Alternative responses to “arigatou” (thank you) in Japanese besides “dou itashimashite” (you’re welcome)

By | July 2, 2018

Emphasis on manners and politeness is one of the key characteristics of both Japanese culture as well as an integral part of the language itself

Beginners generally start with basic phrases like “ありがとう” (arigatou), “ごめん” (gomen), and “どういたしまして” (dou itashimashite), but eventually learn better ways to express themselves in a variety of situations.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the last of these, どういたしまして, which is generally translated into English as “you’re welcome”. For those who are curious (this will come in handy later), the origin of this phrase comes from:

「どう」 (どのように)  +  「いたしまして」 (-masu form of いたす, where いたす is a polite verb for する, ‘to do’)

According to this page, this essentially means:


Translated into English:

It wasn’t like [I] did anything (So please don’t concern yourself)

I had learned this phrase during my first few months of study, but years later I realized that I rarely heard Japanese people actually use the phrase. Instead, I would often hear the following:

  • いいえいいえ (iie iie)

“いいえ” is literally “no”, but I eventually picked up that this means something like “no, don’t worry about it” or “no, it’s nothing”.

However, just recently I ran across a really interesting Japanese article that talks about how どういたしまして is not always the most appropriate response to ありがとう. I highly recommend reading the article as an exercise to mid-level and advanced students, but I’ll give a brief summary of it here.

While どういたしまして is generally safe to use towards those at or below your level, it can be considered as inappropriate to those above your level, for example those with more experience (先輩) or teachers (先生). By the way, in Japanese we generally call people above our level 目上の人 (meue no hito).

As to the reason why it is inappropriate, the article says どういたしまして is similar to the phrase 大したことはありません, which in English roughly means “It’s no big deal”. This is in line with what we talked about above.

However, if you think about it, saying something that (for example) your boss did for you was “no big deal” could imply the favor was a trivial thing. So you can probably understand how this phrase could be seen as inappropriate. That’s why for those above your level, there are other phrases that are safer to use.

There are seven phrases in the original article, but I’ll just highlight three of them here:

Option 1:「とんでもないことでございます。お役に立てればうれしいです」 (tonde mo nai koto degozaimasu. oyaku ni tatereba ureshii desu)

This is quite a mouthful, so let me talk about the two parts of this phrase.

“とんでもないことでございます” is a formal, but strong way to disagree with something, perhaps translatable as “By no means is that true”. Here, でございます is a polite/formal way to say です. A simpler variation of this phrase (one I have used before myself) is とんでもないです.

“お役に立てればうれしいです” means “I’m happy to have been able to be of use (to you)”

I think that, for the most part, you can use these two expressions on their own, although you may get a greater effect to use them together.

Option 2:「また、いつでも仰って下さい」(mata, itsudemo osshatte kudasai)

This phrase can be literally translated as “Please say (anything) again, anytime”, though this sounds very awkward when translated. You can think of it as meaning “Please feel free to ask me again if you need help anytime”.

Option 3:「お手伝いできてよかったです。」 (otetsudai dekite yokatta desu)

This phrase means “I’m glad to have been able to help”, though it’s good to know that the “have been” tense doesn’t actually exist in Japanese.

Rather than getting confused with all these, I’d suggest picking one (maybe お役に立てればうれしいです), memorize it, and try to use it the next chance you get. The other person might even be surprised by your use of this more advanced expression of politeness.


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6 thoughts on “Alternative responses to “arigatou” (thank you) in Japanese besides “dou itashimashite” (you’re welcome)

  1. NoxArt

    Nice post! Some musings:
    Setting aside grammatical politeness do I understand correctly that the difference between とんでもないことでございます and 大したことはありません is that (basically) the latter describes it as “not a big deal ~ implying small deal” while the former “not a terrible / insurmountable deal ~ implying still kinda a deal, but we managed”?
    On that note – in a similarly themed post on japanese.stackexchange one of the suggestions was おやすいご用です … while it seems like a polite phrase, semantically it seems to be totally at odds with the principle that was presented, so how ok is that? (it does have quite a number of other alternatives, lot of them more on the casual side, but that’s useful too)

    Also … wondering about お役に立てればうれしいです and お手伝いできてよかったです, although grammatically polite they aren’t dismissive about the fact that you feel you’ve been of help… While I don’t want to blindly apply general notions regardless of situation / context / people / changes in society etc., I was under the impression there’s a thing of being dismissive about our contributions and about compliments received, at least sometimes? How would we assess that here?

