Guide to Keigo Fluency: 敬語の指針

In the previous article I introduced 敬語 and its importance, I also talked about its structure and the latest findings that 敬語の指針 presents. but before I delve into the details I want to first explain some of the basic cultural concepts that you will need to better understand 敬語. the most important one is its close relationship with the hierarchical system that the Japanese cherish. as a general rule of thumb you need to use 敬語 with people older than you even if it’s just one year. this is probably the minimum requirement of using 敬語. so let’s see what other important aspects are there to learn about. 

Important cultural aspects:

(If you think you understand Japanese society well, feel free to skip this part)

a. Group Orientation

In Japanese society, the individual has traditionally derived identity from group affiliations including family, school, and company. In Japan, business-people will often mention the name of the company they belong to before their own name when meeting someone for the first time. In a country the size of California, with a population nearly equal to that of Russia, the maintenance of relationships has been critical to survival. Without the “elbow room” of a frontier environment, where one could always move away if relationships soured with neighbors, Japanese have relied on internal restraint in order to maintain harmony and the social order. Emotions, especially negative ones, are not openly expressed. This is not to say that Japanese stifle individual opinions; but there is an appropriate way to discuss and resolve differences — an indirect, private way that does not involve public debate, confrontation, or loss of face.

Tendency to conform 

There are many Japanese sayings that advise people to yield in the face of opposition. 「長いものには巻かれろ」(ながいものにはまかれろ) might be the Japanese equivalent of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”「 郷に入れば郷に従え」 (ごうにいればごうにしたがえ)means something like, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” 「和を以て貴しとなす」(わをもってとうとしとなす)means “Cherish the harmony among people.” it is also a proverb that is taken from The Seventeen-article constitution according to the Nihon Shoki of 720, a document authored by Prince Shōtoku in 604. So an individual who disagrees too strongly or insists on maintaining a different opinion disrupts the harmony of group consensus and may be thought to be “immature.” On the other hand, someone who considers the good of the group before speaking or acting is considered a person with character and maturity. Westerners sometimes interpret this tendency to conform as weakness or a lack of imagination — but in Japan, a person who speaks out regardless of what the rest of the group thinks makes him or herself look ridiculous and lose credibility.

本音(ほんね) and 建前(たてまえ):

Japanese often make a distinction between their true feeling or personal opinion (本音) and what they know they should say in public because it is the appropriate thing to say in the situation (建前). All cultures make this distinction in certain situations; however, many foreign business-people express frustration at not being able to distinguish which is which when doing business with Japanese. *

b. Hierarchy

The importance of hierarchy in Japanese culture is based in the social ethics of Confucianism, in which people are ordered in vertical, hierarchical relationships, for example, customer (higher) and vendor (lower). A stable society depends on the proper maintenance of these hierarchical relationships.

Hierarchical Relationships in Business

The relationship between customer and vendor is one of the many hierarchical relationships in Japanese business culture. Others are

  • parent company and subsidiary
  • head office and branch office
  • manager and subordinate
  • senior (a person who joined the company earlier) and junior.

In these relationships each person has certain expectations of the other. For example, a manager is supposed to be concerned about subordinates’ welfare, even to the extent of helping them in their private life. In turn, a subordinate is expected to trust his or her manager’s judgment and not question his or her decisions. One problem in the contemporary Japanese workplace occurs when a manager and subordinate no longer share these same expectations. There is an increasing number of people in the younger generation who value individualism and prefer to keep some distance between their private lives and their work and employers.


An important manifestation of hierarchy in Japanese business is seniority. Seniority has traditionally been an important criterion for promotion (although there is currently a shift away from seniority towards meritocracy).

Here is an example: In negotiations between two companies, the Japanese expect each side to send people of the same age and position who literally sit across from each other during the discussions. Such expectations based on hierarchy can make it difficult for Japanese to negotiate as equals, or with someone who is younger or older.

