Guide to Keigo Fluency: Introduction

Japanese has many unique and special characteristics, one of which is what’s known as “Polite language”, “Honorifics”, “Formal Language”, “Business Japanese” and 敬語. I will use the name 敬語 in this article, because I like to use the original Japanese name. apparently, Every Japanese learner has the notion that 敬語 is notorious of being extremely difficult and complex, which I’m not going to say that it’s wrong, not at all. it took me a long time to be able to use 敬語 with confidence, and in an effort to make it a little bit easier for other learners like myself, I would like to write a guide to help you understand 敬語better and hopefully get you closer to 敬語fluency.

I learned about 敬語at the early stages of learning Japanese, mostly the です・ます form, and as I understood then, this was how one speaks politely, which wasn’t entirely wrong, but not entirely true either. Most Japanese learners know that when you make a simple conversation with a Japanese person he would instantly shower you with compliments about how good you speak Japanese(社交辞令). On the other hand, once you get to a higher level of proficiency, you will need to learn 敬語and how to properly use it. Learning 敬語 is different from learning the grammar (as in Verbs, Adjectives, Nouns…etc.) once you get to an intermediate level you will start wondering about correct usage of expressions, which could be linked to pragmatics. In advanced levels you will need to see 敬語 as a way of proper communication that the Japanese society demands. That could possibly be the reason for calling it “Business Japanese” as even Japanese young generations don’t need to use 敬語on a daily basis during their first 9 years of education, they only start to dabble in it once they start looking for jobs and be an active member of society.

What is 敬語?

敬語 is known as “Polite language”, “Honorifics”, “Formal Language”, “Business Japanese” and probably other names too. From my point of view and my experience in dealing with Japanese people using 敬語 I would like to redefine it so that we can be on the same page.

I consider 敬語 as 待遇語(たいぐうご), it’s the form of respectful language and speech to be used accordingly with the nature of relationship, content to be delivered, the situation and circumstances in concern; At times, subtle nuances of language usage could lead to disputes and fights, and at other times, it could lead to more friendliness and respect between people. When we speak or write we select our language according to some factors:

  • The listener, the other party (A friend, Someone you just met, your teacher, the public)
  • The content, the message (Feelings, gratitude, Anger, sorrow, explanation…etc.)
  • Situation and circumstances (talking over a cup of coffee, public speaking, meeting)

According to such factors we build up our relationship with other people, so it’s not always about how you talk with your boss and superiors, it’s not just about showing respect and being polite, how you speak and choose your words can show respect, kindness and good manners, also it can show impudence, ill manners as well as a lot of personal traits that define who you are.

 

An advanced learner would have learned a few different forms of a verb with different levels of formality, however, in real life situations not many of these advanced learners would be able to use the right level of formality depending on the situation and human relationships, about which 敬語is all about. Japanese natives also have the same issue as well which makes it all the more challenging for foreign learners. However, the kind of usage mistakes foreigners do is different in nature from the mistakes natives do.

Mistakes between natives and foreigners:

It is said that some native Japanese speakers make mistakes when using 敬語and can’t use it properly, Actually the period in which they start needing to learn 敬語 comes later on when they become society members(社会人)then some have difficulties in discerning which form of 敬語to use (謙譲語?尊敬語?)in different situations.

However, No native Japanese speaker would make mistakes such as the following:

  1. あなたの妻は何をなさっていますか。
  2. お召し上がりなさい。
  3. 先生、今日の授業、お上手にお教えになりましたね。

In the first example, the name for the listener’s family member is not appropriate, even though the speaker used the deferential form 「~なさる」, calling people with an inappropriate name is a great mistake to make. Referring to 「山田先生」「息子さん」「奥さん」as「山田」「息子」「あなたの妻」is an example of such mistake. In the second example, even though the speaker used the deferential form 「召し上がる」using the imperative form 「~なさい」makes it rude. The speaker could have mistaken it for the form 「お~なさる」thinking that he is making it even more polite which was not the case here. The third example, shows how you can use the correct forms of 敬語and still sound rude because of cultural references, such as directly complementing someone who is superior or in a higher status. (I will elaborate on this later)

Attitude of learning 敬語:

Recently in Japan a new style of 敬語started to be used in restaurants, supermarkets, shops and many places where employees are required to deal with customers, it is known as 「マニュアル敬語」it was originally as the name suggests a manual on how to deal with customers, intended for new employees to avoid inappropriate treatment to customers which might in some cases damage the company’s image. However, such manuals are receiving criticism now for not being accurate or at times just wrong. The reason for that is that new employees who didn’t know how to properly use 敬語 depend too much on the manual, which is not that much of a comprehensive guide any way, as it was supposed to be a general guideline for certain situations.

Now when you go to a store in Japan the cashier would tell you 「~円からお預かりいたします」「~円になります」, you go to a restaurant and make an order, the waiter would ask you「~でよろしかったでしょうか」all of which could be considered wrong, however now that it’s used widely, we can’t help but to accept it.

Let’s look at a conversation example:

<The two are new in the company and greeting each other>

山田:               本日から国際交流課に参りました山田です。坂本さんでいらっしゃいますね。よろしくお願いします。

坂本:               こちらこそよろしくお願いします。私も昨日こちらの課に来たばかりなんです。

山田:               坂本さんはご出身は静岡と聞いておりますが。

坂本:               ええ、そうです。

山田:               大学は?

