Note: Mathias Bader has translated this page into German! Thanks, Mathias!
You have probably heard that Asian languages in general—and perhaps Japanese in particular—are very concerned with politeness. This is indeed true, and politeness is very complicated, especially for Western foreigners. If you speak a European language, you may be aware of polite usage—German, for instance, uses a polite pronoun (Sie) that takes plural verb forms even when used in the singular. However, I assure you that even this sort of training is totally inadequate for understanding politeness levels in Japanese.
It is not an understatement to say that different levels of politeness are like different languages in Japanese. The verb forms are completely different. For instance, the past-tense normal-polite form of the verb yomu (to read) is yomimashita. The casual form is yonda. The exalted form is oyomi ni natta (or oyomi ni narimashita). Totally different.
I am not even going to attempt to explain all the cultural nuances of politeness in Japanese. In fact, I don’t even know them as a gaijin—you have to live in Japan for an extended period to fully grasp the details (and you may never fully grasp them as a foreigner). What I will do here is run through some of the basics so you have a general idea.
At Least Four Levels
There are at least four levels of politeness in Japanese, with some subtleties on top of that. These are difficult to fully master as they are, and it’s made worse by the fact that nobody calls the levels by the same names. I will attempt to list the names you might hear, but don’t be surprised if you hear others.
First is rude speech, or blunt speech, that you wouldn’t use in a normal conversation. It is either rough language that consists of “talking down” to your listener, or it is very colloquial and only appropriate for very familiar friends. I don’t know much of this, frankly. But I will mention the impolite command form (see below). You won’t really need this level anyway.
Then there is casual, abrupt, or “children’s” speech. It is what children learn before they are taught polite language in school. It is also used for a variety of medial forms even in polite sentences, so you will have to know it even if you are intending to speak in polite language (which you should as a foreigner). This casual speech is also used between family members and between equal adults who are part of the same “in-group,” such as within a company. If your Japanese friends ever use casual speech with you, you know you have transitioned to being a close friend. Finally, casual language is used in impersonal written documents, such as newspapers and theses.
The language you will use most often is polite language, also called normal-polite. Luckily, the final verb forms in this politeness level are extremely simple—they all end in -masu or -desu (or -mashou or -deshou). This language is “safe”; it is always polite. It is used by adults who are not part of the same in-group or who don’t know each other well. In companies, it is used frequently for communication that is just a bit up the chain of command, such as when talking to your boss (farther up, you must use honorific language). Polite language is almost always used with foreigners, who are by definition part of the “out-group.” As noted above, children learn it in school, so you may hear very young children speaking in abrupt language even to adults.
Finally, there is honorific language, which is sometimes simply called formal language. (In Japanese, it is keigo). You use it when speaking with or about those far above you, such as company presidents or royalty. It may also be used with elderly people, clients, or other people whom you are treating with extreme respect.
[Aside: There are a lot of subtleties here, however. If you are speaking about your company’s CEO in the presence of people from your own company only, you would use honorific forms. But if someone from another company (an “outsider”) is also present, you must use casual forms to emphasize that the CEO is one of your own, and the outsider is positioned firmly outside.]
Honorific forms are subdivided into humble and exalted forms, depending whether you are “lowering” yourself, or “raising” someone else’s stature. This is determined by who is doing the action of the verb, of course—your actions are humbled, while theirs are exalted.
Terminology warning: If you are reading a text that calls this level “formal language,” it may call exalted language “honorific.” Humble language is always the same thing, but be careful that you pay attention to whether “honorific” is the overall category, or just the subset that contrasts with humble. See below:
Some terminologies for polite language (keigo)
Actually, honorifics do not just apply to verb forms. Nouns, adjectives, and verbs can all be made into honorific forms. Here’s how it works:
If the noun is pronounced with a kun (Japanese) reading (see the chapter on Reading and Writing), then you can make it into an honorific form by adding an initial o-. An example is okane (“money” or “gold”), which is routinely stated in this form. If the noun is pronounced with an on (Chinese) reading, then you add the prefix go-, such as in the word gohan (han is cooked rice). These nouns are exalted when they refer to someone else and humble when they relate to you.
By the way, you shouldn’t just create your own honorific nouns. There are specific ones that are always used with the prefix, and others where it would sound very odd to do that. Wait until you hear someone else use an honorific noun before trying it on your own.
