Understanding Japanese Keigo: The Honorific Language of Japan

Keigo is considered one of the more challenging aspects of studying Japanese. Its three-tier system of honorific levels is a challenge to native and foreign students alike. In this article, we’ll explore the three major categories of  Japanese keigo, how and when to use them, and why Japan uses this polite language in the first place.

 

What is Keigo(敬語)?A red flag/cloth sign that is hanging from a pole that reads, "GIVE RESPECT EARN RESPECT."

The kanji for 敬語 (keigo), consists of 敬 (kei), which means “respectful or honored,” while 語 (go) means “language.” This tells us that keigo is polite or honorific language in Japanese. It is a relic of Japan’s caste system, which stood firm until the end of the Edo Period.

Back then, keigo was used to speak respectfully to those in a higher social class, like the samurai. These days, it is used more to distinguish people in your “inner” and “outer” circles.

Despite its age, keigo is a vital component of the Japanese language and culture. The culture of keigo can be found everywhere in Japan, from work and school life to social outings. While Japanese people don’t usually expect a perfect understanding of keigo from foreigners who visit and live in Japan, using keigo correctly can strengthen your social bonds with friends and coworkers. It will help you settle more naturally into your life in Japan.

 

When to Use Keigo: The Ins and Outs

Learning when to use the different forms of keigo can almost be as daunting as the language itself. The simplest way to think about keigo is to consider the Japanese concept of “内と外” (uchi to soto)—literally “inside and outside.”

People who are “inside” (内, uchi) are those you consider your inner circle: your parents and close family, your friends, and on occasion, your peers. You don’t typically need to speak in keigo to these people—in fact, doing so might even hurt their feelings! In the wrong situation, keigo can come across as deliberately cold and distant. Be careful about using it with a friend or someone close to you in age.

Those considered to be “outside” (外, soto) of your circle are elders, superiors in the workplace, customers, and other individuals of status. Keigo‘s role is especially strong in the workplace, where experience and age determine 先輩 (senpai) or 後輩 (kouhai) relationships.

If you speak to your senpai (someone who is older or has been in the job longer than yourself), you will always use keigo. If you are talking to your kouhai, it’s alright to speak casually or with some teineigo (polite form of Japanese).

The senpai/kouhai status extends beyond the workplace sometimes. You might find these titles being used in sports and classroom settings as well.

Depending on the situation and the conversation, different types of keigo will be necessary. Let’s look at the three major levels of keigo.

 

Teineigo (丁寧語): Polite FormA young Asian woman with glasses to the left is slight bowing, with her hands resting on her stomach. The background is light blue/turquoise and to the right, the title, "Teineigo (丁寧語): Polite Japanese" is written

You might already be familiar with teineigo without realizing it. Teineigo is the basic polite form of Japanese. Simply end your sentences with です (desu )  or the verb form ます (masu). Perhaps you didn’t know that these two endings made your Japanese more polite. In casual and spoken Japanese, desu is often shortened to だ (da), while the verb conjugation of –masu­ isn’t added at all.  Although saying just だ is more for men.  If you attach a よ (yo) to make it だよ (da yo), that form can be used by either men or women.  Verbs can be left in the dictionary form, especially if the conversation is spoken.

 

Casual

1.  明日のパーティーに行くよ。
(ashita no pātī ni iku yo.)
I’ll go to the party tomorrow.

2.  俺は田中だ. よろしく!
(ore wa Tanaka da.  yoroshiku!)
My name’s Tanaka. Nice to meet you.

 

Teineigo (Polite)

1.  明日のパーティーに行きます。
(ashita no pātī ni ikimasu.)
I will attend the party tomorrow.

2.  私の名前は田中です。 よろしくお願いします。
(watashi no namae wa Tanaka desu.  yoroshiku onegai shimasu.)
My name is Tanaka. Nice to meet you.

As you can see, the major difference between the casual and polite versions of these sentences was the desu and masu.