Other Examples of Hierarchy

  • When Japanese exchange business cards, a formality which takes place when business-people first meet, the higher level people exchange cards first. When a card is received, the title on the business card is always checked to establish relative status. Employees of higher rank such as a general manager (部長) are often addressed by their title (“部長”) or their name and title (“山田部長”).
  • When Japanese bow to each other, the person of lower status bows more deeply.
  • Seating arrangements are based on hierarchy. In a taxi, the seat behind the driver is for the highest ranking person while the seat next to the driver is for the lowest ranking person. also the seating far from the door of the room is for the highest ranking, where the closest seat to the door is for the lowest rank. (I’ve heard it’s the opposite in western cultures?)
  • Order of speaking is also hierarchical, in that often the highest ranking person speaks last. Japanese language itself reflects hierarchy. A person of higher status speaks polite or casual speech, whereas the person of lower status uses 尊敬語 and 謙譲語.

c. Form and Formality

Although many modern Japanese are not particularly conscious of their religious heritage, the Shinto religion is the origin of many rituals that survive today. From Shinto comes the concept of 型, or form — the right way to do something. Those who have studied a martial art such as karate know about the painstaking, repetitive practice of 型 (basic forms) which must be mastered before one even throws a punch.

In business, the importance of form can be observed in the attention that is given to correct procedure when Japanese exchange business cards. The prescribed way is a way that is the result of long tradition and experience, and therefore something to be mastered. When all members of society understand and conform to the 型, ambiguity is removed.

敬語 The structure of communication:

this lengthy introduction was essential to establish understanding of the base on which communication in Japanese is built. now I can move on to explaining the latest findings about how 敬語works in a study made by Bunkachou 2007, I recommend reading my previous article first to better understand this.

尊敬語 and 謙譲語Ⅰ:

尊敬語 is defined as expressions which raise the position of the listener or a third person whose action(s), object(s) or condition(s) are being talked about.

In 敬語の指針 the verb 立てる is used, which means ‘to build up, to raise’ and is used here in the sense of verbally raising the position of the person spoken about. On the other hand the verb へりくだるis used to refer to verbally lowering the position of oneself.

This category includes suppletive forms such as

  • いらっしゃる (‘to be, to go, to come’); なさる (‘to do’); おっしゃる (‘to say’);
  • お(ご)-V になる (お書きになる, ‘to write’)
  • V(ら)れる (書かれる, ‘to write’)
  • お(ご)-V だ (お待ちです, ‘he/she is waiting’)
  • お(ご)-V くださる (お書きくださる, ‘to write’ – to do as a favour for the speaker) etc.

It also includes nouns with the prefixes:

  • お(ご) (先生からのお手紙, ‘a letter from the teacher’)
  • 貴~(き), 御~(おん) (貴社, 御社, ‘your company’)
  • Adjectives with the prefix お(ご), (お忙しい, ‘busy’) etc.

This category fully corresponds with 尊敬語 in the traditional division. 謙譲語 is defined as expressions raising the position of the listener or a third person who is affected by the action(s), object(s) or condition(s) of the speaker.


(1a) お手紙を拝見しました。

(1b) 昨日テレビを拝見しました。

This definition, unlike the definition of the traditional category of 謙譲語, provides explanation for why it is possible to use the humble verb 拝見する (‘to see’) in 1a (I read your letter), but not in 1b (Yesterday I watched TV). While in 1a there is a person (the listener) who is affected by the action expressed by the humble verb (and thus the target of the deference), in 1b there is no such person. The limits and uses of this category are, thus, more clearly defined.

This group includes verbs such as:

  • 伺う (‘to visit, to ask, to hear’)
  • 申し上げる (‘to say’)
  • 拝見する (‘to see, to look at’)
  • Structure 「お(ご)-V する」 (お-書きする, ‘to write’)
  • Structure 「V-て-いただく」/「 お(ご)-V いただく」 (書いていただく, お書きいただく, ‘to get written’) etc.
  • It also includes nouns with the prefix お(ご), (先生へのお手紙, ‘a letter for the teacher’).