Also, there are some polite forms of common words that are actually different words. For example, ashita (tomorrow) is a common word, but in a formal situation you may hear its more polite form, myounichi. These types of words are broadly called teinei, and I’m hardly doing them justice here. You will also hear shoushou instead of sukoshi or chotto (a little) and honjitsu instead of kyou (today).
These are made honorific by the addition of special endings. I am considering only -i adjectives here (see the chapter on Adjectives). It’s just a simple substitution: -oi and -ai become -ou (long o); -ii and -ui become -uu (long u). So atarashii
(“new”) becomes atarashuu, while osoi (“late” or “slow”) becomes osou. Then, instead of tacking on desu to make the adjective polite, you substitute (de) gozaimasu or (de) irasshaimasu (these are the honorific forms of (de) aru; see below).
Here’s where the fun begins. There are humble verbs and exalted verbs, the latter of which can often be said in two ways. And unlike typical Japanese verbs, for which there are only two irregular forms, honorific verbs have quite a few exceptions.
Humble. Most humble verb forms come from taking the -masu stem of the verb and attaching o- to the front and the verb suru to
the end. So the humble form of kaku (to write), is okaki suru, which would be used at the end of a polite sentence as okaki shimasu. You use this form when speaking about your own actions to a superior. (You are humbling yourself in their presence).
To be even more humble, use the humble form of suru, which is itasu. So you could say okaki itashimasu.
In a few cases, there are special humble verbs when the object of the verb is a place or thing of respect. First is mairu and ukagau, where these are the humble forms of iku (to go) (sometimes ukagau is also translated as the humble form of tazuneru, to visit). So if you are going to your teacher’s house (an object of respect), you would use ukagau, but if you are simply telling your teacher about how you are going to the train station tomorrow, you would use mairu.
The second special case is with miru (to see) and kiku (to listen or hear). When seeing or hearing an object of respect, use haiken
suru and ukagau, respectively. [Yes, that’s the same ukagau as above. There are a several repeats like this among honorific verbs].
Exalted. One way to make exalted verb forms is to take the -masu stem, then add an initial o- and the ending ni naru. So the
exalted form of kaku is okaki ni naru, which, as with suru in the humble form, would have the correct conjugation of naru in actual use. You use this form when speaking to a superior about something related to them, or when speaking to a colleague about a third-person superior. For example, if you ask your boss whether she has read a book already, you could say, Kono hon mou oyomi ni narimashita ka?
A second way to make an exalted form is to use the passive form of the verb. This seems pretty bizarre to my Western brain, but it exists in Japanese. You make the passive this way: For a regular verb, change the stem of the -nai form to -reru (so iku, which inflects to ikanai, becomes ikareru in the passive). For a semiregular verb, change the -nai stem to -rareru (so taberu becomes taberareru). The irregular verbs kuru and suru become korareru and sareru. So if you are talking about the president of your company reading a book, you could say, Shachou wa kono hon o yomaremashita.
Exceptions. Of course, none of this would be hard enough if there weren’t some exceptions to trip you up. For starters, the exceptional exalted form irassharu is used for THREE verbs: iku, kuru, and iru (to go, to come, to be). So it can be hard to tell what a person is doing/being—you’ll just have to figure it out from context. Also, there are a bunch of other exceptions, which I won’t go into detail on. For example, the humble form of au (to meet) is not “oai suru,” but ome ni kakaru, and the honorific form of neru (to sleep) is not “one ni naru,” but oyasumi ni naru. There are a lot of these.
As a final note, there are some honorifics that are accepted as idioms in normal speech. An example is ohayou gozaimasu (“good
morning”—or literally, “it is early”). Ohayou is the honorific form of the adjective hayai meaning “early.” Gozaimasu comes from gozaru, the humble form of the verb aru, “to be.” A second example is onegaishimasu, a sort of universal word for “please give me that” or “please do that for me.” The verb negau means “to ask, hope, pray, request.” So onegaishimasu means something like, “I humbly ask for this.”
Here are a few other notes about being polite:
One goal in Japanese conversation is to make your listener feel comfortable and assured. But sometimes you must ask people to do things, and that’s bordering on the abrupt. Not surprisingly, commands in Japanese are dealt with very carefully, using forms that are slightly more polite than usual.
There is a true command form, but if you really say it as a command, it borders on being a direct insult. You wouldn’t really say this form unless you were addressing an inferior or very close friend. You can use it, however, in impersonal situations that obviously aren’t commands, such as in cheering on a sports team—”Go!” (Ganbare!). I’ve also seen it used on street signs, such as Tomare (stop).
