Say wha? The Japanese word “世話” (sewa) and related expressions

By | May 9, 2022

In this post I’d like to go over the common word 世話 (sewa) and some uses of it, including an important expression used in daily life. 

“Sewa”––usually written in kanji as “世話” and sometimes in hiragana as せわ––can be used for a variety of meanings. But I’d like to focus on the most common, and perhaps most important meaning: Taking care of a living thing such as a person, animal, or even a plant. Let’s look at an example of this usage:

  • 友達の娘の世話をする約束をしました。 (tomodachi no musume no sewa wo suru yakusoku wo shimashita.)
  • (I) promised to watch a friend’s daughter.

As you can see, the general form for this meaning is “noun+のをする”. By the way, an equivalent expression is “noun+面倒を見る” (mendou wo miru).

As an extended meaning to “taking care”, “sewa” can also mean help, support, or assistance in a more general sense. This meaning is usually expresesd in the form “世話になる” (sewa ni naru) or more politely as “お世話になります” (osewa in narimasu). While these expressions literally mean “to become support”, in practice they mean that one is receiving the support from another person (人の援助を受ける). Generally the person giving the support is the listener or reader and is not named explicitly. This brings us to a set phrase that is often used in both personal and business situations:

  • いつもお世話になっています  (itsumo osewa ni natte imasu)

A parent can say this to a teacher who is frequently helping one of their children, or a business employee can say this to an honored customer who (frequently) purchases their services. To be honest, this phrase is a bit difficult to translate generically to apply to all situations, but the general feeling is:

  • Thank you for all of your support.

Similar to “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, this set phrase has become so common that sometimes the meaning can be lost. This is like saying “How are you?” in English, even if you don’t particularly care how someone is doing or expect an honest answer.

This article was written by a (presumably) Japanese person who is complaining about a sales call from a bank employee who begins the conversation with this phrase, despite the fact the call receiver does not actually have an account at that bank. Had the person actually been a customer of that bank, this would have been a perfectly appropriate (and polite) thing to say.

Finally I wanted to touch on another common expression with “osewa”, which has an explicit negative meaning: 余計なお世話 (yokei na osewa).

Here, “yokei” means “extra” or “too much” and has the nuance of “unnecessary”. Here’s one example of usage:

  • Person A: また二日酔い?あの、そんなに飲まない方がいいんじゃないですか? (mata futsukayoi? Ano, sonna ni nomanai hou ga ii n ja nai desu ka?”
    • Another hangover? Well, maybe you shouldn’t drink so much.
  • Person B: 余計なお世話だ!  (yokei na osewa da!)
    • Mind your own business!

Note there is an underlying sarcasm here since the “o” in “osewa” implies politeness towards the listener.

You might have noticed the character making up 世話 (meaning “world” and “talk”) don’t really fit the meanings we are discussing here. I double checked the word origin for this word and it seems it originally signified a word or phrase that is frequently said in society, which better matches the kanji used. It wasn’t until the Edo period (beginning around 1600) when this word began to take on the meaning of “take care of”.

By the way, in case it wasn’t obvious the “say wha?” in the title is a weak attempt at humor, playing off the pun of sounding similar to “sewa”. I admit some influence from this blog, which uses frequent pun-packed titles.

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