Keigo, or “There are lots of ways to seem polite in Japanese” Part 1: What is keigo?

Imagine that you are in a room with three people: a friend, a stranger, and your employer. You are all speaking Japanese. Your friend asks you if you have eaten lunch. You reply “Hirugohan wo tabeta” (昼ごはんを食べた). The stranger is standing close by, and, wanting to include him in the conversation, you ask him if he has eaten lunch: “Hirugohan wo tabemashita ka?” (昼ごはんを食べましたか). Your employer comes over to where you are all standing, and asks you all the same question. You reply “Hirugohan wo itadakimashita.” (昼ごはんを頂きました). Has your employer eaten? You choose your words carefully, and ask her “Hirugohan wo meshiagarimashita ka?” (昼ごはんを召し上がりましたか). 

As you may have noticed, a different form of the verb ‘to eat’ is used in the four sentences in the scenario above: tabeta, tabemashita, itadakimashita, and meshiagarimashita. Why is this? Well, it’s not because the verbs are referring to different people. Japanese verbs do not conjugate according to grammatical person as in many European languages (such as in French where ‘I eat’ is ‘je mange’, ‘you eat’ is ‘tu manges’, ‘we eat’ is ‘nous mangeons’ and so on). This means that in Japanese tabeta can mean I ate, you ate, she ate, he ate, we ate, it ate, or they ate. So why are different verb forms (and in some cases, different verbs) used by different people in scenarios such as the one above? The answer lies in the levels of hierarchical politeness built into the Japanese language. This all sounds very complicated, but I assure you that if you continue reading, it will all make sense.

In English, politeness is often expressed through a choice of vocabulary, and in the way a sentence is delivered. For example, “Please may I have a piece of chocolate cake” seems politer than “I’ll have a piece of chocolate cake”, however, “I’ll have a piece of chocolate cake” still seems polite as long as it is said in the right tone of voice. In Japanese, however, politeness can be precisely expressed by using different verbal conjugations. This is called keigo, or “honorific speech”. There are two main forms of keigo


The first type is called sonkeigo, or “respectful language”. People often use sonkeigo to show a high level of respect for the person they are addressing. Sonkeigo linguistically elevates the person who is the object of respect to a venerated position and clearly shows that they are of a relatively high social rank (I’ll talk about who is considered to be of a high social rank a little later on). 


The other type of keigo is kenjougo, or “humble speech”. Kenjougo lowers the position of the speaker and is used to demonstrate humility, and thus respect for the listener whose relatively high social status is emphasised as with sonkeigo


Whilst there is no definitive answer as to when and with whom to use keigo, there are a few circumstances in which you would be likely to use keigo, and a few types of people with whom you would be likely to use it. It is important to have a very good grasp of Japanese culture to know how and when to use keigo, which I suppose it something that makes learning Japanese both fascinating and challenging. Even many Japanese people I have asked have told me that they are confused, even daunted, by keigo. Whilst there are guidelines for using keigo, there are not many hard and fast rules to go by. As they say in Japanese, you just have to “read the air” (空気を読む)and work out the situation for yourself. Generally speaking, however, you would use keigo to show respect in formal situations. People to whom you might want to show respect include people older than you, people who are more experienced than you in a certain field, your employer (or, if you like, your “superiors”), master craftsmen, teachers, and so on. Keigo is also used by most service staff in Japan to talk to customers. Tellingly, the common way to refer to a customer in Japan is お客様 (okyakusama), which could be literally translated to something along the lines of “Lord Guest”.

An interesting thing to note is that whilst service staff in Japan are expected, often required, to use keigo, customers, on the other hand, are not only not expected to use keigo, but often do not say anything at all. I have seen many people saunter up to a till, and not utter a single word during the interaction. Apparently this behaviour is considered to be relatively normal and not particularly rude.

The suffix “sama” (様) at the end of “okyakusama” means “lord” and is the politer, more formal version of “san” (which means Mr/Mrs/Ms and so on). A few months ago, I wrote an email to the director of a programme I was presenting. Let’s say that his surname is Tashiro (it isn’t). I addressed the email to “Tashiro-san” (Mr. Tashiro), which in my mind sounded just right. When he replied, however, the first thing that I saw was that he had addressed me using the suffix “sama”. I looked it up on google (of course) and found out that it is common practice to use “sama” after people’s names when writing letters and emails. I realised that I had made a small faux pas, but, no matter, I am sure that he knew I meant well. 

If you are speaking to someone whose social status is considered to be “higher” than your own (based on the factors listed above, and on your “reading of the air”) you would use kenjougo (humble speech) for verbs that refer to yourself and sonkeigo (respectful speech) with verbs that refer to the person with whom you are talking. In other words, these verb forms are often used within the same sentences in combination with each other. You don’t have to choose one or the other. 

Generally speaking, Japanese culture places far more emphasis on hierarchy and politeness than many other cultures do, and for many people who are not Japanese or who have no experience of Japan, the act of factoring status, position, and respect into spoken language feels odd and confusing. But this is what you sometimes have to do. Well, you don’t actually have to, there are some parts of Japan where keigo is not routinely used, such as in Wakayama where they do fine without it (or so I’ve heard). There are also lots of people who have started to purposefully avoid keigo as a sort of political statement. But as a Japanese learner, you’d be best off just learning it as it may come in handy (even if just to understand what other people are saying). And if not, it might be interesting, at least. 

Continue to part 2 to see keigo in action!


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