Japan’s Honorific Language About More Than Manners

Culture Lifestyle

The physicist Richard Feynman (1918–88), studying Japanese while in postwar Kyoto, rapidly ran into difficulties as his teacher tried to get him to learn three separate words for “see.” When inviting others to see his own garden, he was told to use a word expressing humility, but when requesting to see the gardens at the local temple, his teacher instructed him to use a word indicative of the appropriate respect.

As Feynman put it, the first was equivalent to “Would you like to glance at my lousy garden?” and the second to “May I hang my eyes on your most exquisite gardens?” Frustrated by the apparent redundancy, he decided Japanese wasn’t the language for him and soon gave up. As they have been for many learners, the complexities of honorific language—or keigo—proved to be a major obstacle to the American scientist.

Honorific language covers a wide range of vocabulary, but the use of different words for the same verbs, as above, is one of its trickiest elements. Although Feynman does not give the Japanese words in his anecdote, the first must be goran ni naru (respectful) and the second haiken suru (humble), supplementing the standard miru. As is apparent, they are all entirely different in pronunciation. Many other common verbs also have three forms. (See the table below.)

The Grammatical Role of Keigo

While Feynman’s story is a useful and amusing starting point, it does have its misleading aspects. The exaggerated language—“glance,” “hang my eyes,”—masks the fact that at times English speakers, too, will match their choice of words to the situation, communicating differently depending on whether they are chatting with friends (“Check this out!”) or asking a stranger for a favor (“Could you please have a look?”). As the rules for this are not clearly laid out, getting it right can also be challenging for English learners.

Another point worth noting is that for those who use it, keigo is just a functional form of everyday speech without the whiff of ritual of Feynman’s versions. In this case, English translations that more accurately convey the flavor of the probable Japanese might appear quite similar: “Would you like to see the garden?” “Could I see the gardens, please?” To Japanese people there is nothing especially eyebrow-raising about honorific language.

Why have different words at all, if they come to essentially the same meaning in the end? One sometimes ignored role played by keigo is in making the subject, who is or will be doing the action, extremely clear. Japanese has been described as “vague” because subjects are often omitted, but when there is no possibility of confusing “I” and “you” due to the use of varying shades of “humble” or “respectful” language, they become unnecessary.

This is just a way in which Japanese conveys the same kind of information by an alternative method. We might equally accuse English of being vague because it does not make its relationships of power and position clearer in the words used. Language is constantly seeking the middle ground between being simple but ambiguous and precise but complex. And to discard keigo would mean making interactions more ambiguous and easier to misinterpret.

A New Approach to Politeness?

Anxiety in Japan about the decline of honorific language and the inability of young people to use it correctly regularly spills out into the media. From one perspective, the next generation is not learning keigo as it should—or worse, it is being taught garbled forms that break traditional rules through the manuals and training of major corporations that hire young workers for part-time positions. This has been dubbed baito keigo, or “part-time honorific language.”

But if huge convenience-store and fast-food chains teach employees across the nation to use prescribed set phrases, such as Kochira ga kōhī ni narimasu for “Here is your coffee” instead of Kochira ga kōhī desu or another purist-approved sentence, then it is not surprising that these ways of speaking permeate into wider society. The form sasete itadakimasu, now substituted in a host of contexts for itashimasu and other words meaning the same as suru, or “do,” is another commonly heard example.

For many young Japanese, it is in one of these service situations that they most commonly encounter honorific language, on one side or other of the counter. The clear hierarchy of employees deferring to customers in Japan may also spur the spread of these phrases. While it seems unlikely that honorific language will fade away, given that it plays a key grammatical role, perhaps in the next generation this new keigo will become the accepted norm.

Some Keigo Examples

Meaning Normal Respectful Humble
say 言う
be (present) いる
do する
go 行く
come 来る
omie ni naru
see, view 見る
goran ni naru
haiken suru
hear, listen 聞く
okiki ni naru
haichō suru
eat 食べる
give 与える
receive もらう
ouke ni naru
chōdai suru

(Banner photo: Are convenience stores where the accepted keigo of tomorrow is created? Courtesy Japanexperterna.)

Japanese language honorific politeness manners