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Tanomu Yo

Tanomu Yo

Truly understanding a “foreign culture” requires a tight grasp on its language. So we at Néojaponisme will now offer a bi-weekly vocabulary lesson that looks at a single Japanese word or phrase and its cultural context. Although these posts should be particularly helpful for language students, I hope they will not be too pedantic for our general readership.

Tanomu Yo – 頼むよ

When making requests to others, the wording is crucial for differentiating between military command, sorrowful pleading, and prostrate kowtow. In a language and culture as hierarchical as Japanese, there are a vast number of linguistic options for appeal, each properly respecting the speaker’s place within an organizational structure.

So when it comes to action heroes, CEOs, and tough guys, they don’t have the time or the patience for the standard pleases of onegai (お願い) or kudasai (下さい). The proper phrasing for a man of means is tanomu yo (頼むよ). Tanomu is a verb meaning “to ask someone to do something.” In the polite verb form tanomimasu the speaker can state “I plead with you. / I beg you” to superiors with the level of sad desperation inherent in that English translation. “Tanomu yo” can also be bandied about between friends making desperate requests.

But out in the real world, you will probably run into “tanomu yo” in its favored gruff masculine praxis. This is the word of choice for 24‘s Jack Bauer, Lost‘s Jack Shepard, Michael Douglas in The Game, and Twin Peaks‘ FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Subtitlers would never make such powerful male protagonists stoop to using more polite terms. (And conveniently, “頼むよ” is a brisk three-characters compared to its alternatives.)

In fact, “tanomu yo” mostly exists these days solely in the world of films and fiction. Due to the gradual declines in white-collar office hierarchy and blurring in daily life’s chain-of-command, there are fewer and fewer “Division Chiefs” who get to bark “tanomu yo” to their charges. So maybe you will have to hold off on using this phrase until a big promotion. But remember: “tanomu yo” is always ready for you if suddenly you are required to stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb or fighting supernatural predators. At that point, you will realize there’s just not enough time to deal with formalities of polite speech.

W. David MARX
September 23, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

15 Responses

  1. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    So tanomu is basically said by the kind of Real Man who also says abayo?

    ALSO I love you for remembering Dave Cooper. Ten thousand times more interesting than Bauer & the like.

  2. From Osaka Says:

    This is interesting because here in Osaka, it’s actually quite common for men and women to use “頼むよ” (tanomu yo) when making requests. Especially among friends and coworkers.
    Except here we say:
    “頼むで” (tanomu de) or “頼ます”(tanomasu) for polite.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Interesting on the Osaka usage. Forgive our Kanto/Hyojungo bias.

  4. Alex Says:

    “Truly understanding a ‘foreign culture’ requires a tight grasp on its language. So we at Néojaponisme will now offer a bi-weekly vocabulary lesson…”

    Truly understanding English requires a tight grasp on ambiguity. So, you at Néojaponisme will now offer a [twice-per-weekly] / [once-every-two-weekly] vocabulary lesson?

    I hear more often お願いだから in my area (Tohoku). Then again, I’m not in an environment where very many demands are being made.

    I look forward to these posts, whatever their interval may be!

  5. W. David MARX Says:


  6. Carl Says:

    As an ALT in Toyama, I got “tanomu yo” from female teachers, as I recall. (It’s been a while.)

  7. Em Says:

    Kansai nothing. It’s popular slang in the Kanto region too. I’ve heard “mou tanomu yo” from more than enough pathetic Japanese men.

  8. Chris Palmieri Says:

    I’ve also heard this used to express disappointment or pleading when one has let someone down or shown signs of uncertainty or error. As in “Come on now, I’m counting on you!”

  9. laotree Says:

    I can attest to the value of watching Twin Peaks with Japanese subtitles!
    “Forgive our Kanto/Hyojungo bias.”
    Aww, that made me a little nostalgic for the Cheers-like atmosphere of the old site, where sometimes I felt like I was the only one repping Kansai. Although toddler-wrangling has whittled my home internet-viewing time down significantly, I do come to check out what you’re up to when possible, and am enjoying the myriad directions you and your collaborators have taken! Thanks!

  10. Patomaru Says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. Looking forward to more installments. But, I also feel like I hear tanomu yo more than you are giving it credit for. Just yesterday I got a tanomu yo from my girlfriend when she made a request that I said “I don’t think I really want to do that” about.

    For her own sake, I did try to explain to her that she came off like an gruff old man when she talked like that but she wasn’t buying it.

    I am as close to the kansai area as you can get without being in the kansai area (so not many people use “de” here) so it probably is a kansai thing.

  11. M-Bone Says:

    “Tanomu yo” seems to have a deeply sad and pathetic side as well. Like a corrupt company president or politician crying into his whiskey and asking someone else to take the fall for him. I`m begging you, tanomu yo.

  12. From Osaka (Julien) Says:

    I agree “tanomu yo” can have a pleading nuance to it.
    But as for the Kansai region, here it’s definitely used very casually. I would even go so far to say as that its used synonymously with “onegai(ne)”, “onegai(shimasu)” etc..
    I just found this blog-I think its great and I’m looking forward to more Nihongo posts. Can’t wait to hear more comparisons from around Japan as I only know Osaka. It’s really interesting to hear the regional differences.

  13. Adamu Says:

    OK, Marxy, if I didn’t already know this stuff I would feel like you had ruined the sheer joy of discovering these nuances on my own.

    What could be more satisfying than learning a simple phrase, parsing out all its little intricacies, and then being completely in the know when it shows up on some TV show? For me, it was probably the single biggest source of inspiration when first learning the language.

  14. Harvey Says:

    In response to the first post, Toshiro Mifune says Abayo in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, and he’s a manly man!

  15. dale_coop Says:

    Do you know where it’s possible to find japanese subtitles for Twin peaks? (I have US dvd, but no japanese subs).
    I would like to show to my wife but she’s not good in english :S (she’s a japanese girl)

    Merci :)
    dale (from France)