Second, there’s a more polite form which can serve as the command form for close friends. Third, there’s the normal-polite command, which is a little stiff but serves well for strangers. Then there’s the honorific form, which is very polite. It is the only form you are supposed to use when giving “commands” to a superior (which makes them sound like polite requests or suggestions). [I’m glossing a bit here; there are actually several ways to make commands at each politeness level. I’m just giving a brief overview for now].
Let’s look at the verb suwaru, to sit down.
Impolite, true command form: Suware (don’t use this as a matter of course)
Casual: Suwari nasai
Polite: Suwatte kudasai
Honorific: Osuwari kudasai
All of these mean, “Sit down” or “Please sit down.” (Although in practice you might use the form okake kudasai for the honorific, from the verb kakeru, which can also mean “to sit”).
So you see, the verbs are very different depending on how polite you want to be. Much of Japanese is like this. It makes it really hard to speak in “real time,” because you are always thinking about which verb form you need to use.
Don’t Not Do It
In addition to commands, there are forms for giving suggestions, permission, and prohibition of actions. Like commands, these have the potential to sound too abrupt, and so they are treated carefully. The title of this section refers to the fact that some of these forms are double negatives, which can make them hard to hear correctly. I won’t go through all of them, but here’s a taste.
To say “I must go out,” you literally say, “If I don’t go out, [it] will not become.” I suppose [it] refers to life in general—if you don’t do X, the whole future will fail to develop properly. This is typical Japanese subtlety :-).
So for example, we have:
Dekakenakereba narimasen (or naranai desu). “I must go out.”
Kaeranakereba narimasen. “I must go home.”
You can express other imperatives as double negatives, too. To say, “You must sit down,” you could say literally, “Not sitting down, [it] cannot go.” Again there is the notion that the world will end if this action is not performed. This is supposed to make you feel more comfortable about doing it—after all, you are saving the whole Universe, not just obeying the other person’s wish.
So there is:
Suwaranakute wa ikemasen. “You must sit down.”
Kakanakute wa ikemasen. “You must write.”
Prohibition is expressed with the same phrase as above, but using only a single negative:
Suwatte wa ikemasen. “You must not sit.”
Kaite wa ikemasen. “You are not allowed to write.”
Or you can politely request that someone not do something:
Suwaranaide kudasai. “Please don’t sit.”
Kakanaide kudasai. “Please don’t write.”
Permission is requested (or granted) by asking whether (or stating that) the action is “good” (ii). If you want to sit down, you ask, politely,
Suwatte mo ii desu ka?
The answer could be, Hai, suwatte mo ii desu. However, be a little careful with this. It has the flavor of, “Yes, you have my personal permission to sit down.” A more graceful response is simply, Douzo (“go right ahead” or “please do”).
Similarly, using the negative -te form to say,
Suwaranakute mo ii desu
means that you are saying it’s OK not to sit down (or “you don’t have to sit down”).
You may have noticed that all of these forms are very stylized and particular, and do not translate literally very well. In some ways, it’s the same in English—the phrase “have to” doesn’t make much sense in a literal reading. It seems that everyone is concerned with making permission/prohibition/etc a bit on the polite and cautious side.
Another aspect of Japanese politeness is its indirectness; Japanese is an incredibly indirect language. The forthrightness that we value in the West—”speaking your mind,” “making things clear,” “being a straight-shooter” —is considered a bit rude in Japanese culture. Crass. Embarrassingly blunt. And frankly, low-brow.
The real art of Japanese communication is to be subtle in just the right way. To be indirect, and therefore polite. To steer the conversation, without being obvious about it, such that the person you’re talking to feels comfortable and honored.
[Let me add a note here: this does not mean that Japanese is a “vague” language, as you will sometimes hear Westerners say. It is actually quite precise. It just happens to be precise in a way that it hard for us to understand. That’s OK—you can’t change the way your brain is trained to think. But it does mean that it takes a lot of work for a native English speaker to really be able to express themselves clearly in Japanese].
To give a very simple example, invitations tend to be made using a negative verb form. You don’t ask people if they want to do something, you ask them if they don’t want to do it. We have this in English too—you can invite someone by saying, “Won’t you come?” or “Wouldn’t you like to see that movie?”, but it’s a bit stiff. You wouldn’t say it to a casual friend. However, in Japanese, this is the common usage. Kimasen ka? means “Won’t you come?” and is used frequently.
