Onegaishimasu: A Traveler’s Superstition

OnegaiIn Japanese, “onegaishimasu” literally means “honorable-favor-will-do”. A better translation may be: “You are about to do me a great favor and I want to thank you ahead of time.” I love the word because there is no real short, succinct, standard equivalent of politeness and humility in English for the situations where onegaishimasu is used.  Consider these situations for instance:

  • Someone offers to help you edit your paper for you, as you gratefully hand them the paper, in Japanese, you say, “Onegaishimasu”.  What would you say in English? “Here, thanks.”
  • You are at a post office and you hand the clerk a package to be weighed, stamped and sent on its way. As you had it, in Japanese you say, “Onegaishimasu”. What would you say in English? “Please”?  (yawn)

Well, I live in the USA now and miss the word, but I do use it in one situation — right before leaving my home on a long trip.  Just before driving off in my car, I will put my hands together in gassho and say, “Onegaishimasu”.   I could imagine a Shinto animist saying this to call forth helpful spirits for the favor of protection — sort of a good luck prayer.  But for me, in my head, I am thanking ahead of time those who will be on my path and myself for our efforts to make the trip safe.  It is a reminder to me to be aware, careful and grateful.

Questions to readers:  So, am I being superstitious in a stupid way and just rationalizing it?  Share thought you have before long trips that verge on being superstitious — or religious.


Click here for more of my posts on superstition.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

6 responses to “Onegaishimasu: A Traveler’s Superstition

  1. Zachary Overline

    I don’t think you’re being superstitious, per se, but I think you are Orientalizing Japan a bit. You’re right: In America, we don’t have a direct equivalent of “onegaishimasu,” but it is a sentiment that we express in different ways.

    Handing a paper to a friend who’s going to help you edit?

    “Gosh, man, I really appreciate it. You’re a life-saver.” — While patting your bud on the shoulder and smiling apologetically from ear-to-ear.

    Handing over your package to be weighed?

    “Man, I thought that line would never end. How are you doing today?” — Typical American small-talk that you won’t find elsewhere.

    I’d argue that the effect of these types of interactions on the other person, with the tone and physical behavior of the speaker stripped away, is essentially the same: letting the other person know they’re appreciated, and that their hard work is noted.

    I think the point here is that, in these contexts, “onegaishimasu” and all it entails means something special to you. So is bowing to your car superstitious? No, not really. You’re engaging in a mini-ceremony of sorts that puts you in a state of mind that is calmer and more open to uncertainty — which is what you need when embarking on any journey. And I’d say that’s quite nice.

  2. @ Zach,
    Well said, I agree. I also disagree with the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Theory (Language Relativity) and thought of it when I wrote this sentence:

    I love the word because there is no real short, succinct, standard equivalent of politeness and humility in English for the situations where onegaishimasu is used.

    But I did not want to make the post too long so I put in the words “succinct” and “standard” to try to head off the common mistaken view of language that apparently we agree on.

    Indeed, I have a post in my “Draft” pile exactly on the Sapir-Whorf Theory. But your comment is an excellent illustration of the classic objection and is written much better than I could write — so thank you.

    Did you see my post on “Itadakimasu” too? It is another romanticised Japanese “succinct and standard expression” I have hung on to. All to say, I am not sure it is romanticizing that I am doing, but there is something there. For if you asked me to criticize Japanese culture, I have lot to offer. And if you look at this post, I criticize a Japanese temple and Karate Dojo in the USA for their romanticizing Japan also — and showing in in language choices.

    Good to see you back, mate — are you still working in Hong Kong?

    Indeed, I thin

  3. R Vogel

    So I love this ritual and I think your question strikes at the heart of much misunderstanding about the power of ritual in religion. It seems to me, from your description, that it helps you cultivate an attitude of thankfulness as you embark on your trip. I think any honest person can attest to how our states of mind affects our perception of events and circumstances. Driving is a stressful undertaking. This little ritual may better prepare you psychologically battle against that stress and to not lose sight of things to be thankful for.

    For me personally, I use prayer in much the same way. Although I would not describe myself as an ‘atheist’ just yet, I do not pray because I think my prayers move the hand of some unseen deity: What religious belief I have left has abandoned that. I pray as a form of solidarity. I pray as a way to stand with others whose only recourse is to pray; as a way of remembering them, recognizing them and their struggles, which, ideally, helps me to continually seek ways where I can alleviate their suffering. It is so easy in a busy life to overlook people, even those close to us who are struggling. Prayer helps me to carve out some time to focus my thoughts on them.

  4. @ R Vogel,
    Well said — I agree. We are similar.

  5. For many people ritual can be important and I think the superstitious nature of ritual is overstated by those who don’t understand it.

    I’m not one for ritual, but my wife has retained many that she grew up with in Japan. The one ritual she has partially lost is itadakimsu, which has been replaced by grace at the main meal of the day. On the other hand, it’s the one ritual I have adopted as I find grace or prayer uncomfortable and using itadakimasu is an acceptable substitute.

  6. @ Barry:
    Yeah, I agree. Thanks for sharing.

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