Things that irk me about Japan 1: Keigo

6 03 2009


Keigo, 敬語, created by the Japanese for the purpose of confusing us people who pretend to be able to speak the language, and for the purpose of showing who the native speakers and who the pretenders are.  Ok, so I digress, it really refers to the levels of politeness in the Japanese language, but the ability to deploy it correctly is in fact a clear sign of whether or not you have truly grasped the language.  I don’t even want to talk about the disaster that is my case :P.

In case you didn’t know, Japanese is a very polite language.  There are a fairly limited number of ways to curse in Japanese when compared with English.  In fact, most insults fall under the category of simply being “less polite”.  Or in the case of arguments between friends or couples, politeness sometimes escalates to reflect that your relationship is cooling.  So why does it matter to any of us non-native speakers who are getting by anyway?  Not being able to use as a tourist is not that big of a deal, but being able to understand it is critical.  Any Japanese salesperson, waitress, maid, whatever situation where a person is serving a customer or guest, keigo will be used.  😛 As an anime watcher, it matters because various levels of keigo are used to depict 萌え or setting.  Examples of this include, Mikuru from Suzumiya Haruhi, Aoi from Ai Yori Aoshi, or Yoichi from the recent Asu no Yoichi.  There are tons more examples, but you get the idea.

Keigo is split into three levels:

  • 尊敬語 - sonkeigo – Honorific Form.  Used to show your respect for utmost respect for someone of higher position than you in a given situation
  • 丁寧語 - teineigo – Polite Form.  If any of you have taken Japanese 101 or probably 102, this is in fact what you learn.
  • 謙譲語 - kenjogo – Humble Form.  Used to minimize yourself, demphasize your actions, and what not.

尊敬語 – Honorific Form

“OMG you are the greatest person ever, bestow upon me the privlege of bearing your children!  Your steps cause me to bow in reverence!”

Ok maybe I overdid it, but that’s pretty much the mentality that goes into employing sonkeigo.  Whether or not someone is higher ranked than you can be based on a number of things such as, position in a company, wealth, acheivements, etc.  Some situations where this will be employed:

  • You are a maid speaking to your master, or a butler speaking to your master
  • You are speaking to a much higher ranking person of your company.  (i.e. me when I am speaking to the CEO)
  • You are an employee of a company speaking to a customer/potential customer or another company
  • You are asking a favor of somebody, or speaking to someone who you owe a deep favor to
  • You are speaking about a national leader or famous historical character
  • You are a news reporter speaking to your audience

Sonkeigo largely revolves around verb and noun transformation.  The rest of the grammar largely remains the same.

For example:

初音ミクの新CDだ。- hatsune miku no shin CD da

Translation: It’s Hatsune Miku’s new CD!


Honorific Form:

初音ミクさまの新CDでいらっしゃいます。- hatsune miku sama no shin CD de irasshaimasu

Translation: It’s Hatsune Miku’s new CD!

There’s no real direct translation, since the concept of respect and politeness doesn’t really apply to English.  Probably the best rewording would be, I humbly report that this is the great Hatsune Miku’s new CD.

Other special verbs include:

To go: 行く (iku) → いらっしゃる (irassharu)
To come: 来る kuru) → おいでになる (oide ni naru)
To be: だ (da) / である (dearu) → でいらっしゃる (deirassharu)
To eat: 食べる (taberu) → 召し上がる (meshiagaru)
To look: 見る (miru) → ご覧になる (goran ni naru)
To know: 知る (shiru) → ご存知である (gozonji dearu)
To say: 言う (iu) → おっしゃる (ossharu)

Examples of noun transformation:

君ー>貴方 Noun for you.

俺、僕ー>私、わたくし ore and boku become watashi or watakushi (note: watakushi is usually reserved for women and men who want to sound like women, but it is perfectly acceptable for a man to use it in a business keigo context

君の会社ー>貴社 kimi no kaisha transforms into kisha, which literally means “your precious company”.

謙譲語 – Humble Form

OMG I am the most incapable person ever, nothing I do matters at all.  I am the most insignificant piece of garbage ever.

That’s basically kenjogo in a nutshell.  You minimize your actions as if nothing about you matters.  The uses for kenjogo are identical to sonkeigo because they are usually used in pairs.  You always raise up who you are talking to with the honorific form, and then minimize your own actions with kenjogo.

