Misha Janette: Japan's new greeting 'Isogashii?' is a social booby trap

Misha Janette: Japan's new greeting 'Isogashii?' is a social booby trap

When someone in Tokyo asks "Are you busy lately?" be careful how you answer

misha janette, tell me about it, busy tokyoI always had it in mind that the default greeting when meeting someone [in Japan] was always to be “Ogenki desuka?” (How are you?).

This phrase is neither overly intrusive nor assuming, and while it fails on originality points, it at least gives either party the chance to expound upon the conversation or leave it to die.

But living and working in Tokyo for seven years, I find that I am getting dished -- and increasingly dishing out -- a rather loathsome greeting that Tokyoites tend to favor: That is, “Isogashii?” (Are you busy lately?).

Being in a mega-metropolis and financial powerhouse constantly in flux, Tokyoites cannot be blamed for being slammed with work to do.

But it’s more than just being busy, it seems we love drowning in work. We relish in it!

After all, it defines our successes and sets us up for future business prospects.

The goal when greeting someone here is to instill enough of an impression of being successfully busy while still leaving wiggle room if they were to inquire about doing some prospective business (or, er, pleasure) together. But what is the perfect formula?

I have tried experimenting with several responses when faced with “Isogashii?”

Instinctively, my genuine smile will turn to cardboard as I feel forced to spiel, “I am SO busy like you wouldn’t believe! Seriously! SO! BUSY! Dying, in fact!”

This elicits the positive response of, “Wow! You must be doing great! Keep it up!”

But this also says I am far too busy to give them the time of day.

misha janette, tell me about it, busy tokyoTokyo's productiveness can be incessant.So then I have tried offering the complete opposite: “I'm not so busy with projects lately. So I have been expanding my horizons. For example I’ve been studying about turn-of-the-20th-century classicism and how it correlates to today’s…”

“Oh my God, is everything alright?! Business is bad? Just remember not to do anything drastic, we’re here for you!” is the knee-jerk interjection. So that’s a no-go.

Finally, I have tried positing a completely neutral answer: “I would say that I am busy, yes, but it’s all smooth as a soy latte.”

This gets me the most perplexing feedback: A quizzical smile with a, “Oh? ... I see. Alright then…”

What I have learned is that it is far better to allude to complete havoc than not. “I'm too busy to sleep or eat!”

I, too, have fallen for Tokyo’s frenetic pace and carry it with me into the weekends, evenings and even when I am supposed to be on vacation away from the city.

I do this by utilizing Twitter in Japanese, where I went from being a casual user to a serial tweeter, posting every fashion tidbit I come across, interviews I perform, exhibits I see, and updates on articles I write --along with a deluge of inane (brilliant) observations throughout the day.

I started to get messages to the tune of, “You’re so busy! You must be doing really well!” Perhaps I had found the Holy Grail? I am busy, hear me roar!

But to my surprise I soon found an email in my inbox from an important client that read, “I was going to ask you for some work, but I've been following you on Twitter and you just seem so busy that I don’t want to bother you. Perhaps when you’ve settled down a bit.”


I am still trying to find that perfect balance between dead deficiency and twisted workaholism. In the meantime, when I am next greeted with “isogashii?” I’ll start drooling and staring like a decomposing zombie … a successful one, of course. 


The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Misha Janette.
Misha Janette is a fashion reporter, stylist and translator who runs the fashion commentary site, Frivolite. She is a graduate of Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College.
Read more about Misha Janette