Japanese has a very complex system of politeness which is often claimed to be one of the reasons it’s so difficult to master, and I completely agree on this point. Depending on the relationship between you and the person/people you are speaking with, you will use variations on certain words, or even entirely different expressions. You have to take into account the listener(s) ages, experience, and job position, along with other factors when judging the appropriate phrases to use.
The system contains more than just “polite” and “non-polite” forms, instead there is whole continuum of politeness levels. And they are not necessarily applied equally to all parts of a sentence. Sometimes you may use a polite form of a noun, or a verb, or both, and of course many sentences have more than one verbs or nouns to worry about.
In this blog, I emphasize how you can improve many aspects of your Japanese ability without any sort of formal teacher, usually without even leaving your house. But polite language is one of the areas that is hardest to master this way, because without going through a great many experiences in Japan, with various real people of various relationships to you, you never really know what the best expressions to use are. Textbooks are a good place to start but become outdated quickly, and can’t describe all the subtleties required. Watching things like dramas or movies can get you closer to ‘real’ Japanese, but again you aren’t really there, so you don’t know what the characters are feeling, and there is always a chance that exaggerated language is used for effect.
One good thing about Japanese polite language is that once you memorize all the common expressions and transformations, it’s relatively easy to understand what is being said, and you might even have a feeling something of how ‘polite’ a phrase is. It’s when you try to use these yourself that you may struggle to pick the best choice from a large set of words.
And I’m no exception – I can understand much of the polite language thrown at me (except some of the really high level stuff), but when speaking I typically don’t break out of basic forms I learned in textbooks.
If you’ve studied any Japanese at all, you’ve surely been taught about the “desu/masu” verb forms (ex: です、たべます), and consistently using these for sentence-ending verbs is a great place to start, especially when you are speaking with someone for the first time or haven’t become too close to yet. (ex: ”僕は日本語を勉強しています”)
Next there are the honorific prefixes お and ご, which I’ve written about here.
Even for for most basic polite language, you can see we now have two choices. Should one use the “desu/masu” verb forms, the honorific prefixes, or both?
Let’s take the scenario where you are trying to ask someone’s name. You’ve have may learned the following phrase in a textbook or class:
- お名前は何ですか？ (onamae wa nan desu ka?)
- What is your name?
At first this looks pretty polite – after all we have both です and the honorific お prefix used for “name”.
It just so happens I had a debate with a fellow blogger where I made the claim that “お名前” is most appropriate to use here, and he countered with the point that ”名前” was perfectly fine, even arguably better. In fact, he said that he had heard ”お名前” was less used, and that Japanese people felt it was awkward for foreigners to overuse polite forms like this. After some back and forth, he claimed he verified with a native speaker that it was only normal to use this word when talking to a superior or someone older than you.
I felt this wasn’t correct and it was generally safer to use ”お名前” even with those younger than yourself, though I didn’t have much more than my Japanese source against his. So I decided on posting on Oshiete Goo and was fortunate enough to get three responses, including one massively long and detailed one.
I’ll translate the best reply here (from “phj”) into English. Due to the length, I’m not going to belabor every little nuance in the translation, but rather go for conveying the poster’s overall meaning in a way that is easily understood. I’ll go paragraph by paragraph, showing my translation in bold, prefaced by the original Japanese text for those who want to practice reading comprehension. If you want to read the original question and answers in Japanese in their original context, see here.
If you want to skip the details and get to the punch line, just jump to the summary section at the bottom.
(Note: Though “phj” is not a definitive source on this matter, the other two posters confirm some of his points, and his overall knowledge and expressive ability makes him appear very credible.)
In modern Japanese, there is a growing trend for polite language to be perceived as somewhat old-fashioned. In particular, the honorific prefix “お” is extremely easy to use, even by young children. As a result, improper use of it can make one sound childish.
I feel that the Japanese person you mentioned (who felt the expression “お名前” was too polite) was probably thinking along these lines.
Now, if we take a look at the question whether the phrase “お名前は何ですか？” is incorrect, that is clearly not the case. It’s just that this sort of language has a slight old-fashioned connotation to it, and viewed from the perspective of modern polite language can be seen as childish.
(I think it’s safe to assume that much ‘textbook Japanese’ has a characteristic feel of the 1980s or slightly before. If you looked at an English textbook used by us Japanese you’d probably feel the same way about that English.)
