Book review: “Japanese Respect Language” by P.G. O’Neill

By | September 13, 2015

I picked P.G.Oneill’s “Japanese Respect Language” because I hadn’t seen too many Japanese textbooks focused exclusively on respectful language, which is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of Japanese to master. At the time when I decided to get it I remember thinking the term “respect language” had an unfamiliar ring to it, having usually heard things like “respectful language” or “honorific speech” when referring to Japanese keigo.

After going through this book I had very mixed emotions about it, as it possesses several strengths as well as weaknesses.

The best thing about this book, by far, is that the professor really knows his subject matter well. Mr. O’Neill was professor of Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, and obtained his Ph.D. with a thesis on traditional Japanese drama. The central theme of this blog is that anyone can become quite good at Japanese without having a professionally-directed study program, but at the same time I acknowledge the merits of formal studies at a university or college.

This book, a little under 200 pages, is pretty dense with detailed coverage of polite nouns, honorific verbs, deprecatory verbs, respectful imperative forms, and respectful adjectives. Besides the basic forms (things like お+base+になる), it gets into exceptions, and exceptions of exceptions. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a very thorough treatment of this important part of Japanese.

Besides tables of nouns, verbs, and a wealth of example sentences, there are also good descriptions of the basics of respectful language. I’ve learned my fundamentals of respectful Japanese in an older edition of Youkoso, but this book goes into greater more detail in several areas. Particularly, I found the part in Chapter 5 about how certain expressions imply different levels of respect for the second person (the person who is being talked to) versus the third person to be very educational.

Finally, there are short practice quizzes throughout the chapters with answers listed, as well as practice texts for reading practice and and practice exam in the appendix.

However, in spite of all these great things, I had some pretty big problems with the book. Though you may consider it a minor point, I was consistently annoyed by the use of both kana (Japanese characters, ex: ) and romaji (romanization of Japanese words, ex: boku) in nearly all examples. I can hold my own when it comes to reading Japanese, but since English is my native language it’s hard to prevent my eyes from darting first to English characters, especially when they are bolded.

From the perspective of wanting to cater to a wide audience, I understand the decision to use both character sets. However, in the “Who Should Use This Book” section in the very beginning it expressly states that the target audience is students with 250-300 hours of Japanese. I’d be very surprised if such students could not read at least Hiragana, so Kanji with furigana readings seems to be best choice for such an audience. To add to my annoyance, the order of kana, romaji, and English translations is different throughout the book. Sometimes it’s kana first, sometimes romaji, and sometimes English. The aforementioned review exam is, for some reason, in only romaji. What gives?

There are also times in the book where I feel the author has gone overboard with certain techniques he uses to get his points across. For example, there are a series of diagrams in the beginning of the book which are supposed to convey what types of respectful language to use in certain situations. They start out simple, but he keeps adding more notation to make it hard to follow: single lines, dotted lines, double lines, triple lines, circled numbers, circled dark numbers, circled line numbers. The funny thing is I feel that these ideas are not that complicated, and almost would be easier to understand without the extra overhead of the diagrams, or toning them down to only a few with simplified notation.

The way the text is formatted also seems awkward, almost amateurish. For example in pages 27-36 there is a quite long discussion without any breaks, and the way there are spaces before and after example sentences feels unnatural, although I would not go so far as to say unreadable. I think the bolded romaji littering each page (sometimes to the right of the kana and sometimes below) also contributes to a general feeling of being disorganized. The fact there was no sub-heading after quizzes caught me off guard, causing me to doubt whether I skipped a page, and listing the answers to the quizzes right after was another no-no for me, since I tend to cheat if the answers are right in front of me.

The editor of this book seem like he or she did a reasonable job in terms of content correctness, though I did find one error in the Japanese on page 72 (浴衣ををお召しになりますか). I’m not sure if it is a typo or not, but I didn’t quite understand the example about drinking poison on page 89 – the verb seems to be negative instead of positive. Keep in mind there were some sections I skimmed through, and I didn’t do all the exercises, so there may be other mistakes.

The problems with the formatting made more sense to me when I looked up the first publishing date of this book, 1966 (the author was born in 1924!). Although there was an updated edition in 2008, I’d guess they didn’t change much – the formatting still seems like something from 50 years ago. I think this also explains the term “respect language” which isn’t in much use any more.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with this book – I think it’s well acknowledged that the usage of honoriffic language has changed much over the last few decades. For example, I have heard that the latest generation doesn’t understand keigo as well as the previous ones, preferring to use more neutral forms. Dr. O’Neill does his best to describe the many levels and variants of polite language, and points out which expressions are less common in modern use. But since his text was written nearly 60 years ago – I’m making the assumption there wasn’t any major rewrites by him since then – the forms that were less popular then are even less used today.

For example the form (でおありになります)”de o-ari ni narimasu” (pg. 125) which seemed so overly formal it almost made me laugh. I did a quick google search to confirm my instincts that this was nearly shigo (dead language). Another form I had not seen much before is 高くございます (pg. 142), which is pronounced “takou gozaimasu”. The imperative expression “でいらっしゃい” (deirasshai) is another that I feel is rarely used in real life.

Although I cannot claim to be an expert in Japanese respectful language (I consider it to be one of my weaker areas), I think it’s notable that some of these expressions I have not come across in all of my studies. Fortunately these are only a small fraction of the books contents, and in all fairness I would say 60-80% of the keigo discussed is good to be familiar with.

Ultimately, learning to understand the various levels of respectful Japanese is required to attain fluency. But I would argue that actually using all of them in your own speech and writing is not necessary, at least based on my experience. This is discussed briefly in the Introduction (page 11) and I agree with the author. I think you can probably get by with basic -desu/-masu forms and avoiding certain inappropriate or rude words. However, if you end up landing a job where you have to interact with some high-ranking person, it might be very valuable to have the higher forms mastered.

The most important thing is that you can understand the basic meanings of words from all politeness levels, for example “de gozaimasu” means pretty much the same thing as “desu”. If you can identify that a certain form is a bit less polite or more polite, then that will help you understand the relationships of the speakers involved, and make you more keen on picking up things like sarcasm when a above-normal politeness level is used for effect.

If one really desires to master all forms of Japanese keigo in both writing and speech, no set of books (regardless of how modern they are) will be sufficient to achieve this goal. You’ll have to live in Japan, or at least spend months, if not years, in an environment where you are hearing and reading this type of language on a daily basis.

Despite the drawbacks of this text, I still would recommend it for those wanting to deepen their knowledge of keigo. Having said that, I think this book could really benefit from a heavy editing and revamp, in terms of both cutting mostly dead forms as well as better formatting, visuals, and simpler explanations in some places.

I’m not sure if I agree with requiring 250-300 hours of study experience, but at minimum I think a strong grasp of Japanese grammar is needed to fully understand the points discussed in this book.

You can pick up Japanese Respect Language, published by Tuttle Publishing, at Barnes & Noble here or on Amazon here.

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One thought on “Book review: “Japanese Respect Language” by P.G. O’Neill

  1. Kei

    Thank you for the review! I feel like whether you self study or have formal Japanese classes, keigo is something that every foreigner needs a little extra help in. I feel like the author most likely will not be revising the book anytime soon, so we must deal with the drawbacks of formatting and shigo. However, the price is not too bad for brushing up on keigo!


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