How to phone like a Tokyoite

Written by
Kirsty Bouwers

No matter how long you’ve been in Tokyo, dealing with things over the telephone often seems harder than it should be. Put your manners on the line with our guide to the dos and don’ts of dialling.


Most people know that Moshi-moshi is ‘telephone hello’ in Japan. But with phone calls occupying their own special corner in the complex world of Japanese protocol, where do you go from there? Conversational conventions are the secret sauce for making your call progress smoothly.

At an appropriate moment, even if you’ve never, ever talked to the person before, be sure to deploy the set phrase, Itsumo osewa ni natte imasu (‘Thank you for your continuing support and kindness’), and you’re good to go. If you’ve just had a call referred to you, say Odenwa kawarimashita (‘The phone has changed’). And if all else fails hit the abort button with Shitsureishimasu (‘Excuse me’), the universally accepted cue for hanging up.


You’re on the train and your phone rings. Anywhere else, the worst that might happen is you go into a tunnel and your conversation cuts off. In Tokyo, however, submitting innocent bystanders to your cellphone chitchat is deeply frowned upon, and in a packed train carriage you’ll be committing a serious courtesy crime simply by taking the call.

Instead, ignore the impulse to answer and send a quick text to say you’re on the train. Or pick up, say the same in hushed tones, and get off the line. And whatever you do, be sure to put your phone on silent (‘manner mode’) before boarding so your Babymetal ringtone doesn’t shatter the sacrosanct peace and quiet of a Tokyo rush hour. 


One of the most appealing aspects of the Japanese language is its penchant for creating new words by chopping old ones in half and pasting them together. Behold: aruki (from aruku, to walk) and sumaho, the already bastardised Janglish word for smartphone, meaning ‘walking while playing with your smartphone like an idiot and not looking where you’re going’.

Most train companies started major campaigns last year to warn users about the intense levels of meiwaku (nuisance) caused by phone zombies, and anecdotes about people (almost) walking off platforms on to the tracks are rife. So don’t get too absorbed in texting, Facebook or Pokémon Go as you move about the city – partly because there isn’t an app yet for dealing with an oncoming truck, and partly because when they cart you off to hospital a whole culture will be quietly murmuring ‘We told you so’.


Picking up the phone at your office for the first time may be a terrifying experience for many in Japan – locals included. Make sure you have those amazing set phrases down (see above), but also ensure your timing is flawless: pick up within two rings or be ready to apologise for taking so long. When handing over the phone to someone, press the ‘hold’ button in between – the background faff of passing the handset to someone else may well result in embarrassment for both caller and colleague.

Most of all, don’t stress. If you’re really slipping up and putting the company’s future on the line, consider handing the phone over to a co-worker, stepping away from the device and choosing a profession where calls aren’t required. Like becoming a mime, mortician or trappist monk.

Illustration by Bunny Bissoux

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