    (my first (and probably not last) comment here … I really enjoy your blog in general and also your Q and A on stackexchange)

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment! I’m in Japan now traveling but will reply to your comment eventually (:

    2. locksleyu Post author

      Hello, sorry for the delay in responding, I recently got back from Japan and still trying to catch up on a few things.

      For your first question, I think とんでもない is more like a strong assertion of the negative. For example, my dictionary says “強い否定” as one its meanings.

      I agree that “おやすいご用です” could sound the wrong way and I would only use it with people I am on close terms with.

      I think the answer on the link you provided is by a Japanese person so I am not going to say they are wrong, but some of the English translations don’t seem completely correct. For example “よかったらまたどうぞ” does not literally mean “I’ll do the same next time”, it means more like “If you don’t mind, go ahead and [ask me] again”. At least that is my interpretation.

      Regarding お役に立てればうれしいです and お手伝いできてよかったです, I feel they are neutral phrases which make an attempt to express that the person who did the favor is glad to have done it, and are pretty low-risk phrases.

      One of the themes of the article I originally am quoting is that being dismissive by saying “it was no big deal” can make it sound like the “giver” didn’t do anything special, but from the other point of view it can sound like the thing that was done wasn’t important, which can make the “receiver” look bad. At least that is how I interpreted it.

  2. NoxArt

    Ouch, forgot to send this…

    Thank you for remembering, haven’t read the posts yet, but hope it went great!

    If とんでもない is “strong assertion of the negative”, how does it work in とんでもないことでございます? From some PoV it may be even more problematic than 大したことはありません, maybe depending on what こと means? I guess it may be a fairly established phrase (?), but since it seems we’re somewhat digging behind those meanings…
    とんでもない seems like a non-trivial word overall, will have to do some more searching

    Regarding those 2 variants: Maybe it was a bit of a deviation from the focus of the original article, but … I was working with the idea that we should dismiss the part that we played in accomplishing the goal (while not making it sound that the goal wasn’t important, but that wasn’t fully the focus here) similarly to how we should dismiss compliments that we receive. At least in a more formal settings, I can imagine it may not be so strict within a group of teenagers, but お役に立てればうれしいです seems to be that case … and here the speaker clearly declares that they belive they were of help – so I was wondering if that’s OK. Though it’s true the phrasing isn’t such that it would take a big credit, it’s just saying the person was of some sort of help/usefulness, so that’s probably it

  3. ジョニー

    Posts like these and many of your other blog posts are exactly what I needed.
    You really “get” it, how to help people who are studying this language. It’s hard as hell.

    I live in Japan but I mostly (90%) use English at work.
    I self study and have been here two years now, before I arrived I didn’t know much besides some basic sentence structures.
    Now, I’m able to read decently, know plenty of Kanji, message frequently in Japanese on LINE daily and my listening is pretty great.

    However, my speaking is crap. I can barely get sentences out most days.
    I find that making long sentences full of vocabulary or whatever is easier for me.
    It’s the daily conversation and useful phrases I wrestle with. I seriously don’t know how to say simple things sometimes. I see my friends, work in a cafe at times and speak to my boss in Japanese but I’ll freeze a lot cause I won’t know how to say “Can you pass me that over there.” “Can I move this here?” “How do I turn this on?” are stuff like that.

    But when I see helpful phrases for everyday language now in blogs like yours or somewhere else I write them down and it helps me a lot. I also want to use different words instead of repeating “ありがとう” ”面倒くさい”
    and ”楽しかった” all the time because repeating isn’t very useful and it doesn’t feel like speaking a different language anymore, the phrases are too damn handy in Japanese that they don’t help you flesh out your sentence making skills.

    Anyway for being here two years I’m quite embarrassed and I feel it’s shameful that my speaking skills are as low as they are with simple things… I want to change that fast but just the immersion thing isn’t helping me because I freeze up way too much…

    Any tips are appreciated with this. Would love to see more helpful phrase posts like this one !! 🙂


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