坂本:               富士大学で国際関係学を専攻していました。

山田:               え!私も、富士大の国際関係だけど…

坂本:               え!じゃ、木下先生、ご存知?

山田:               もちろん。本当に世間って、狭い!

坂本:               じゃ、山田さんって、ひょっとして同窓生ってこと?

Sometimes using 敬語 makes relationships rigid and cold, so it’s possible to use it when talking about serious topics, and stop using it when talking about common interests and friendly talk, while at the same time keeping a good distance. To us “foreign learners of the language” we can learn something from this, 敬語 is a form of speech and self-expression, and is not to be mixed up with grammar rules that must be followed. (Sometimes even grammar rules are ignored).

I strongly suggest that anyone who aspires to be proficient at 敬語 needs to think about the expressions they learn, consider all the guides and information about 敬語 (including this one) as ONLY a guideline that gives you enough momentum until you are finally able to stand on your own. I believe it is common sense that you can’t use some expression with all kinds of people even at the same situation, this is how robots are programmed, not intellectual human beings.  I suggest you work on building your own style of speech and your own way of interacting with different people, and that will happen when you understand and grasp each expression you use, and get a good grip of how 敬語 is constructed.

敬語Construction:

When I first learned about “Japanese honorifics” I read about 3 levels of formality, (The polite form, humble form and deferential form) at that time I couldn’t really put all of the expressions and rules I knew to its corresponding category, also I didn’t quite understand the function and usage of each category, but now I realize how important it is to grasp the basic concept behind each form of 敬語.

Up until now 敬語 was taught to be consisted of 3 types:

尊敬語(そんけいご) 「いらっしゃる・おっしゃる」 Deferential
謙譲語(けんじょうご) 「伺う・参る」 Humble
丁寧語(ていねいご) 「です・ます」 Polite

 

  • Deferential language: used to show respect and honor someone who is superior to you or in a higher social status, like your boss, teacher, professor, customer, another company’s representative and sometimes strangers. It is not used to talk about oneself.
  • Humble language: used when describing one’s actions or the actions of a person in one’s in-group to others, such as customers in business.
  • Polite language: characterized by the use of です and the verb ending ます, and it is the form of the language taught to most learners of Japanese. Polite language does not convey any particular respect or humility. It can be used to refer to one’s own actions or those of other people. It’s probably the most used form of 敬語.

many learners are taught to consider themselves at a low status and speak from that perspective, However, this is not how 敬語works. People don’t speak indiscriminately in the same tone and style all the time even when they’re talking to the same person. They constantly keep in mind the three factors I mentioned above.

  • The listener, the other party (A friend, Someone you just met, your teacher, the public)
  • The content, the message (Feelings, gratitude, Anger, sorrow, explanation…etc.)
  • Situation and circumstances (talking over a cup of coffee, public speaking, meeting)

For example look at the following conversation:

Conversation (1) :

A: これは日本のですか。

B: いえいえ、それは中国のお土産。いいでしょ。

A: 素敵、色合いもとっても面白いし、すごくエキゾチック!いいな。

B: 花瓶に見えないでしょ。

A: 本当に。遠くから見たら、本みたい。見たことない。

B: 大切にしないと。

A: 先生があちらで買われたんですか。

 

Conversation (2)

A: これは日本のですか?

B: いえいえ、それは中国のお土産。いいでしょ。

A: 素敵ですね。色合いも大変素晴らしいですし、日本ではとても珍しいんじゃないでしょうか。

B: 花瓶(かびん)に見えないでしょ。

A: ええ、初めに拝見したときは本だと思いました。こういうのは初めてです。

B: 大切にしないと。

A: 先生があちらで求められたんですか。

 

Take a moment to think about the relationship between A and B in both conversations.

In conversation (1), it’s the first time they meet and they speak in a friendly tone while keeping a distance. As for conversation (2), Speaker A is talking to his superior and he/she is speaking politely. in both conversations 敬語 is used properly even when the tone changes.

敬語の指針:

There have been numerous attempts to finalize the categorization of Japanese honorifics, 敬語. A variety of theoretical models and methods of categorization have been proposed, from the simplest ones created as early as the Meiji period, to more complex ones which pay attention to the nature of 敬語 and attempt to capture its essence. The most common and widely used categorization of 敬語 is the division into three basic categories: 尊敬語 (‘deferential speech’), 謙譲語 (‘humble speech’) and 丁寧語 (‘polite speech’). This categorization is commonly taught in Japanese elementary and high schools and it is this division that the average Japanese person is familiar with.

To a student of Japanese who does not have a feel for the language and the experience of a native speaker such categorization can be misleading when deciding which form to use. Moreover, as evident from public opinion surveys, appropriate usage of 敬語 causes problems not only for learners of Japanese but also for an increasing number of native Japanese speakers, who are not sure about the correct forms. In 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Education introduced a new division of 敬語 into five categories:

尊敬語 Deferential speech
 謙譲語 Humble speech
 丁重語 Formal polite speech
 丁寧語 Polite speech
 美化語 Refined speech

The adoption of this system has met with various responses, including resistance from some teachers of Japanese as a foreign language who prefer the traditional categorization and argue that the new system is unnecessarily complicated.

However, I argue for the superiority of the new 5-category system over the traditional 3-category one, as the new model better captures the ways social relations are expressed within the Japanese honorific system and sets out more clear-cut categories which better reflect the differences between the forms available to the speaker.

in the next article, I will address 敬語の指針 and the basic relationship concepts in Japanese society that you need in order to use 敬語 properly.

 

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