Japan is the land of manners and Keigo sits center stage.
This is the most common image most of the world has of the land of the rising sun. As a beginner learning this beautiful and unique language for the first time, it may not be clear at first just how complicated the Japanese language can be.
It is probably one of the only languages where what seems to be a totally different set of phrases and words are used, depending on situation and relationship between the speakers. Today, let’s take a look into one of the hardest areas of Japanese language to use and master: Keigo.
In this article, we will look at what Keigo is, the appropriate situations to use it, and some common mistakes that learners of the Japanese language make.
What is Keigo?
Keigo (敬語), loosely translated as “honorific language”, is usually known as the set of language used in polite situations, such as with elders or superiors at work.
However, the Japanese Language department of the National Cultural Council has identified 5 different categories of polite language.
Types of Keigo
In the following descriptions, the speaker is of a lower position, while the listener is of a higher position.
- Sonkeigo (尊敬語)
Sonkeigo, or “respectful language”, is used by the speaker to describe the actions of the listener. You want make the listener feel respected.
Example situation: A waiter invites the customer to enjoy their meal. In this case, you would use “omeshi agari kudasai/meshiagare” instead of “tabete”.
- Kenjougo (謙譲語) / Kenjougo I
Kenjougo, or “humbling language” is used by the speaker to refer to themselves and their actions, which has an indirect impact on the listener. The key point here is you want to make yourself appear inferior to the listener.
Example situation: Your partner’s mum hands a meal to you. In this scenario, you would say “itadakimasu” as a humbling way of accepting the food, instead of saying “taberu”. Both mean the same thing – “I will eat”.
- Teichougo (丁重語) / Kenjougo II
A subset of Kenjougo, Teichougo is used by the speaker to refer to themselves and their actions, which has nothing to do with the listener.
Example situation: An employee reporting to his manager on the tasks he completed today.
- Teineigo (丁寧語)
Teineigo is general polite language used in everyday situations. This is what is taught to learners of the Japanese language, and is characterized by the use of phrases like “masu” and “desu”.
Example situation: When you meet someone for the first time and introduce yourself to the person, you would say “Sarah desu”, instead of saying “Sarah”.
- Bikago (美化語)
Loosely translated as “beautifying” or “refined” language, Bikago is simply the attachment of “o” or “go” to the beginning of nouns to give a sense of refinement. Anybody can use this in any situation, even casual ones, and some words are actually only spoken in Bikago.
Example: Doctor is “isha” (医者), but is often spoken as “o-isha” (お医者).
Therefore, what is generally known as Keigo in Japanese is actually a mix of Sonkeigo and the two types of Kenjougo.
History of Keigo
The use of Keigo started with the evolution of Sonkeigo, when societal etiquette highlighted a need for speakers to use a different, more polite set of language to reflect the hierarchies of Japanese society.
However, Sonkeigo was soon found to be lacking. While it was possible to use Sonkeigo to indicate the higher position of the listener, it was still not polite enough.
There needed to be a language to humble the self, which then led to the evolution of Kenjougo.
The general evolution of Teineigo came from the establishment of the warrior class during the Edo Period. A group of people with one of the highest social standings in Japan at that time, the warrior class developed Teineigo to reflect their elevated status.
Throughout the years, the language was adopted by most Japanese, and Teineigo has become the default phrase set for most interactions in modern society.
When to use Keigo?
When you meet a Japanese person for the first time, it is generally advised to use Teineigo when speaking to them. Most Japanese do not expect more than that (Sonkeigo / Kenjougo), so it may be awkward to be too formal.
If you work in the service industry, such as in a store, restaurant, hotel, or even a bank, where you have to interact with customers, Sonkeigo and Kenjougo are a must. This is because in Japanese society, customers are held in the highest regard, and excellent service includes humbling yourself to show that you are happy to serve.
In the office
Corporate hierarchy is sacred in Japan, complete with a complex set of rules which include the use of Keigo when talking to superiors and bosses.
Similarly, Keigo is expected when applying and interviewing for a job in a Japanese company, and demonstrating correct usage can put you ahead of the competition, especially for industries which pride themselves on service, e.g. flight cabin crew.
Keigo in the form of Teineigo can be safely used in most daily interactions. Of special note is when speaking to elders; the use of Teineigo is usually expected when a younger speaker is talking to an elder listener, regardless of the relationship between the two. For example, in most families, a child is expected to use Teineigo with their parents, grandparents and older relatives as a sign of respect.
Common Keigo mistakes
Most mistakes from Keigo usually arise from the misunderstanding that Keigo simply means replacing a certain set of verbs with a different set. For example, “to eat” has the following Keigo forms:
Common form: “taberu” (食べる)
Teineigo: “tabemasu” (食べます)
Sonkeigo: “meshi agaru” (召し上がる)
Kenjougo: “itadaku” (いただく)
Simply changing the verb from the common form to any of the others does not make your language more polite. One good tip is to also change the terms of address.
When using Sonkeigo/Kenjougo, many people, including the Japanese themselves, forget to change how they address themselves and others. While “watashi” (I) and “anata” (you) work well in Teineigo, more polite terms are needed in Sonkeigo/Kenjougo.
When referring to yourself, “watakushi” is the preferred term.
When referring to others, “-san” is replaced by “-sama”. In the service industry, “o-kyaku-sama” (お客様) is the common phrase used.
In the office, naming the listener is important. For example, Mr. Tanaka the section chief is not just “buchou” (部長), but “Tanaka-buchou” (田中部長) or “Buchou no Tanaka-sama” (部長の田中様).
With a better understanding of Keigo, you’ll go a long way in understanding Japanese culture and be on your way towards Japanese mastery.