In short, it means "Welcome", or "Come in".
If you have ever been to Japan, you will have heard it. Not just once, but many times. Many many times. It can range from short and shrill to low and gruff. It can be said by one female employee at a posh Department store, or a group of male chefs at a rough and ready Ramen restaurant. You can hear said with complete apathy at Konbini stores at 2am (meaning I would rather be doing anything than welcoming you into this store at this time and in this way), or you can hear it said with such enthusiasm, volume and joie de vivre, that you could well be mistaken that you have mistakenly entered your very own Japanese surprise birthday party (in my view some stores almost need a cardiological caution out the front ).
But don't get me wrong, I personally love hearing Irasshaimase. I love the welcome and I love the word, even more so when the last syllable is extended to such extraordinary lengths that it sounds like the beginning of a Disney movie or a Broadway musical.
But what does the word actually mean and where does it come from?
The verb iru/imasu means to be or to exist. And as you may or may not know, there is anywhere between 5 and 10 different levels of politeness in the Japanese language depending on the prefix, the suffix, the conjugation of the verb and even the verb choice. Therefore, a similar word to iru/imasu that has a higher politeness level is irasshairu/irrasshaimasu, which means to be or to exist, but also to come or to go.
But linguistically or grammatically, where does the final 'e' ending coming from in 'irasshaimase', and why is it used when entering a shop.
I have heard and read many different theories, and I am sure no matter which answer I give, someone will be able to correct me, but here are the reasons I have seen:
Firstly, irasshaimase is the strong imperative form of verb irasshairu. The strong imperative, rarely used in Japanese, except for perhaps 'Gambare' at a sporting event, or 'Tomare' at a vehicle stop sign, 'irasshaimase' is telling the customer in the strongest form possible, Please Be! or Please Come! (but hopefully not "Please Go!).
Secondly, the ending 'mase' is often added to the end of words to make them more polite. This is easy to believe given there are so many other ways to make things polite, why not have one more.
Thirdly, historically it was a way market place sellers tried to order the people around and wanting them to come to their stall to buy from them.
But perhaps just as interesting as what the word means, is the question of what you are supposed to do in response. In the moments following a spirited and hearty 'Irasshaimase' what is the culturally appropriate action? Should you say 'Irasshaimase' or 'Arigatou gozaimasu' in reply?
I am not so sure, but I always do what I have termed a 'walking bow' - a slight nod of the head with an awkward mis-step to at least acknowledge the communication while passing the employee.
Do you have any other theories of what 'Irasshaimase' means? Or the origin of the word or the cultural practice?
However I would be more interested to know, what do you do when someone yells out 'Irasshaimase' in your direction?