私は休んでいる – watashi wa yasunde iru

Translation: I am taking a break.

Humble form:

私はお休みしております。 – watashi wa o yasmumishite orimasu

Translation: I am taking a break.

Humbler Humble form:

私はお休みさせていただいております。 – watashi wa o yasumi sasete itadaite orimasu.

Translation: I have humbly received permission to be taking a break.

Some special humble form verbs:

To go: 行く (iku) → 伺う (ukagau)
To come: 来る kuru) → 参る (mairu)
To be: だ (da) / である (dearu) → でござる (degozaru)
To eat: 食べる (taberu) → 頂く (itadaku)
To receive: もらう (morau) → 頂く (itadaku)
To look: 見る (miru) → 拝見する (haikensuru)
To know: 知る (shiru) → 存じる (zonjiru)
To say: 言う (iu) → 申す (mousu)

Another example これは私の初音ミクの新CDでございます。 – kore wa watashi no hatsune miku sama no shin CD de gozaimasu (Ruroni Kenshin uses this form a whole lot)

In the previous example, I used de irassharu to respect Hatsune Miku for and her new CD.  However, here I use de gozaimasu because I am refering to the CD that belongs to me, even though it is Hatsune Miku’s new CD that belongs to me.  Confused yet?  Hurrah for relative honorifics.  If this was Korean, the honorific would be the same regardless of the situation.

丁寧語 – Polite Form

Anyone who has ever studied Japanese out of a Japanese textbook will have learned this first.  It simply refers to the masu and desu forms of the Japanese language and is light years easier to understand than the other two keigo forms.



It’s largely identical to speaking in normal form, but just simply end all your sentences with a desu or a masu :P.  I can do this, so it can’t be that hard!

Some situations where you would want to use this:

  • You are speaking to someone you don’t know very well, or are meeting for the first time.
  • In a business setting, when you do not know whether the person you are speaking to is of higher or lower status than you.  After exchanging business cards and you learn of each other’s positions, sonkeigo and kenjogo should be adapted and used appropriately.
  • You want to sound feminine.  (Sorry… Japan is still a largely male dominated society, women are largely expected to be more polite and using the polite form when you’re not supposed to falls in this category).
  • You are speaking to your immediate superior
  • You have no clue if you should be using sonkeigo or kenjogo (i.e. me, most of the time)


This is by no means a complete explanation of keigo.  There are entire books written on the topic not only for foreigners, but also for Japanese people (yes, even Japanese people have to learn how to speak in Keigo).  But, if all of this is overwhelming to you, the least you should know how to use is teineigo and be able to understand sonkeigo.  Being able to use teineigo will allow you to not offend anybody.  It is appropriate to speak to your CEO in teineigo, just less polite and not ieal.  Being able to understand sonkeigo, will mean you will be able to shop with ease and understand what the heck salespeople are trying to peg you with :P. I haven’t even begun to explain the system of relative honorifics that apply to keigo.  (For example, when speaking to your boss you must glorify him.  However, when speaking to someone outside the company about your boss, you must MINIMIZE him).  The whole system is ridiculously complex, such that even native speakers get mixed up sometimes.

I’m sorry if this post bored you, but I felt like getting this off my chest after a frustrating day at work where I mixed up my keigo and ended up glorifying myself and minimizing my boss.  Thank god I’m a foreigner and they just laughed it off.  I suck at Keigo, so if you find any mistakes tell me and I’ll fix it :P.




9 responses

6 03 2009

I knew Japanese was complex. I knew that there were different conjugations of verbs to suit different emotional relationships… I knew there were more of those than there are of the corresponding English complication: timing

Don’t believe me about the ‘timing’ thing? Watch this:

For e.g. “I was going to have been doing something”. Or, if the ‘I was’ is too ambiguous (I was going to… so therefore you didn’t? Or “‘I was’ going to”, past alternate?) stick with “I am going to be doing something” where ‘am’ ‘going’ ‘to’ ‘be’ ‘doing’ are all words that tell you exactly *when* ‘I’ will actually ‘do something’.

Even worse, try putting this into a concrete: In two days I am going to be swimming. …you feel the need to add ‘In two days’ to even further complicate things.