It is clear that the categories of 尊敬語 and 謙譲語are of a similar character – they both show deference to the person who is being talked about, by raising his/her status either directly (尊敬語) or indirectly (謙譲語).

丁重語 (謙譲語Ⅱ)and 丁寧語:

The category of 丁重語 is a different case. It includes expressions by which the speaker speaks politely about his/her action(s), condition(s) etc. in regard to the listener. This difference is quite essential, and dividing the forms that under the traditional categorization are classified together under 謙譲語into two separate groups is important for their appropriate usage. Since the forms classified as 謙譲語raise the person who is the recipient of or affected by the communicated action, their usage is limited to cases in which it is suitable to express deference to such a person. On the other hand, with language means classified as 丁重語 we have to consider the listener. The following examples demonstrate this difference:

(2) 先生のところに伺います/参ります。 ‘I will come to your place (professor).’ or ‘I will go to the professor’s place’.

(3) 弟のところに伺います*/参ります。‘I will go to my younger brother’s place.’

(4) 先生のところに伺う/参る*。 ‘I will go to the professor’s place.’

(5) 弟のところに伺う*/参る*。 ‘I will go to my younger brother’s place.’

In example 2, if the professor affected by the communicated action is at the same time the listener, the verbs 伺います (謙譲語) and 参ります (丁重語) have essentially the same politeness effect. However, if the listener is someone else, by the choice of the verb 伺う (instead of 行く) the speaker shows deference to the professor, while in the second case the polite concern expressed by the verb 参る (instead of 行く) is aimed at the listener.

In example 3, the use of the verb 伺います is not appropriate, because it raises the speaker’s younger brother. The same can be said about example 4.

The verb 参る in examples 4 and 5 is used inappropriately because in order to express polite concern for the listener it has to be used in the polite form (丁寧語), i.e. 参ります.

The category of 丁重語 also includes cases when the communicated action or state does not have a human agent (Like 雨が降ってまいりました。) because in these cases the use of such language means is also motivated by polite concern for the listener. This category includes, in addition to the verb 参る, also the verbs 申す, いたす, おる (‘to be’), 存じる (‘to know, to think’) etc. Furthermore, it includes nouns with the prefixes 小~, 弊~ (小社, 弊社 ‘our company’) etc., which are used mainly in writing.

To put it shortly, the main difference between 謙譲語and 丁重語 is that the former indirectly expresses deference to the person (communication partner or a third party) who is the recipient of or affected by the speaker’s action, while the latter directly expresses polite concern for the listener. Moreover, their character differs as well – 丁重語 is rather formal. As a consequence of this, verbs that are categorized as 丁重語 can only be used in their polite forms

(申す → 申します, いたす → いたします etc.).

The traditional categorization did not make it possible to see the differences between these two types of linguistic devices. Separating them into two different categories makes their usage clear.

The structure お (ご)-V いたす is described in 敬語の指針 as sharing features of both 謙譲語Ⅰ and 謙譲語II (丁重語). Although due to its nature it partially fits into both categories, its usage (instead of the construction 「お(ご)-V する」 is motivated by polite concern for the listener. Therefore, this construction can also be used only in the polite form. Moreover, also due to its formal character it stands closer to the category of 丁重語. Its categorization as 丁重語 thus makes it immediately clear why the example 「先生にご連絡いたした*。 ‘I contacted the teacher’」 cannot be used.  From the point of view of the target of the speaker’s polite concern it is obvious that the category of 丁重語 is closely related to the category of 丁寧語, and, as already mentioned, verbs classified as 丁重語 require the polite form 「~ます」 (丁寧語). However, upon closer inspection, forms included in these two categories are not always used in the same way. The verbs classified as 丁重語 cannot be used when talking about the action(s) or condition(s) of the listener or a third person (ex. 6), while 丁寧語 has no such limitation (ex. 7). Also, due to the formal nature of the expressions included in the former category, it is better to distinguish between these two types and classify them in two separate categories.

