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Yoisho! A word to move mountains (and smaller things)

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

The man from next door says it. My mother-in-law says it. The guy in the grocery store says it. The nurse on TV says it. Seems like everyone says Yoisho! (よいしょ!) It’s one of those expressions that appear to be a common part of everyday Japanese life but are not usually taught in Japanese language classes. At least not the ones I took.

よいしょ is commonly classified as a kakegoe (掛け声) word, a call or shout of encouragement to oneself or to others. In Kenkyusha’s “New Japanese English Dictionary” the term is translated as “Yo-ho!” or “Ho-heave-ho!” In his classic 1998 text “Beyond Polite Japanese,” Akihiko Yonekawa is more specific, explaining that よいしょ is used “when lifting something heavy or beginning something.” The example he provides is よいしょ!この箱(はこ)をトラックに積(つ)んだら引(ひ)っ越(こ)し完了(かんりょう)だ (Up she goes! Get this box loaded in the truck and I’ll be done moving).

As this example suggests, よいしょ is usually said while doing something and, this being the case, it is clearly a feature of spoken rather than written language. When searching for the term in the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese (BCCWJ), a large database compiled by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, I was surprised to find that there is not a single hit. Which means that よいしょ occurs a total number of, yes, zero times, in a hundred million words of written Japanese.

This stands in dramatic contrast to the ubiquity of the word in spoken language. For instance, in a little list I compiled from around 100 recordings of shorter conversations between residents and staff in a Japanese elderly care facility, よいしょoccurred no less than 475 times. In fact, it turned out to be the third most frequent word in the data, exceeded only by うん (yeah) and はい (yes). Included in this number are a couple of variant forms such as よいしょっと and んっしょ, not to forget よっこらせ, よっこいしょ and どっこいしょ.

In terms of usage, it seems that there are two basic patterns. The first one is when two or more people simultaneously perform some physical action together. An example is the well-known children’s tale “The Giant Turnip,” in which an increasing number of people try to pull a large turnip out of the ground. Each time they give it a new try they shout よっこいしょ、どっこいしょ, only to find that the thing still won’t move. In a somewhat different context, a recent caricature in the children’s edition of a major Japanese newspaper depicted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Bank of Japan’s Masaaki Shirakawa using a rope to pull a midget Japanese archipelago out of the “bog of deflation.” The caption reads: よいしょ。よいしょ。Let’s wish them luck.

In this function, the term can also be used by bystanders as a call of encouragement, as in the famous Soran Bushi (ソーラン節) song, which is a must at obon dances in many parts of Japan. In one of the recurrent passages of the song, the crowd shouts どっこいしょ!どっこいしょ!, which was originally intended to encourage fishermen during their work.

The second type of usage, and most likely the more frequent of the two, is よいしょ spoken by one person. Rather than joining forces with others for some physical task, it is commonly used to vocalize those little daily hardships each of us has to shoulder on our own. Of which there are quite a lot actually, considering that the two most commonly quoted situations for solitary よいしょ are, one, when sitting down in a chair, and two, when standing up from one. Another classical case is lifting up something heavy, as in Yonekawa’s earlier example (though if the object is particularly heavy, as one よいしょ user reported on the web, something like うるァぉッしャアァァァ! is more appropriate for the job). よいしょ is also what people may say after the demanding task of reaching for the remote control to change channels, and some even admit to invoking it when downloading something “heavy” from the Internet.

As can be seen, there are countless opportunities, alone and in company, for saying よいしょ in everyday life. Even if it won’t move mountains, it’s a good way to verbally coordinate physical actions with our fellow humans — turnip-pullers, politicians or others — or to just let off some steam from our daily struggles with the laws of gravity.

I’ll close with a note of caution to our younger readers: Be sure not to overuse よいしょ, as this tends to be considered an index of getting old. Thus one of the 10 questions in a popular Web self test (www.sonta.net/game/oyaji.html) to assess the degree to which one has turned into an おやじ (old man) is “Do you sometimes say よいしょwhen you sit down?” Seen in this light, my Japanese teachers might have had their reasons for not teaching the term in their classes.

  • nosnurbd

    Thanks for this article. It has always been mystifying to me that on the several times I have asked a Japanese person (including my Japanese wife) about this word, I have been told it doesn’t mean anything. It seems to come out like a “grunt” does when doing something physical. To my ears it sounds like  よっしょ sometimes.