There are lots of ways to seem polite in Japanese Part 2: Keigo in action

In the first part of this article, I explained what keigo (polite, respectful, and humble language) is, the different sorts of keigo and when and where to use it (or not). If you haven’t read part 1, I suggest that you go back and read that before you read this.

So, let’s look at some examples. All of the words explained below mean “to eat” (some can also mean “to drink” or “to humbly receive” but we’ll get to that). Pay attention to the differences between them.

食べる (Taberu) 

This is the dictionary form of the verb in its plain, unconjugated form. You would use this with friends, or more specifically, with people in your inner circle. With these people, it is a perfectly acceptable form of the word to use. However, if used with people of a “higher” social rank, or with strangers, it can seem rude and disrespectful. Kotaro in the example below is my friend.

Kotaro, would you like (to eat) some chocolate?
Koutarou, chokoreeto taberu?

食べます (Tabemasu)

This is the polite and conjugated form of taberu and sounds polite and natural and is used widely in a variety of situations. For example, with colleagues of a similar rank, with people of a similar age, and often with strangers. This manner of speaking could also be used with relatives outside of your immediate family. Mr. Iizuka in the example below is an acquaintance.

Mr Iizuka, what are you eating for lunch today?Iizuka-san, kyou no Hirugohan ha nani wo tabemasuka?

召し上がります (Meshiagarimasu)

This is sonkeigo (respectful speech) and therefore shows a high degree of respect for the person with whom you are speaking. You would use this when speaking to someone else or referring to someone else who is perceived to be of a high rank (a senior teacher, a master, a boss, the parents of one’s partner when you meet them for the first time, and so on). You would not use this form to refer to yourself. That would seem self-aggrandising and arrogant. 

NB: Other ways to sound arrogant in Japanese include using the suffix “sama” (lord) after one’s own name. As discussed in part 1, “sama” is added by the speaker to someone else’s family name to show respect for person to whose name “sama” is attached (Tanaka-sama could be translated as Mr Tanaka—or Mrs Tanaka—and could be used at the beginning of a letter or email). Adding it to one’s own name sounds arrogant. In some manga, the first person pronoun “oresama” (yes, there are many ways to say “I” and “me” in Japanese) is often used by gangsters to express such arrogance. It is rare indeed to hear anyone use “oresama” in real life (unironically). 

Anyway, back to verbs. As you may have noticed, meshiagarimasu is not linguistically related to taberu, and comes from the Japanese words meshi (to take) and agaru (to raise), perhaps denoting the act of raising food to ones mouth with chopsticks. 

Have you (Mr Company President ) eaten lunch?
Shachou-san ha ohirugohan wo meshiagarimashitaka?

NB: Using the word “you” in Japanese is considered to be a little too intimate and direct for most polite conversations (even between some friends), so people tend to avoid using one of the words for “you” (yes, there are many) and instead opt for calling the person to whom they are speaking by their family name followed by “san”.

頂きます (Itadakimasu)

This is kenjougo or humble language, and is used to show a high degree of respect for the person you are addressing by lowering your position (as the speaker) and thereby implying humility. Itadakimasu literally means “to receive” or “to humbly receive”.  Instead of focussing on the act of eating itself, this verb linguistically focusses on the act of receiving, and of being grateful for the food or drink that you are about to receive (without the explicitly religious ((or at least Christian)) connotations that come along with this sentiment in English). When used within a sentence to mean “to eat”, itadakimasu sounds incredibly polite and formal. However, this phrase is also said at the beginning of every meal, even between family members or friends, and has entered common speech as a set phrase, despite having roots in keigo

This looks delicious! I’m going to begin to eat now, bon appetit, and thank you ever so much! (Sort of thing)
Oishisou! Itadakimasu!

Of course, when used out of context, even keigo can seem impolite. Imagine, for example, that you are talking to someone of a similar age, constantly using keigo would seem distant, cold, and rude. Additionally, using sonkeigo and kenjougo with someone whose rank is obviously lower or similar to yours could, in fact, appear mocking.

My friend recently told me that you can even use keigo to purposefully create a distance with someone. He said that he sometimes uses keigo when he meets someone for the first time who he doesn’t have any interest in getting to know. His use of keigo creates distance and spares him any unwanted intimacy or chumminess.

An important thing to note is that your use of keigo does not necessarily signal your social status compared to the person with whom you are talking. Just because you use sonkeigo  (humble speech), it does not necessarily mean that the person you are addressing is actually higher in status than you or that you are actually lower in status than them. Remember, keigo is a linguistic device used to demonstrate respect and politeness and is not based on any objective evaluation of your position or character, or indeed of the position of the person you are addressing. A good example in English is the word “dear” which we write before someone’s name at the beginning of a letter or email. If someone is “dear” to you, it literally means that you regard this person with affection. When “dear” is used as a salutation in a business letter, however, it does not necessarily mean that you regard the addresses with affection, it merely becomes a traditional device to address someone in a formal written context. Do you see what I mean?

Of course, an important factor to consider when deciding whether or not to use keigo is your own preferences. Some people prefer to avoid keigo at all costs because they see it as unnecessarily rigid and divisive, some people they find it tiresome and limiting, and others dislike it may for a variety of other reasons. Some people, on the other hand, choose to use it frequently and in a variety of situations, because they see it as a part of their culture, because it is a useful linguistic device to express formality and politeness, and perhaps because they enjoy the complex, almost poetically complex, nature of keigo.


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