Another difference in Tanaka’s introduction is the pronoun he used. 俺 (ore) is a very casual and masculine pronoun, while 私 (watashi) is gender-neutral. In almost every setting, the pronoun 私 (watashi) is the polite pronoun to use. It is recommended for every level of keigo, regardless of your gender.

Unlike the other two levels of keigo, teineigo can be used with a peer or someone of the same age/social group. It is a “safe” form to use if you’re unsure of how polite you should be when talking to someone.

Another aspect of teineigo is the addition of the prefixes お (o) or ご (go) to certain nouns. This makes your sentence sound more polite and elegant.  However, be aware that some nouns almost ALWAYS are used with the お (o) prefix, regardless of the politeness level.  Some examples of these are:

EnglishKanjiHiraganaRomaji
Teaお茶   おちゃocha
Moneyお金               おかねokane
Congratulations御目出度う (usually written only in hiragana)     おめでとうomedetou
Stomachお腹                                  おなかonaka
Buttocksお尻
おしりoshiri

 

Example Sentences

Happy birthday!              お誕生日おめでとうございます!(おたんじょうびおめでとうございます!)

Would you like some tea?           お茶はどうですか? (おちゃはどうですか?)

 

Sonkeigo (尊敬語): Respectful/Honorific JapaneseAn older Asian man on the left, and a younger Asian man on the right are seen from their side profile view bowing to one another, with industrial structures in the background. The title, "Sonkeigo (尊敬語) Respectful Honorific Japanese" is written above them.

The word 尊敬 (sonkei) means “to respect.”  You will use sonkeigo when speaking to someone respectable.

More formal than teineigo, sonkeigo is used to honor the person you are speaking to. You would use this form of keigo when speaking to someone who ranks above you in the workplace, to a customer or a guest, or to a stranger who is older or more experienced than yourself.

Conjugating sonkeigo can be tricky, as there are many special honorific words used to replace the verbs and phrases used in teineigo or casual Japanese. A go-to formula would look something like this:

お-/ご- + verb stem + になります

 

Example

1.  田中さんは今日、お休みになります。
(Tanaka san wa kyō, oyasumi ni narimasu.)
Tanaka is absent today.

Below are some commonly used sonkeigo words and phrases. Some of them may look nothing like their casual and teineigo counterparts; the best way to learn them is to use and memorize them.

EnglishCasual: Dictionary FormTeineigo (丁寧語): Polite FormSonkeigo (尊敬語): Respectful/Honorific Form
To doする (suru)       -します (shimasu) -なさいます(nasaimasu)
To say言う (iu)            言います (iimasu)おっしゃいます (osshaimasu)
To beいる (iru)           います(imasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)
To go行く (iku) 行きます (ikimasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)
To come来る (kuru) 来ます (kimasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)
To eat食べる (taberu)  食べます (tabemasu)召し上がります (meshi agarimasu)
To drink飲む (nomu)飲みます (nomimasu)召し上がります (meshi agarimasu)
To know知る(shiru)                       知っています(shitteimasu)ご存じです(gozonji desu)

 

Be Careful!

Sonkeigo is used to honor the person you are speaking to/about, so you cannot use it when referring to yourself. This would be seen as putting yourself above the person you are speaking to.

Incorrect: I know that man.        私はあの方をご存じです。   (watashi wa ano kata o gozonji desu.)

Correct: Do you know that man?            あの方をご存じですか?   (ano kata o gozonji desu ka?)

 

Kenjougo (謙譲語): Humble JapaneseAn illustration of four men, two men to the left and two to the right, in a room,are bowing to each other. There is a plant in the background. The title, "Kenjougo (謙譲語) Humble Japanese" is written on the bottom of the illustration.

謙譲語 (kenjōgo) means “self-humbling.”  The difference between sonkeigo and kenjōgo is less about levels of formality and more about the subject.