Also, requests are often made indirectly. Instead of directly asking, “Can I use your phone?”, it is more polite to say a softer sentence such as, “I would like to use the phone, but…” (Denwa o shitain desu kedo…) and just leave it hanging. Then the other person responds by inviting you to use the phone (Douzo).
Similarly, if you are doing something out of the ordinary like requesting vacation time from your boss, you dance around the topic and get them to participate in the conversation by having to ask you questions. You say vaguely that you would like to be gone next week. Then your boss asks why, and you can then explain that your family is coming to town, or whatever. It would be impolite to walk up and say directly, “My family is visiting next week. Could I take three days off?” because then you have excluded the other person from the conversation. There’s not much left to say except Yes or No. That’s not very polite!
Politeness in English
As you’ve seen, Japanese politeness levels are almost like different languages! And some European languages have special polite pronouns that take special verb forms.
English has none of these explicit politeness constructions, which has led people to believe that English is much simpler and more straightforward. True to our American character, we don’t fuss with all those silly honorifics and hoity-toity polite expressions, right?
But wait. Americans didn’t invent English (although the Brits will happily disown our mangled version of it! 🙂 ). English evolved right alongside the European languages. And besides, there is polite language in English—that’s why your parents had to scold you as a child and instruct you to “be polite” when you talked to adults.
What’s going on? What is polite language in English?
I had to think about this carefully. I suppose there are more complete analyses of what politeness means in English, but from my own thinking, it seems that politeness has to do with several things:
- First, the use of “softened” verbs, such as “would.” When talking to my boss, I say “I would like…” instead of “I want…”.
I might also include “would” to add some uncertainty, such as “Would it be possible to talk with you about this tomorrow?”
[and note the use of “talk with” instead of “talk to“—that’s also more polite]. Another softened verb is “could” instead of “can.”
- Softened verbs are actually part of a broader polite speaking style that is more indirect than casual English. Speaking politely means making things sound uncertain, so the other person is actually still in control. For example, you could say
to a friend, “I’d love to meet for lunch! Let’s try out that new restaurant downtown. I’m free on Friday as long as it’s after 12:15.” This is very direct, but since it’s your friend, they understand that they can come back with their own suggestions. To a business colleague you don’t know well, or to a superior, you would probably say something more like, “Thanks for the invitation; I would like to meet for lunch. There is a new Italian place downtown that got great reviews—would you like to try it? Friday is best for me, but I’d prefer to meet after 12:15 since I have a meeting in the late morning.”
Phew! The second is much longer because it is made to sound more tentative and because it includes some explanatory phrases that you don’t have to bother with for casual communication.
- Polite English is also more grammatically correct than casual English, which is probably true in any language. And it uses fewer contractions. Some examples are:
Casual: “I’ve got four forks—do you need one?”
More polite: “I have four forks. Would you like one?”
Casual: “John’s always doing stuff like that.”
More polite: “John often does things like that.”
Casual: “Let’s just do whatever.”
More polite: “Whatever you want is fine with me” or “I don’t have a preference.”
- Finally, I have noticed that another way to make English sound more polite is simply to use more sophisticated vocabulary. Instead of saying, “I don’t get it. Why does he care?” you might say, “I don’t understand why it matters to him.” Or instead of “It’s no good to take the bus because it’s too slow,” you might say, “The bus isn’t an efficient way to get there because it tends to arrive late and makes frequent stops.”
In summary, polite declarative language in English is focused on being clearer because it requires the use of more precise words. Polite interrogative language is softened to sound more tentative.
Both of these speech styles are also at the heart of politeness in other languages. After all, the underlying concept is the same—a subordinate is trying to communicate with a superior without giving offense. Hence, clarity is quite important in the statements they make, while indirectness is better when asking questions or making requests.
The difference is that English accomplishes all of this simply by using different vocabulary words which are nonetheless part of the regular vocabulary. They are not set aside as special “polite” words, for the most part. Certainly our polite words are not as distinct as the -masu forms of Japanese or the special pronoun “Sie” in German.
So if I may be so bold, I will say that politeness is harder in English (in some ways) than it is in Japanese. The correct usage is not so clearly delineated for you; you have to improvise a bit and just “know” what words sound more polite than others. There isn’t a whole separate language that you can use and feel “safe” that you are being adequately polite. (The flip side is that because politeness is so scripted in Japanese, you have little excuse for not getting it right, and there may be less tolerance for errors).