Doubling down on ‘daro’: Admirable alignment in Japanese communication

At first, the UQ mobile commercials, launched in 2016, were simply bewildering. Two large, furry characters that resembled Mukku and Gachapin from the children’s program “Hirake! Ponkikki” more than 30 years ago were the mother and father of three young Japanese women appearing weirdly disaffected, as the opening chords of Pink Lady’s 1977 song “UFO” played, jarring and vaguely sinister. Then last year, UQ went in a different, equally strange, direction with the introduction of a series featuring a “UQueen” dressed as medieval European royalty and her butler. Regal cosplay is hardly my thing, but as the series continued, one commercial charmed me. It was “daro” that did it.

The main part of the commercial is a mere two seconds. In it, the UQueen and seven other majestic-looking people are seated at a table in a room with chandeliers and candles, laughing and raising wine glasses in a toast. The UQueen turns to the camera, raises her arms with palms up, and says, “Kazoku wa zennin taisetsu daro?” (“Everyone in the family is important, right?”) Then the scene vanishes from the screen, and the final four seconds of the commercial are a boilerplate explanation of UQ’s family subscription plan, with prosaic narration accompanied by the still unsettlingly peculiar “UFO” music. My own family is nothing like that of the UQueen, but I felt drawn in by the appended tag question, compelled to reflect and conclude, “Yes, everyone in the family is important!”

Tag questions of all sorts are more prevalent in Japanese than in English. Applied linguist Yuka Shigematsu analyzed how opinions were expressed in five sets of 30-minute in-person monocultural conversations, involving three men meeting for the first time who were speakers of British English, American English, Australian English and Japanese respectively. She found that 57% of the Japanese opinions included a tag question of some kind, while only 19% of the British data did. The Australian speakers used them even less frequently, at 7%, and for the American speakers, the communicative device came into play in a paltry 3% of the views aired.

Focusing particularly on “desho” and “daro,” discourse analyst Michiko Kaneyasu considered their functions — sometimes employed as tag questions but not always — in a data set of 51 face-to-face conversations among Japanese university students amounting to 13 hours of speech. She found 280 tokens of “daro” and 356 of “desho,” meaning that one or the other made an appearance on a whopping average of once every 1.2 minutes. While many people consider “daro” to simply be the casual form of “desho,” Kaneyasu asserts differences in their functions.

Based on her data, Kaneyasu found that “desho” was used for two purposes. First, it showed up as a means of confirming the listener’s experience. For example, one speaker says, “You don’t watch NHK, right?” The second “desho” role was to get a listener on board with the speaker’s perspective on an issue, as in “But that DJ performance was heavily criticized, as we might expect, right?” This alignment function of “desho” also occurred as a stand-alone with a rising intonation, voiced by a listener following a speaker’s contention.

In contrast, regarding “daro,” Kaneyasu found four main uses. In expressions like “nan daro” or “daro na,” a speaker indicates that they are thinking out loud. For example, when asked about what kind of survey question they might make, the listener responds, “Nan daro na” (What would [my question] be…) before replying. “Daro ne,” on the other hand, could be used to demonstrate an impartial attitude toward the matter in question, as when a listener responds to a speaker talking about how making his own meals is the hardest part about living on his own. “Daro ne” implies the listener doesn’t have personal knowledge of the situation but is willing to assume what the speakers asserts is valid.

In a third application, “daro ne” or “daro kedo” can indicate an open attitude toward a matter, like using “daro ne” in “The other side wouldn’t like it, you know.” Kaneyasu’s final main “daro” type is utilized to express an intense reaction to something. In one instance, a female student, after hearing about another student who brazenly requested a second job interview after missing his first because he overslept, responds, “Arienai daro!” (No way!)

Kaneyasu found one further function of “daro” in just nine of the 280 tokens of the data, all used by male students. This type most resembles the UQueen’s “daro” as it is accompanied by a rising intonation and, like “desho,” was used to seek confirmation or alignment. Perhaps the UQueen, as royalty, can eschew “desho” for this kind of “daro” that is apparently normally used only by men. Certainly, quirky fictional queens can have their own style. What’s one incongruous “daro” among all the equally off-the-wall medieval regalia?

It’s hard to imagine an American version of the UQ mobile commercial, but were there to be one, it might ditch the “daro” to simply intone, “Nothing is more important than family.” By employing the impulsiveness-articulating and affinity-compelling properties of “daro” the UQueen has taken on the best of what this not-so-humble Japanese tag question has to offer and made it her own. I know I’m a language maniac, but it really is amazing, right?

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.