"You're not a high schooler anymore," said Mrs. Smith. "Please, call me Anne."
I'd returned home from my first year abroad at a Japanese university and was now having lunch with my high school Spanish teacher. Mrs. Smith had a huge impact on me while growing up: She lead me to love reading, encouraged me to go abroad and had been my theater coach for four years. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Mrs. Smith–she was almost like a second mom.
So why did the thought of addressing Mrs. Smith as Anne feel so awkward?
- Answering this question will give us a sociological framework for why honorific speech is used, which should make it easier to wrap your head around 敬語（けいご - keigo), Japanese honorific speech.
- The second half of this article will be more practical. We'll cover the distinctions between Japanese's main honorific registers (levels of keigo), discussing how and when to use each one. If you don't care about the theoretical stuff, skip to this section – it starts from Basic Overview of Japanese Honorific Levels.
What is Honorific Language?
Honorific language is a special category of language that communicates information about the social status of the speaker(s) and/or listener(s) on top of the original message.
Consider the following list of words. All of them mean to say, but they are not interchangeable. Each is used in a different situation, depending on who you are talking to. We'll cover these situations in more detail in the second half of the article.
For now, the takeaway is that there are explicitly defined levels of formality/politeness which you must choose from whenever you say something in Japanese.
- 言う（いう - iu）— Used when talking with friends, family and people who you are close with. Not intentionally rude, but makes no attempt to be polite.
- 言います（いいます - iimasu）— A more polite version of 言う that is used for strangers or people you know but aren't close with. It's the "safe" option.
- 申す（もうす - mousu）— A special word that lowers your own social status in relation to the person you're talking to, making you appear humble.
- おっしゃる（ossharu）— A special word that raises the social status of the person you are talking to, showing that you hold them in high esteem.
Does English Use Honorific Language?
While English doesn't have clearly defined registers of polite language like Japanese does, the concept of honorific language shouldn't be totally foreign. After all, we also alter the way we speak when in situations where we feel we should be respectful.
- Some words are considered to be more polite than others. Both can and could mean the same thing (as in, Can/could you get that for me, please?) but could sounds more polite than can.
- Sentence structures get altered. For example, while parents often issue commands to their children (Take a seat!), they would reframe these commands as questions when talking to guests (Would you like to take a seat?) The goal of both sentences is the same—we want the person to sit down—the would variant just sounds more polite.
- There are many fixed phrases that we sprinkle in as needed, such as please wait a moment.
To me, one of the key differences is that, unlike Japanese, we don't have multiple formally defined levels of polite language in English. We just speak in a generally more or less polite way.
If you're struggling, learning a bit about culture and sociology can help to get an initial feeling for when one level of language should be used over another. You don't always have to think about this stuff (it's sort of complex and intangible), and one size doesn't fit all: as with anything, a lot of this depends on the person you're talking to. Some of my friends have spoken to me using informal language from day one, whereas others still use polite language with me even after several months.
Social Authority & Social Distance:
Sociologically speaking, we can categorize our relationships with different people in many ways. For the sake of brevity, though, I'd like to focus on two key concepts: social authority and social distance.
If the topic interests you, you can read more about "social status" on Wikipedia.
Social Authority: Who defers to whom?
The teacher-student relationship is quite straightforward: A teacher leads the classroom, and students (presumably/hopefully) respect the teacher's authority to do so.
The un-even nature of this relationship is even encoded in the way they address each other. Teachers refer to students by their first names, and students refer to teachers by their last name plus a title. In every single interaction, their roles as teacher and student are being acknowledged and reinforced.
Japanese takes this a step further: Instead of simply adding a title like Mr. or Mrs. to show respect, it also requires speakers to use special grammar points, words and verb forms that correspond to this particular level of respect.
Point — To master Japanese honorifics, you must get used to thinking about social hierarchies and determining who defers to whom in a given situation.
Social Distance: Is there a script to follow?
Think of this as being the psychological version of your "personal" space bubble. Our personal bubbles have several different layers: I'm happy to greet a close friend with a hug, but if a stranger ran up and hugged me, it'd make me uncomfortable.
When there is significant social distance between us, our interactions tend to be governed by a sort of social "script," in which everyone knows their role and follows it.
Consider the act of checking out at a grocery store:
- A customer places their goods on the counter.
- A cashier scans the goods and tells the customer how much they cost.
- The customer pays.
- The cashier gives the customer change, if they overpaid.
- The customer walks away with their goods, and the cashier stays where they are.
This is a very mechanical interaction. The cashier and customer are following such a well-defined script that, in recent years, cashiers have been being replaced by self-service machines.
Moving to the other side of the spectrum, where our intimate partners and closest friends reside, things are much more spontaneous. There is no script. Cashiers were replaced with machines and our lives went on as normal; if our best friend was replaced by a machine, the effect would be felt immediately.
A big part of getting to know someone is progressing from the "mechanical" end of the spectrum to the "spontaneous" one. If someone tries to move faster than we want, we'll feel uncomfortable; if they move slower than we want, we'll feel disappointed. In some situations, such as with colleagues at work, we may never move behind a certain point on this spectrum.
Point — This concept is referred to as uchi-soto in Japanese. To master Japanese honorifics, you must get used to thinking about how "close" you are to whoever you are speaking with: should you follow a script, or can you be yourself?
