Keigo: Japanese Polite Speech

Keigo: Japanese Polite Speech

Martijn: Let’s talk about keigo 敬語 – polite speech in the Japanese language. The first image that comes to mind is likely that of the typical salaryman, bowing and incessantly exchanging formalities. What some people may now know, is how intrinsically polite expressions are woven into the fabric of the Japanese language.
First of all, the word keigo is comprised of the characters kei 敬, meaning ‘respect’, and the character go 語, meaning ‘word’ or ‘language’. Simply put, speaking keigo means to use polite language. However, keigo goes far beyond using simply more flowery language.

Basically polite

Milan: The first thing that stands out about keigo is the fact that it is explicitly coded in both the Japanese vocabulary as well as its grammar. Looking at it in broad strokes, we can identify two dimensions of keigo. The first dimension is something that may be called ‘basic politeness’. Here, it is mainly the setting that determines whether keigo is used or not.

Martijn: It is important to note that using polite language is the norm in Japan. Between friends, colloquial language is of course common, but when meeting someone for the first time, polite speech should be used.

Milan: This basic form of politeness can easily be witnessed when assessing the verbs used in a sentence. When I want to tell a friend that I am going somewhere, I will use the verb iku (‘to go’). On the other hand, in a more formal setting, for example a meeting, I should use ikimasu. This is a form of the verb iku, with –masu added at the end. This strategy can be applied to all verbs and is an integral part of Japanese grammar.

Martijn: The “masu-form” type of politeness is the basis of polite language. It is also the most common way of speaking to someone outside one’s inner circle of family and friends. Older people should be addressed more formally, even if they are your senior by only one year. In such a case, the rule of thumb is to speak politely, until your conversation partner tells you that it is not necessary to do so. In a business setting, politely language is always maintained. Although private matters may be discussed with close colleagues outside of office hours, correct etiquette should be observed.

Person-to-person politeness

Milan: matters become more complicated when we look at ‘person-to-person politeness’. This dimension of keigo depends more directly on the relation between the speaker and his or her conversation partner. For starters, when you want to say your boss is going somewhere, you would not use iku nor ikimasu, but rather a entirely different word that of itself has an additional honorific connotation: irassharu. Like iku, this word also means ‘to go’, with the important difference that it ‘elevates’ the person you’re talking about.

This type of speech is called ‘honorific language’. Its counterpart is ‘humble language’: when talking about yourself to a superior, the word mairu is to be used, which is a humble way of saying ‘to go’ (using honorifics to refer to yourself is of course out of the question!). In addition to using different verbs for different persons, the Japanese language is full of variations that pertain to social relations. For example, there are many different ways of saying ‘you’ (kimi, omae, anata) and I (uchi, ore, boku, watashi, watakushi…), all with a different social implication.


Martijn: It is also essential to take into account different levels of personal relations. For example, if I were to call a Japanese company as a representative of Iki Global Inc. in order to confirm a meeting with our CEO, Mr. Van Berlo, I would have to consider the following points:

  • Because the person I am calling belongs to a different company, I should use honorific verbs when addressing him. This also goes for everyone inside his company.
  • I will refer to Mr. Van Berlo by his title of CEO, but because he is part of the company I represent, I will not use honorific verbs to describe his actions.
  • In turn, I will use polite, humble language when talking about both myself and Mr. Van Berlo. Honorific language is only used in relation to my conversation partner.

Upon ending my phone call, I need to take into account that I must address Mr. Van Berlo with honorific verbs when I inform him of the newly scheduled appointment. Because there is no one present from the outside, I must speak humbly when describing my own actions, and honorifically when addressing Mr. Van Berlo. It takes practice to apply all of this correctly, even for Japanese people. Keigo-courses are organized for students who are about to enter the labor market, to make sure they do not stumble over their words during job interviews.


Milan: In Japan, the two ‘groups’ Martijn mentions are often discussed in terms of the concepts of uchi ‘inside’ and soto ‘outside’. The way you address someone is determined by his or her relation to yourself, but also depends on the group you belong to. This group can refer to a number of social constructs such as your family, a group of friends, a company, and many others. If I were to say to a client that Martijn is on his way to a meeting, I would use the humble mairu, because Martijn is part of my group. On the other hand, I would use the honorific irassharu to ask my client when he or she expects to arrive.

Similar situations can be observed throughout history. Even the oldest Japanese written sources known to us contain polite language. The famous Story of Genji, written around the year 1000, would certainly gain in brevity had it not contained honorific language.

A Veil of Civility?

Martijn: We barely scratched the surface with the examples we provided so far. What we can clearly see is that keigo reflects the hierarchical makeup of Japanese society. Looking back, someone unfamiliar with the Japanese language would almost be forgiven to think that the Japanese are an ‘inherently’ civilized people.

However, a person’s masterful grip on keigo does not necessarily reflect what goes on in his head. Keigo may just as well be used in a situation where people would rather smack each other upside the head. In fact, keigo can be and often is used to sugarcoat, to hide one’s intentions and create distance. To give an informal example; if Taro invited his girlfriend Hanako for a romantic getaway, but shows up 30 minutes late, he knows he has his work cut out for him if Hanako starts talking to him in keigo.

Milan: I also find it interesting that the Japanese have been using keigo at least since the time of their first written records, dating back to the early eighth century. Of course, the details of the system have changed over time. Different words and constructions were used in the past. Instead of modern Japanese –masu, the word tamafu was often attached to verbs. Another popular polite word has been sooroo. Both have become obsolete in modern Japanese. We do not know for sure when exactly polite language made its way into the language (if we can speak of it in that way at all), because even in the oldest texts known to us contain frequent use of honorific and humble language.

All in all, there is no doubt that keigo comprises a complex aspect of the Japanese language. However, the only conclusion we may draw from this is that politeness is an explicitly manifest aspect of the language. However, saying that this means that the Japanese are a politer people (whatever that may mean anyway), is a non sequitur. The system may be polite, but that does not necessarily mean that its users are.

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