“Say cheese!” Perhaps lost in translation?

I noticed something interesting when I was in Japan the other day. I was with my mother, actually, and we were posing for a group photo with Japanese friends. The photographer said, はい、チーズ! (cheese), but it was only my mother who actually responded back with “cheese!” as she smiled for the photo.

Normally the Japanese phrase of はい、チーズ is so everyday that I never think about it, but my Australian mother’s response of actually saying cheese was so obvious that I did the mental version of a double-take.

Wait. In Japanese, why does only the photographer say cheese? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the expression?


Okay, let’s go back to the beginning.


The phrase “say cheese” is very familiar to all English speakers. Saying the word “cheese” causes your lips to form a natural smile, thus making the perfect photo. That’s why every photographer starting saying “say cheese” when taking a photo, and those in the photo would respond with “cheese!”.

“Say cheese” actually spread to Japan just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese equivalent of はい、チーズ (“cheese”; the “say” part was omitted) was used in an ad in which the photographer said the phrase as he took a photo. And the reason this scene was chosen? The ad was for cheese! For Japanese people, this was easy to understand – the photographer was saying “cheese” because it was an ad about cheese. Nothing to do with the sound of the word, of course.

In typical Japanese fashion, the phrase caught on without the original meaning being understood. Japanese people started using “cheese” as a phrase when taking a photo, but it was only said by the photographer – which kind of defeats the whole purpose of using the word “cheese”.


“Say cheese” has always been quite a childish phrase for me, and I haven’t heard it being used in English for many years now. However, in Japan, even adults continue to say “cheese” while taking a photo. The ironic thing is that the only person guaranteed a natural smile is the person who isn’t even in the photo!

Cut back to Japan. Right before he took the photo, the photographer said はい、チーズ and only my mother actually responded with “cheese!”. The silence was almost awkward… if you didn’t know that Mum was the only person actually getting it right!



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