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Japanese Keigo: Give Respect, Get Respect

The Japanese keigo is how people politely speak with people in other classes of Japanese society. Keigo, in a broad sense, means "polite language", and is usually referred to in English as "honorifics".

Knowing a little bit about keigo can impress your Japanese teacher or friends, and is essential to being polite the right way in Japan.

The Dump on Keigo

In Japan, there are sharply divided social classes. The basic idea of keigo is that people should speak with each other differently, based on whom they're talking to.

For instance, a college student would address his/her professor in an especially respectful way, whereas the professor wouldn't have to be as formally polite when talking to the student.

The professor isn't being rude to the student, but is just acknowledging the higher position society gives the professor.

There are two basic types of keigo: one is for referring to others politely, and the other is for speaking about yourself referring to "you and yours" in a humble way. In Japan, there is a concept known as the ie, or "house". The ie is anyone's family, company, or circle of friends or colleagues.

As strange as it seems, you try to "degrade" yourself and your ie while putting others and their ie on a pedestal.

How And When to Use Keigo

General times to use the polite kind of honorifics are when addressing a boss at work, a professor or teacher, or someone who is older than you. If you are talking to these people and referring to yourself or people associated with you, you should use the humble honorifics.

Many times, using keigo is just a matter of slightly changing around normal Japanese verbs into either a more respectful or more humble form. But with a few really commonly used verbs, there are completely different keigo versions that you pretty much just have to memorize.

For all you Japanese speakers out there, an example of changing around a normal verb into a polite keigo is this: you have the verb suwaru (to sit), and to make it keigo, you would say o-suwari ni narimasu.

On the other hand, the polite keigo version of a really common verb like taberu (to eat) is meshi agarimasu. And it's the same with humble keigo, too; there is standard way to change the normal Japanese verbs, as well as a handful to memorize.

But it goes even a step beyond that. In English, there is basically one way to refer to somebody's son, for example. It's just "my son" or "your son".

In Japanese, you refer to your own son in a humble way, but you refer to someone else's son in a more respectful way. Similar to that, there are hundreds of other words in the Japanese language that have proper uses that depend solely on the speaker and the subject.

Keigo Is Just Tough

I have always found keigo tough. Most people also feel the same way, and for good reason: even Japanese themselves often find it difficult.

Perfect Japanese keigo use is generally not expected of younger children, and though people are theoretically supposed to use when speaking behind others' backs, they usually don't bother.

The Nutshell

There's a lot to learn about keigo, but if you take the time to pick up the basics, you'll get a ton of respect.

Did you know...
Japan's Bullet Train line—the Shinkansen—on busy days will carry over a million passengers between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka.

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