The *other* uses of polite language in Japanese

By | February 19, 2019

I think it’s fair to say that polite language (敬語, keigo) is one of the most difficult things to master in the Japanese language. Polite language includes the basic desu/masu forms that students generally learn early on, but there are also more advanced forms of polite language with varying nuances (ex: 召し上がる、お目にかかる). For the purposes of this post I will be focusing mostly on the desu/masu forms, though other forms of polite language are not excluded.

My goal in this post is not to talk about specific instances of polite language so much as to talk about in what situations polite language can be used. To say one should use polite language “when you want to be polite” is far too vague and not very helpful to Japanese learners.

Back when I was first studying Japanese, I learned that polite language was used when talking to 目上の人 (meue no hito), basically anyone who is socially “above” you: a boss, a teacher, a colleague at work with more experience than you, etc. It’s also a good idea to use polite language with strangers, including those in service industries (restaurants, hotels, etc.). This doesn’t mean that natives will always follow all of these rules; just as English speakers have different standards of politeness (reflecting not in just word choice, but also in attitude and tone), the same can be said of native Japanese speakers.

As I studied Japanese and used it in daily conversation, I gradually came to understand more of the nuances of when keigo is used in practice. I’ll mention a few thoughts about that here.

The simplest example of using keigo that doesn’t follow the above-mentioned guidelines is when quoting someone else who did use polite language. For example:

  • あの外国人が「よくわかりません」ってちゃんと敬語で答えたよ (ano gaikokujin ga “yoku wakarimasen” tte chanto keigo de kotaeta yo)
  • That foreigner over there answered by saying “yoku wakarimsen” using proper polite language.

Here, even though the speaker is not using desu/masu form for their final verb (答えた), the verb in the embedded quote (わかりません) does use desu/masu form, which refers to what someone specifically said. This is important because the usage of keigo is a critical part of what the speaker is trying to convey.

Keigo can actually be used in a sarcastic sense, for example when the speaker is upset or annoyed about something. If someone was just told something that upset them, they could answer:

  • あ、そうですか?わかりました! (A sou desu ka? wakarimashita!)
  • Oh really? I understand!

The above wording is pretty neutral, but if spoken with the right tone it could indicate sarcasm (嫌味, iyami) and probably a negative emotion (either outright or subtle). Keep in mind that the context here is that the speaker is using the desu/masu form with a person with which he/she doesn’t usually use keigo with, like a close friend or family member.

By the way, there are also some words that are technically keigo, though it wouldn’t be particularly strange to use them in the middle of a non-keigo conversation. For example でしょう, whose non-keigo variant だろう can have a harsh feeling to it. The お and ご prefixes, also considered parts of polite language, can have varied nuance depending on the word. Some words, like 仕事 (shigoto) can be used both with (お仕事) or without the prefix. For others like お腹 (onaka), the prefix is essentially part of the word and so that word isn’t particularly polite. Removing the prefix to say simply “naka” would sound like you are saying “inside” and might confuse the listener.

It is not uncommon to use certain set phrases that include the desu/masu form, even when speaking with people to whom you would normally not use keigo with. For example, ご馳走様でした (gochisousama deshita) or よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu). Having said that, both of these phrases have non-keigo versions that can also be used (gochisousama, yoroshiku).

While sometimes the introduction of keigo is a red flag (as in the わかりました! example above), at other times it can have less significance. I’ve seen native speakers switch mid-conversation between keigo and non-keigo without any apparent reason. This is an example of a motivational speaker whose speech sometimes exhibits an interesting mix of the two. In some cases, I’ve observed he will switch to keigo at the end of at talk to close with a slightly polite tone.

While I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, perhaps you could compare this to English-speakers switching arbitrarily between contracted and non-contracted forms of a word pair (ex: “do not”, “don’t”).

Over time, I’ve started to learn to integrate keigo into my own speech when talking to people with whom I could safely omit it. For example, I might say “そうですね” instead of “そうだね” if I was trying to sound a little more intellectual, or utilize desu/masu forms in the speech of a robot, doctor, or other character when playing with my son. I find it adds an extra layer of expression that is hard to achieve in English.

Next time you are listening to native Japanese speakers, try to pay attention to their keigo usage. If only one side of a conversation is using keigo, try to think about why. Can you catch someone switching out of keigo in the middle of a conversation?

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