese equivalent of the word “please.”
How do you say “please” in Japanese?
The basic way to say “please” when making a request is 「お願いします。」 (onegai shimasu). Interestingly, this version of the word actually is an example of keigo, as it uses humble speech. You can turn this into casual speech by just saying 「お願い。」 or more formal by swapping out しますfor いたします, a more humble form of the verb する.
If you need to really amp up the formality, you can say 「お願い申し上げます。」 (onegai moushiagemasu).
Another formal word for “please” in Japanese is 「どうか」 (douka), which carries connotations of sincere begging.
In a restaurant or similar setting when you’re a customer asking for something, you should use the respectful word「下さい」 (kudasai) instead in most cases.
If, on the other hand, you’re inviting someone to take something offered or otherwise make themselves at home, you can use the word「どうぞ」(douzo).
In more casual contexts you might hear「頼む」(tanomu), a word that means “beg” but has come to be used as “please” in colloquial speech and「頂戴」(choudai), which is technically humble language but is now used typically by women to say “please” in an endearing way.
Keigo: it’s not just for business Japanese
A lot more can be said about keigo (敬語), the system of polite and formal language in Japanese, than can be fit into a single article.
Indeed, even in Japan keigo is an esoteric topic for many younger people or those who don’t need to use it on a regular basis.
For now, suffice it to say that the main elements of formal language in Japanese are humble and polite versions of standard verbs, replacing verbs with a noun equivalent followed by the verb する (suru) or いたします (itashimasu), special set phrases and polite prefixes or suffixes such as 御 (o) and 様 (sama).
What’s more, you can fine-tune the level of formality by combining these elements, so that もらいます (moraimasu “to receive”) can become 頂きます (itadakimasu) if you want to show sincere thanks or くださる (kudasaru) if you need to express respect or esteem for the person giving you something.
If you want to oversimplify just to wrap your head around the concept, you can assume that the longer a sentence is the more formal its tone.
That isn’t always true, but it’s a good enough guidepost for our purposes here.
An example which really shows that principle is “sorry,” which can be said with increasing formality as ごめん (gomen), ごめんなさい (gomen nasai) and 申し訳ございません (moushiwake gozaimasen).
With this 10,000 mile view of keigo out of the way, let’s move on to our main topic: the word “please.”
お願いします and its cousins
The standard, reasonably polite way of saying “please” in Japanese is the phrase 「お願いします」 (onegai shimasu).
The core part of this phrase, 願い, translates literally as “a wish” or “a request.”
In front of it we have the polite prefix, お (sometimes written in kanji as 御), and at the end is します, the polite version of the verb する, meaning “to do.”
So taken literally, this phrase is “Do the request.”
Literal translations often being worthless, it’s best to interpret this as “please” or perhaps “please do.”
Part of why お願い is so useful is that you can customize it to the level of formality that meets your needs.
If you’re in a very casual setting, you can drop the します, leaving you with a simple「お願い。」
Contrarily, if you need to make things more formal you can use humble speech and say「お願いいたします。」(onegai itashimasu).
For those rare occasions where いたします is not enough, you can even break out 「お願い申し上げます。」(onegai moushiagemasu).
Here, お願い is used without a verb. While that may technically be ungrammatical, it is a standard feature of colloquial Japanese, as is the general lack of particles elsehwere in this example.
“Please give it your utmost consideration.”
Here, お願い takes on one of its most formal patterns. The tone of this would put it at home in a very heirarchical corporate setting.
どうか: a pleading word for “please”
Unlike お願い, the word どうか (douka) has a pretty specific connotation.
According to Japanese dictionary site goo.ne.jp, this word derives from どうにか, meaning “some way or another” and implies that you are asking someone to do something in spite of it potentially causing them difficulties.
The self-effacing suggestion that you’re causing someone a problem makes this a fairly formal word, and you should use it sparingly as a result.
“I beg you not to think badly of me.”
Using 下さい to politely request something
Commonly used in a commercial setting when you yourself are the customer, 下さい (kudasai) is a pretty standard, yet polite, way to ask for something.
This word is also often used as part of the expression ～てください (-tekudasai) or ～ないでください (-naidekudasai), which can be affixed to the end of a verb to mean “Please do X” or “Please don’t do X,” respectively.
“Geez. Please say it more slowly!”
“Two chopsticks, please.”
Want to make yourself at home? どうぞ
The word どうぞ (douzo) is used to politely state a request to another person or to politely agree to someone’s request of you.
In the first sense, it’s just like “please.”
In the second, it means something like “go ahead” or “please do.”
“Please, make yourself at home.”
“Ah. Please, after you.”
“Can I borrow this?” “Please do.”
Saying please casually with 頼む
Although it is primarily a verb meaning “to request” or “to ask,” 頼む (tanomu) has become a casual way to say “please” in Japanese.
You can also add から (kara, “because”) on the end and say 「頼むから。」
The meaning doesn’t really change if you do this, but it does make things a little more emphatic.
“I don’t really want to do it, though…”
“I’m begging you! Please!”
頂戴 (choudai) as “please”
Much like 頼む, 頂戴 (choudai) is also another word that’s been adopted into casual speech.
頂戴 is actually used in humble speech to mean “receiving,” as well as for eating or drinking.
The main difference between 頂戴 and 頼む, interestingly, is that 頂戴 is usually only used by those who identify as female.
Because of its humble speech meaning, 頂戴 also carries a slight connotation of receiving something as well as meaning “please.”
“Please, get me that!”
Two super-formal ways to ask for something
All the words above more or less mean “please” in various contexts and various levels of formality.
Then there’s 「いただくことは可能でしょうか。」 (itadaku koto ha kanou deshou ka)
Sticking this mouthful of a phrase on the end of a request is more or less the same as adding 「いいですか？」 or “is it okay if…” after the end of a て-form verb.
“I wonder if it might be all right if I go home?”
Although this doesn’t technically contain the word “please” in English, it definitely fills the same linguistic function or politely asking for something.
Similarly, if you need to say “please” to someone at a very high level above you, you might consider「いただきまうようお願い申し上げます」(itadakimau you onegai moushiagemasu).
That said, while these phrases are very polite, it’s not recommended that you use them unless you’re familiar with the rules of keigo in the specific context you find yourself in.
Just like how being overly formal in English can offend, the misuse of keigo in Japanese is a good way to embarrass yourself and the person you’re talking to.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.