When answering the phone in Japanese the phrase you usually used is もしもし (moshi moshi). I received an email from a Japanese guy today saying that this doesn’t mean hello, so I thought I’d find out what it actually means.
According to Tofugu, this phrase comes from the verb 申す (mōsu), which a humble equivalent of 言う (iu) – to say. Originally the phrase used was 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu) = “I’m going to say (talk)”, which was commonly used during the Edo period to talk to people of higher status. Over time it got shortened.
Another explanation of why moshi moshi is used on the phone is because it’s hard for 狸 / たぬき (tanuki) to say. Tanuki, a type of fox or racoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), are tricksters in Japanese stories, and you can tell if one is on the other end of the phone if they don’t say moshi moshi back to you.
Another explanation is that when the telephone was introduced to Japan in 1890 only rich people could afford it, and they said おいおい (oi oi) when making calls. This means something like “Hey you!”, and people replied はい、良うございます (Hai, yō gozaimasu), which means roughly “Yes, I’m ready”. People thought this was too abrupt and started using 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu), which was shortened to 申す申す (mōsu mōsu) for male telephone operators, and 申し申し (mōshi mōshi) for females.
In 1889 Shigenori Katougi (加藤木重教), an electrician for the Ministry of Engineering, went to the USA to study their telephone system. He was asked how people answer the phone in Japan, and wasn’t sure how to explain the complexities involved, so just said that they use moshi moshi, which means hello. He brought the idea back to Japan, and it became the standard way by 1902.
Moshi moshi is mainly used on the phone, but occasionally in other contexts. For example, if someone is spaced out and you want to get their attention you say moshi moshi.
Here’s Tofugu’s video about this:
3 thoughts on “もしもし (moshi moshi)”
The country singer Kinky Friedman, in his detective alter ego in his mystery novels, would answer the phone with “Start talkin’,” which is close.
So that’s the meaning of “moshi moshi”. I also thought it means Hello in English, but later I found out Hello in Japanese is “Kon’nichiwa”. Am I right?
Kon’nichiwa is one way to greet people in Japanese. It means ‘good day’, more or less, and is used with people you don’t know between 11am and 5pm. For details of other Japanese greetings, see: http://www.wikihow.com/Say-Hello-in-Japanese.