Survey suggests that east Japan and west Japan interpret the common invitation response in almost entirely opposite ways.
Japanese can be a very vague language. That’s partly because of the mechanics of the language itself, but also because Japanese society takes great pains to avoid being overly blunt and causing unintended offense.
As such, a lot of communication relies on the listener’s ability to read between the lines and decipher what the speaker is actually saying. Surprisingly, this system generally works pretty smoothly, but any message that leaves elements of itself open to interpretation has the potential to cause misunderstanding, as a recent survey suggests that people from Tokyo and Osaka take practically opposite meaning from the same exact phrase: Iketara iku.
First, let’s look at what iketara iku literally means. Iku is Japanese for “go.” All Japanese verbs end in a “-u,” and changing that to “-etara” adds the meaning to “if I can,” so iketara iku means “I’ll go if I can go,” or, more naturally, “I’ll be there if I can make it.”
But if someone gives you this non-committal response to an invitation, can you count on him actually showing up? People in Kanto, the east Japan region that includes Tokyo, seem to think you can. Japanese TV talk show Chichin Puipui surveyed people in Kanto about the phrase iketara iku, and 80 percent of respondents said that they’d take those words to mean the person is probably going to be present at the event in question.
However, Chichin Puipui got very different results when performing the survey in Japan’s central Kansai region, of which Osaka is a part. Only 10 percent of the people in Kansai said that iketara iku would have them expecting the speaker to make an appearance. In other words, most of them would be ready to write you off if they said “Let’s go get some drinks on Saturday!” and you said “Iketara iku.”
It’s worth pointing out, though, that neither group took iketara iku as an ironclad declaration either way, which is exactly the intention of such an indefinite choice of words. Still, if you’ve told a friend in Osaka iketara iku, and you schedule does in fact clear up enough that you can make it, it might be nice to call ahead and let the host know you’re now certain that you’ll be there.