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.
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.