(6) 昨日参りました*ね。‘You came yesterday, right?’ ‘He came yesterday, right?’

(7) 昨日来ましたね。‘You came yesterday, right?’ ‘He came yesterday, right?’

In addition to the polite form 「~ます」 and polite copula です, 丁寧語 also includes the today seldom used construction 「Adj. + ございます」 (美味しゅうございます, ‘it is delicious’).


美化語(びかご), which especially includes nouns ‘beautified’ by the prefix お~ (お酒, ‘rice wine’), and less frequently ご~ (ご祝儀, ‘a tip’), has a special position within the system of 敬語 in that it does not directly reflect the relationship between the speaker and the listener. Nonetheless, its use undoubtedly contributes to the expression of polite concern for the listener. Although it is also used outside the system of 敬語 and is commonly understood as a mark of refinement, it is part of the system at least in the sense that failing to use it may in various situations sound coarse or uncultivated, and thus impolite.

The following examples demonstrate the use of 美化語 in relation to 丁寧語. While example 8 uses both 美化語 (the prefix (お) with the word 金, ‘money’) and 丁寧語 (the polite form ~ません in ありません, ‘not have’), in example 9; 美化語 is used in informal speech (the plain form ない, ‘not have’) and, by contrast, example 10 shows the use of the word 金 without the prefix (お) in a polite speech (ありません).

Although, admittedly, this last example is not very common, it is still used. On the other hand, the use of 美化語 in informal speech is very common.

(8) お金がありません。  ‘I have no money.’

(9) お金がない。 ‘I have no money.’

(10) 金がありません。 ‘I have no money.’ (Women should avoid this form)

As can be seen from these examples, the use of 美化語 is not conditional upon the use of 丁寧語 and vice versa, as their inclusion in the same category in the traditional system may imply, although it is most common to use 美化語 when using 丁寧語. Moreover, the usage of 美化語 is to a certain degree gender specific – it is used more by women. Therefore it makes sense to classify it as a separate category.


Although only selected concepts of the categorization of 敬語 that were developed in the second half of the 20th century have been examined here, their variety makes it obvious that Japanese 敬語 is a complex system and setting up clear-cut categories is a difficult task. It remains to be seen whether the 5-category division that has recently been promoted represents the definitive end of efforts to finalize the categorization of 敬語 or will be replaced in time. Nevertheless, as demonstrated above, this division clearly captures the honorific system better than the traditional 3-category division and can help avoid inappropriate usages of Japanese honorifics that are a common result of the limitations of the traditional system. An important criterion for the use of 敬語 is the target of the speaker’s deference. The category of 尊敬語 (deferential speech) and 謙譲語 (humble speech) include forms that express politeness by directly or indirectly raising the person who is spoken about. On the other hand, the categories of 丁重語 (formal polite speech) and 丁寧語 (polite speech) include forms that express polite regard for the listener. 美化語 (refined speech) helps the speaker express himself/herself in a dignified manner, thus creating a polite impression on the listener.

Naturally, the categorization itself does not provide guidance in regard to what type of communication partner and in what communication situation it is appropriate to use 敬語. Nonetheless it captures the basic differences between the forms available to the speaker and serves as an important tool for comprehending the honorific system as a whole. The division into five categories constitutes a certain compromise between the traditional 3-category division and more detailed systems with excessively specific and limited subcategories. This categorization reflects the system quite well and at the same time is still comprehensible for common users, including foreign students of Japanese.


Now that we established a good base of 敬語 knowledge, the next few articles will be about situations in which you will have to use 敬語 like Job interviews, writing letters, emails and reports…etc.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and I’d love to hear your feedback, comments and suggestions.


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