The use of particular lexical, semantic and pragmatic elements to determine the degree of formality is well recognised. In Japanese, formality in a communicative interaction is achieved not only by the use of the appropriate speech style but also of backchannels and short responses. Three such short affirmative responses that also have different pragmatic functions in Japanese are
hai, ee(also variants eand eh) and un. Haiis considered to be the most polite while eeand undecrease in degree of formality. However, when looking at real data their use is not that clearly defined. While haiis found only in formal settings, eeand unare used just as frequently in those interactions. Hence, formality or politeness alone cannot account for their use. This paper looks at the use of hai, eeand unin formal interviews, and shows that all three tokens are used frequently as answers, backchannels and discourse markers. However, their distribution is determined by the speakers’ roles suggesting that they project a particular stance and have a distinct emotive value. It appears that haiputs the content in the foreground and is therefore mostly used by interviewees while unis hearer-centered and is more frequently used by interviewers as a backchannel. On the other hand, the eetoken is used by both interviewers and interviewees but has other very different functions to haiand un. The fact that these tokens originally used as affirmative tokens are now multifunctional suggests that they are going through a process of intersubjectification.