Japanese is one of those languages where you think you've made a ton of headway, and then boom you realize there's a whole other part you hadn't even heard of. Keigo is the next step in learning Japanese for anyone serious about being in Japan. If you haven't already, start with our Ultimate Guide to Studying Japanese for Beginners.
But maybe you've heard of keigo (敬語) – the "ultra" polite version of the Japanese language used in business, formal, and official situations. This is a step above teineigo (丁寧語) (the desu/masu form most learners start out with). It's coupled with a kind of "self deprecating" vocabulary when refering to oneself as well, called kenjougo (謙譲語), but typically everyone just calls the whole thing keigo.
If you compare a Japanese business conversation with—let’s say, one in the U.S.—you'll immediately notice that the level of formality in a Japanese office setting is waaaaaay higher than in the West (for better or for worse). Today, we'll go through some basic keigo tips that you should know if you're planning on being in Japan for business. Actually, even in daily conversation with strangers and staff, knowing keigo is a huge plus for you because that is how most adults will start a conversation with you. If you've ever been on the receiving end of a phone call from a Japanese business about your warranty or making an appointment, you'll know what we mean. Of course with non-business interactions, once you get to know your counterpart, feel free to switch to simpler, less formal language. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Know when to use keigo
Keigo is an honorific form of the Japanese language that’s used to show politeness and respect to strangers (including children depending on the situation) and seniors. They can be your colleague, boss, or anyone you meet in your daily life except for your friends or family. It’s very safe to say that it’s always good to start your conversation using keigo. Using keigo will never make you look stupid, nor offend anyone.
Let’s say you are a business man in his 30's. After buying a bento at the convenience store, a twenty-year-old cashier asked you whether you’d like your bento warmed up or not. Should you use keigo in this case? Well, yes, we strongly recommend using keigo if you don’t want your bento half-nuked… (just kidding). And even if you don't respond in keigo, he will be forced to use it towards you, so you'll need to know what he's saying!
Even if you don’t use keigo (especially if you are a foreigner) people won’t get too upset. Your effort in trying to speak in Japanese in and of itself is always appreciated. However, if you're determined to learn Japanese or live in Japan, make an effort to try to use keigo whenever you start a conversation with strangers—even if it feels awkward. As noted above, everyone appreciates your gesture in trying to do the right thing in their culture.
Now that you understand the importance of keigo, let’s learn more about how to actually use it.
You probably already know teineigo!
There are three parts in Keigo: sonkeigo (respectful form), kenjougo (humble form) and teineigo (polite form). But if you have been studying Japanese for a while, then you have probably already been using teineigo which uses the suffix -masu on verbs and the suffix -desu on nouns.
Here are some examples of teineigo:
The suffix –desu on nouns.
The suffix –masu on verbs.
Not too hard, right? By using these–desu and –masu suffixes, you are already using teineigo. Most Japanese people use teineigo when they need some level of formality in their speech (e.g when they are at work) but they're comfortable enough with the other party to not use full keigo.
Now let’s dive into sonkeigo and kenjougo.
Sonkeigo and kenjougo
Let me ask you before getting into sonkeigo and kenjougo: why do knights (or samurais if that floats your boat better) kneel before their king? The answer is very simple. They do so in order to lower themselves and put their king above them as a way to show respect. You can show respect by either doing one of the following two things: 1) lower yourself, or 2) elevate the person you are giving the respect to above you. And what a surprise! This is exactly how sonkeigo and kenjougo work.
Kenjougo is the way of speech that lowers the speaker to show respect whereas sonkeigo is the way of speech that elevates the listener to show respect. Either way, you are showing respect to whomever you are talking to. The only difference is whether you are lowering yourself or putting the listener above you.
There are three parts in sonkeigo as well. Please read below.
How to conjugate Sonkeigo:
- お/ご + stem of the verb + になる
先生は本を読む Sensei wa hon wo yomu (The teacher reads a book)
先生は本をお読みになります Sensei wa hon wo o yomi ni narimasu (The teacher reads a book -respectful form)
- お/ご + stem of the verb + ください
先生が日本語を教えた Sensei ga nihongo wo oshieta (The teacher taught Japanese)
先生が日本語をお教えくださいました Sensei ga nihongo wo o oshie kudasaimashita (The teacher taught Japanese - respectful form)
先生は日本語を教えた Sensei wa nihongo wo oshieta (The teacher taught Japanese)
先生は日本語を教えられました Sensei wa nihongo wo oshieraremashita (The teacher taught Japanese - respectful form)
You won’t hear the last one very often in the daily conversation but it’s important to know if you are interested in taking the JLPT exam.
Now, let’s learn about how to conjugate kenjougo!
How to conjugate Kenjougo
- お/ご＋ stem of the verb + いたす
お願いします onegaishimasu (please)
お願いいたします onegaiitashimasu (please - humble form)
You might be wondering why Japanese people would use お and ご in Keigo. Well, there are two purposes that お and ご prefixes serve.
Why use お/ご prefixes?
1. To show respect. For example, お兄さん oniisan (older brother - with respect)
2. To add politeness. For example, お金 okane (money - polite form)
Money (and meat, rice, parents, and a whole slew of other things) gets the お/ご treatment as standard, and it's a lot less optional . By not using the お/ご prefix in these cases, you might get a raised eyebrow or seem a bit uncouth.
Keigo vocabulary chart
Not every word has a smooth conjugation like we looked at above. There are some irregular verbs that change completely when they are used to convey respect and politeness. See the chart below. It will come handy for you because there's no other solution than to memorize these (these are the most useful basic ones – not everything)! Use rikaichan or rikaikun depending on your browser if you need some help reading these.
KENJOUGO (BASE FORM)
SONKEIGO (BASE FORM)
To eat / drink
Expressing respect and politeness isn’t limited to just keigo nor the conjugations of words you use. Sometimes you need to use completely different expressions to ask questions that are sensitive. For example, if you are asking for someone’s age, you'll need to ask that question very politely. See below so that you know how to politely ask someone’s age and more!
Sometimes there are different ways to express the politeness:
Example 1: Age
何歳ですか？ Nansai desuka? (How old are you?)
おいくつですか？ Oikutsu desuka? (What’s your age?)
Example 2: Who is this?
誰ですか？Dare desuka? (Who is this?)
どちら様ですか？ Dochira sama desuka? (Who is this?)
Keigo is important in Japan
Keigo is a traditional way of speaking and to put it simply, it’s the Japanese way to sound educated and make a good first impression. However, if you ever find yourself having difficulties using keigo—don’t worry! Keigo is hard for even native Japanese speakers, so just make an attempt.
But why do Japanese people use keigo if it’s difficult even for native Japanese speakers? Well, why did those knights kneel before their king? Their knees must’ve hurt a lot too, right? Using keigo, similar to kneeling down before the king, is about undergoing hardship/difficulties to show respect. The harder it is to do, the more valuable it is.
This is probably why Japanese people have an affinity for foreigners who can use keigo flawlessly. Their proficiency in the Japanese language is one thing, but what’s more important is that they are willing and capable of complying with the unspoken rule in Japan. You know the phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words?" It could just as easily be said the using keigo at the right time, and in the right place is worth much more than saying “I can speak Japanese” a thousand times.
Hope this post helped you with studying Keigo! Let us know if you have questions in the comments below.