In Japanese, I’m fairly certain that the above would be represented as ‘I did something’ (for ‘I was’) or ‘I do/will do something’ (for ‘I am’)

…but never had I had it explained to me that there were different *verbs* you used in different conjugations for separate *levels* of *politeness*! I mean, I was taught ‘watashi wa Chris to moshimasu’ (or was that moushimasu… anyhoo) instead of ‘watashi no namae wa Chris’, but I thought that was a difference between ‘I am called’ and ‘My name is’


And, yes, Japanese 101/102 are teineigo… At UW… as far as I remember :S Japanese 201 started into ‘Plain Form’ (‘da’ instead of ‘desu’ ‘taberu’ instead of ‘tabemasu’ etc etc)

7 03 2009

It’s moushimasu :P. Moushimasu is the humble form of to say, iimasu, and also to be called, yobimasu. So watashi wa Chris to moushimasu, is in fact I am called Chris (but politely).

Watashi no namae wa Chris without the ending would be super informal. Add a desu at the end would make it polite form, and adding de gozaimasu would make it humble form.

However, I’ve never EVER heard anyone in Japan introduce themselves as watashi no namae wa …. Everyone either chooses to use watashi wa Chris desu, or watashi wa Chris to moushimasu.

I’ve never taken a Japanese course before. I’m hoping to enroll in Japanese 101 in UW though :P:P…. do you think they’ll let me in?

7 03 2009

Not a chance 🙂

Since you have Japanese experience, there’s no real point. Aiming for one of the higher-level courses might be a better bet. 101 was hiragana and vocab, 102 was katakana and more vocab, 201 was heavy on the kanji…and more vocab. If you know how to say ‘I bought a New York Times in front of the park’, and write it in hiragana+katakana, you’ve got Japanese up to second-year.

(For the record, ‘watashi wa kouen no mae ni nyuu yooku taimusu o kaimashita’… correct? (Apologies for the romaji, this computer doesn’t have an IME))

9 03 2009

Yep, it’s correct!

7 03 2009

So much to learn before going to Japan for International Exchange X_X. Oh well, I’ll start on it during my work term. Thank you so much for putting up basic information regarding the terminology and how each set of form is different ^_^.

7 03 2009

いやあ~、「でいらっしゃる」は尊敬語の「ある」って全然知らなかった! 僕はまだまだだな…

personally i love all the different politeness levels. yeah i’m crazy, just like how i love studying kanji ^^;; similarly i love all the dialects, the male/female speech differences, the slang, and the other little things ^^; ほんまにおもろいで~ ^_^

ま、好きだと言ってるけど、やっぱり使うのは大変だね。 それにアニメのキャラは丁寧語あんまり使わなく、砕けた会話ばっかりで、結局僕は話そうとする時はやっぱり砕けた会話出ちゃうんだ^^;

i even bought one of the books explaining sonkeigo (written for japanese people… yeah, i know… as if it wasn’t hard enough to understand already ^^;), but i’ve barely touched it since it sits at the end of my manga queue ^^;;;;

ところでさ、こうして日本語でやりとりするのは迷惑だろうか。 僕はもちろん、喜んでるけど英語の方がよかったらそう言ってね~

9 03 2009

いや、俺はかまわない。日本語と英語はどちでもいいだ。 でも他の人も読めたいかもしれないから、英語方がいいと思う。

Hehe, I think Keigo is a lost cause for me. I’ve been in Japan for a week, and I still can’t understand it when people blurt it out really fast, sigh.

Good luck with your own Keigo 😛

7 03 2009

Such a moe picture of Reimu as the introduction to this article! She must really love those shrine donations! ^_^

It’s interesting to learn that the Japanese language emphasizes so much on politeness and honorifics. Certainly different from other widely used languages. It’s just like how Cantonese and Mandarin require the use of certain characters or phrases to describe time in the context of the past, present, and future, where as other languages require verb conjugation. Yes, the study of languages is a fascinating science.

I see that you’re using Supercell’s new Miku CD as examples for this topic. Couldn’t have asked for better examples. Do you have the new CD already?

So tired after a long day at work. Catch you later!

14 03 2009
Sushi is Also Serious Business « A Foreigner’s Tale in Japan

[…] かしこまりました。- (kashikomarimashita) Just the kenjo go version of wakarimashita.  Go here if you want more […]

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