While sonkeigo is used to respect the person you are speaking to/about, kenjōgo is used to humble yourself or those in your inner (内) circle. By speaking in a self-humbling manner, you put yourself “beneath” the person you speak to. By humbling yourself, you are indirectly giving respect to the person you are talking to. Let’s look at the incorrect example from the last section:

Incorrect (sonkeigo): I know that man.     私はあの方をご存じです。(watashi wa ano kata o gozonji desu.)

Correct (kenjōgo): I know that man.     私はあの方を存じております。(Watashi wa ano kata o zonjite orimasu.)

 

Kenjōgo is even less consistent in its form than sonkeigo. There are so many variations that it’s better to just build on the chart we used with sonkeigo.

EnglishCasual: Dictionary FormTeineigo (丁寧語): Polite FormSonkeigo (尊敬語): Respectful/Honorific FormKenjougo (謙譲語): Humble Japanese
To doする (suru)     -します (shimasu) -なさいます(nasaimasu)いたします (itashimasu)
To say言う (iu)            言います (iimasu)おっしゃいます (osshaimasu)申し上げます(mōshi agemasu) / 申します (mōshimasu)
To beいる (iru)           います (imasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)おります (orimasu)
To go行く (iku)     行きます (ikimasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)参ります(mairimasu) / 伺います (ukagaimasu)
To come 来る (kuru)   来ます (kimasu)いらっしゃいます / おいでになります (irasshaimasu /oide ni narimasu)参ります(mairimasu) / 伺います (ukagaimasu)
To eat食べる (taberu)                 食べます (tabemasu)召し上がります (meshi agarimasu)頂きます(itadakimasu)
To drink飲む (nomu)飲みます (nomimasu)召し上がります (meshi agarimasu)頂きます(itadakimasu)
To giveやる (yaru) / 与える(ataeru)あげます (agemasu) / 与えます(ataemasu)くださいます (kudasaimasu)差し上げます (sashiagemasu) \ さしあげます (sashiagemasu)
To receiveもらう (morau)もらいます (moraimasu)
お受け取りになります (ouketori ni narimasu)
頂きます (itadakimasu) / いただきます (itadakimasu)
To know知る(shiru)                       知っています(shitteimasu)ご存じです(gozonji desu)存じています (zonjite imasu) / 存じております (zonjite orimasu) / 知っております (shitte orimasu)
To know - Even more polite Kenjougo (謙譲語) expressions知る(shiru)                       知っています(shitteimasu)ご存じです(gozonji desu)存じ上げています (zonjiagete imasu) / 存じ上げております (zonjiagete orimasu)

 

Why Use Keigo?

You might think that this is a lot of effort and language-learning for the sake of mere politeness. Some of the younger generations of Japanese native speakers tend to agree.

However, in Japan, many language and etiquette experts argue that keigo is something more profound than simple manners or grammatical finesse. To them, keigo is a gift to others and yourself. It gives a social sense of “personal space,” or 距離 (kyori) in Japanese while being professional and respectful.

When keigo is used and the sense of respect if felt by others, they feel the urge to give that same respect back. It’s a sort of “treat others as you would want to be treated” style of thinking. Many Japanese people, especially the older generation, speak with keigo not because it is a social rule but because they consider it the right thing to do.

In that sense, keigo can be quite fulfilling. Consider it this way, and you might find yourself more motivated to tackle the challenge of studying keigo.

 

In Conclusion

Keigo might seem complicated, but with study and practice, you can learn to navigate it effectively and impress your peers or coworkers. For those wanting to live and work long-term in Japan, keigo is a vital part of interacting with the community and culture.

Remember that teineigo is generally polite and has few, if any, limits on when and with whom it can be used. Sonkeigo is used to honor those in positions above your own. Kenjōgois used to humble yourself and your friends/family members.

Another essential thing to remember:  Even native Japanese speakers know how hard keigo can be to learn. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes while you learn; it’s unlikely that you will be reprimanded. The best way to understand keigo is to use it!

 

Thanks for reading this article! If you have any questions or experiences you want to share about keigo, feel free to leave a comment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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