When inquiring the name of an important business client, superior, or someone seen as ‘above’ you (including elders), it would be more polite to use the phrase “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか？”. Other common expressions include “お名前をお聞きしてもいいですか？” and “お名前をいただいてもいいですか”.
Technically speaking, “何ですか？” is not incorrect, but as was written in another answer here there is a recent tendency to avoid that expression.
Generally speaking, it should be appropriate to use polite language when speaking with those you are speaking with for the first time, and this would even apply to those at a lower position or younger age than the speaker. Nevertheless, if you really wanted to use an alternate expression, omitting the お and saying “名前はなんとおっしゃいますか？” or “名前を聞いていもいいですか？” would probably be still be considered as polite expressions. Even the phrase “名前を教えてください” would not be seen as rude or offending.
[The above is a quote from my original question]
>”Even assuming that it is natural to say “名前は何？” to a young person you are meeting for the first time, when employing the the polite phrase “ですか”, shouldn’t “お名前” instead of ”名前” be used together with it?”
In Japanese polite expressions, using suffixes such as “お” and polite or respectful terms such as “ですか” or “おっしゃいますか” can be used independently of one another.
Depending on the combination used, the resultant level of politeness changes.
Therefore, saying “お名前は何ですか？” is considered a higher politeness level than “名前はなんですか？”. In the same way, “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか？” is even more polite, and a phrase like “ご尊名を賜りたいと存じます” can be seen as the ultimate level of politeness, utilizing several polite constructs (it uses both special verbs and nouns) .
Well, I guess this last phrase is so extreme that I cannot think of where it would be appropriate to use in real life.
When speaking Japanese, or should I say “when speaking to a Japanese person”, I recommend making an effort to always speak politely. Having said that, I think that there would be very few Japanese people who would get upset as a result of a foreigner making a mistake when speaking Japanese.
As I mentioned above, “お” is very easy to employ in order to add politeness, but for that very reason it’s overuse can make one sound childish. Children who are just learning to speak are told “おをつけて丁寧に話しなさい” by their parents, and try to speak using the お in words like “お母さん”, “お兄ちゃん”, “お花”, “おトイレ”, “お仏壇”, etc. However, as a rule, a child going through the learning process will add お to words where it is not permitted, such as “おご飯”, or “お先生”。
Therefore, it is commonly understood that adding ”お” to words haphazardly is childish and accordingly not appropriate as polite language. The system of Japanese polite language is extremely deep and complex. To be honest, even among older Japanese people it has become increasingly difficult to find those who can use it appropriately.
For this reason, if you ask a Japanese person a question about polite language, you may not necessarily receive the correct answer. Young people in particular have been seen to make mistakes in this area, so keep that in mind.
Here I’ll summarize the main points of the above quoted answer, plus the others to my Oshiete Goo post. In some cases I have added my own interpretations and opinions.
- Some Japanese people feel that it’s generally best to avoid the expression ”(お）名前は何ですか？” when asking sometimes name.
- “お名前は何ですか” is seen as more polite when the お is present (compared to “名前は何ですか”), though neither of these is technically incorrect.
- The term ”お名前” can be used with those at a (job/age/social) level below yours, including to those younger than you. In that case it signifies you are treating that person on the same level.
- More appropriate ways to ask the name of someone politely include “お名前をお聞きしてもいいですか？” and “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか”
- Polite language in Japanese is extremely complex and it can be argued many Japanese people can’t use it completely correctly. In addition, the younger generation seems to be taking a different stance on polite language and may use parts of it incorrectly. Therefore, their opinion on what is “too polite” will be different across different generations.
- Some polite language, such as the honorific prefixes “お” and “ご”, is commonly taught to children, and over- or mis-usage of these can make one’s Japanese sound childish.
- Some of the phrases contained in Japanese textbooks (for foreign language learners) are likely to be out-dated. My recommendation is to use the very latest textbooks (not more than few years old), and always ask native speakers to confirm. A teacher or tutor who is native Japanese has lived in Japan recently would be a good source for information.
- If you aren’t sure whether to use polite language or not, it’s probably safest to err on the side of being too polite than the opposite.
After all this, I now feel very confident that the word お名前 is safe to use. However, discovering that “お名前は何ですか?” is not a common expression was quite a shock.
In any case, this was a fun exercise and I learned a great deal.