okay…

diver's sign for "okay" The other day, I went out to dinner with a few people. It was a bar-restaurant mixture; we ordered a large number of various skewered dishes, but the place left me with the impression that it was more a bar than a restaurant, as all the skewers were quite small. We had skewered fish and other seafood, yakitori, beef, lots of vegetables (one of us was a vegetarian), and even some gingko nuts which are always fun to eat (and really taste like nuts).

There was some hilarity about the latter, because we tried to explain to one of our Japanese friends that those things were called gingko nuts and he understood ginko, which means bank in Japanese…

Anyway, we were carefully instructed by the waiter as to how the food would taste best. Some skewers were best without anything, others called for a dip in soy sauce, and yet others – the meaty ones – required only salt and pepper. The Japanese next to me pointed towards the side of the table, said there were salt and pepper and finished his sentence with ii desu. I thanked him, put the salt onto my skewers and then returned it to the spot (he was eating something else at that time). At this point, the friend opposite of me – a foreigner who has been living in Japan for a long time – smiled and said: “He said ii desu – he didn’t just point out the salt, he wanted you to pass it to him!”

So, literally, ii desu means it is good, as ii means good, which means it can also be simply translated as “okay”. But, it’s not quite so simple, of course – ii desu (similar to okay) can be used both in the affirmative and the negative. For example, if you go to a supermarket, the cashier will ask you whether you want a furuko, a plastic bag, and the standard answer to this is ii desu – but you can use it whether you want one or not. The intonation and possible hand gestures (I always make them) carry more meaning than the words in this case. Mostly, when speaking eye to eye, you will be understood this way, thank goodness. However, my friend told this little story about when he was texting another friend of his, asking him whether he would come someplace in the weekend. The – texted – response was ii desu, but nobody showed up in the designated spot at the designated time. My friend made a quick phone call as to the whereabouts of the other person, and the answer was a surprised “But I told you that I wouldn’t come…”

ii desu – probably the shortest and easiest way to be misunderstood in Japan…

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