Japanese is one of those languages where you think you've made a ton of headway, and then 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're not quite there yet, start with our Ultimate Guide to Studying Japanese for Beginners for a solid intro to your studies – or go ahead and grab the World's Best Hiragana and Katakana Charts!
What is Keigo, anyways?
Keigo (敬語) is the highly polite and respectful version of the Japanese language used in business, formal, and official situations.
This is a step above teineigo (丁寧語), which is the desu/masu form most learners start out with. It's coupled with a kind of "self deprecating" vocabulary when referring to oneself as well, called kenjougo (謙譲語), but typically everyone just calls it all keigo.
The level of formality in a Japanese office setting and many social interactions is much higher than in the West (for better or for worse).
In this article, we cover basic keigo that you should learn as part of your Japanese studies. Don't worry – it's not as impossible as some people make it out to be!
Download your free Common Terms Keigo Conversion Chart
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.
This free, downloadable chart is designed to cover at least 75% of your keigo vocabulary needs in Japanese. It shows you the conversion from base Japanese into teineigo, kenjougo, and sonkeigo. Consider it your keigo vocabulary cheat sheet!
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.
Use keigo when you are:
- Speaking with customers at your job
- Speaking with staff from other companies
- Speaking with your senpai or boss at work
- Giving a presentation
- Meeting new people for the first time in a polite social situation
Keigo use case example
Let’s say you are a business person in your 30's.
You have to write an email to someone at another company about a business partnership. It might look something like this:
〇 〇 〇 (Main email contents)
At first glance, this might look like a totally different language than the Japanese you know! However, the good news is that a lot of it is "set phrases," or 決まり文句 kimarimonku, which means you'll recycle the same polite phrases over and over. We'll cover that in more depth in another article.
A lot of the above Japanese is decipherable using the keigo conversion chart we introduced earlier.
おります – Formal form of います
申します（もうします）– To say (be called)
拝見する（はいけんする）– To see
頂きました（いただきました）– To receive (in this case, to have had the pleasure of doing something)
致します（いたします）– To do
What if I'm not writing business emails?
For the most part, if you don’t use keigo (especially if you are a foreigner) people won’t be 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.
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
Before getting into sonkeigo and kenjougo, think to yourself: why do knights (or samurai 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 form of speech that lowers the speaker to show respect.
Sonkeigo is the form 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.
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.
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.
Expressing respect and politeness isn’t limited to just keigo or 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 a fundamental part of learning Japanese
Keigo is all around you in Japan, and to put it simply, it’s the easiest way to sound educated and make a good first impression.
However, if you ever find yourself having difficulties using keigo, don’t worry! Keigo can be difficult for even native Japanese speakers to get 100% right, so just make an attempt.
The more you use it, the easier it will become! And then, one day when you're applying for a job in Japanese, you will present yourself as an educated member of Japanese society who is capable of working with other adults in a formal setting. Hello, new career paths!
As always, let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.