Why Calling Mrs. Smith Anne Feels Strange
Combining what we just learned about social distance and social authority should make it clear why it felt awkward to refer to Mrs. Smith as Anne.
For the entirety of our relationship, I had been acknowledging the social authority Anne held over me by referring to her as Mrs. Smith. Following this social script served, among other things, to maintain a certain social distance between us. Unlike with my friends, there was a certain line drawn in the sand separating us.
This is why going from Mrs. Smith to Anne was so shocking: I had gotten used to being at a certain social/psychological distance from my teacher and it felt awkward to suddenly scooch closer. It's been five years since that lunch, and I now think of Anne as my friend, but I needed time to accept that she was no longer Mrs. Smith.
Going back to the uchi-soto relationship mentioned above, we might say that while Mrs. Smith belonged to the soto (outside) portion of the circle, Anne belonged to the uchi (inside) portion of the circle.
Wakimae: English Tact vs Japanese Politeness
One of the biggest misconceptions foreigners have about Japanese honorifics is that they are something an individual chooses to use or not to use. In English, after all, we choose whether or not we want to be tactful or direct on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, some people are just "frank" or "direct" communicators, and as a culture, we accept this.
It doesn't quite work like that in Japanese, as discussed in Sachiko Ide's journal article On the Notion of Wakimae:
Just as speakers of European languages pay attention to the grammatical categories of person, number and gender for concord of predicate forms, speakers of honorific languages pay attention to interpersonal categories of socially determined superiority/equality/inferiority and familiarity, together with situational formality, to achieve a pragmatic concord of honorifics......The observation of wakimae is not the speaker's volitional speech act, but an obligatory speech act observed in accord with social norms of interpersonal relationships and the formality of situations.
Going back to the script about the cashier — even if you consider yourself a helpful and polite person, you wouldn't jump behind the cashier's counter to help them bag your goods. Rather, you play your role: Stand back, wait, and follow the clerk's instructions. Adhering to these expectations allows both parties to navigate the interaction with minimal friction.
Keigo, or Japanese honorific language, abides by similar principles. It's less about you and your personality, more about the position you happen to occupy in a given social interaction. These aren't absolutes, of course, and it differs from person to person.
Point: The fact that a Japanese person is using keigo doesn't necessarily mean that they respect or admire the person they're talking to. More often than not, all it means is that they recognize that, in the given social situation, it is expected that they will use honorific language. As a well-adjusted adult, they're simply acknowledging a social norm – not gushing over a hero or idol.
Bonus: For intermediate level learners, there are actually many Japanese comedy skits based around the concept of wakimae. Take this scene in a restaurant, for example. The humor is entirely derived from the fact that the waiter should be using polite language when interacting with a customer, a fact that's obvious to everyone watching, but he isn't. Really, that's it–this wouldn't be funny in English. There aren't any clever puns or funny jokes. It's an entirely normal interaction, minus the fact that the waiter (and later his boss) doesn't use the right level of polite language.
Basic Overview of Japanese Honorific Levels
Below is a general overview of the formality levels that Japanese speakers navigate on a daily basis. We'll talk about when to use each level, provide a few examples of words that fall into each category and discuss some basic conjugation rules.
A few quick pieces of advice:
- Learn both the plain and polite (~ます) forms of verbs. Polite language is a safe option for most non-business social situations, and the plain form of verbs show up in many grammatical structures. You'll get a lot of mileage out of both forms.
- Don't worry too much about honorific or humble verb forms for now. Learn just enough about honorific and humble language to recognize when it's being used. You'll pick up a lot from context, and that exposure will make it easier to learn these special verb forms later, if you end up needing it.
- If you're feeling confused with the conjugation patterns we discuss below, take a bit of time to learn about Japanese verb stems. Virtually everything you will ever learn about Japanese verbs will boil down to (a) pick the right verb stem, and (b) tack a certain ending onto it.
Casual Language – 言う
The word 言う falls into a category of speech known colloquially as タメ口（ためぐち・"Casual" speech）, serving to place the person you are talking to on the same social level as yourself. This can come off as pleasantly friendly or insensitively rude, depending on who you are talking to. It's the ideal form for use with friends, for example, but not with customers or teachers.
Here are a few examples:
What do you call this in Japanese?
Where are you at the moment, Tanaka?
Note: While formal written materials like newspapers also use the "plain" or "dictionary" form of verbs, that is referred to as 常体（じょうたい・"Direct" style） instead of タメ口. You can differentiate the two by simply looking at the entire sentence, rather than an individual: While people often omit words and particles when speaking, this is not acceptable in written Japanese.
Polite Language – 言います
The word 言います falls into a category of speech known as 丁寧語（ていねいご・"Polite" speech). It is a "safe" option for talking with strangers, or people you know but aren't close with, and is sufficiently polite for most social interactions. It's also easy to recognize – just look for verbs that end in ～ます or the word です at the end of a sentence.
(Since keigo is a more advanced topic, I'm assuming you already know how to create the ～ます form of verbs. If you don't, refer to the Polite Form and Verb Stems entry of Tae Kim's free online Japanese textbook.)
Here are the same sentences from above, but worded more politely.
What do you call this in Japanese?
わたし・ぼくは あめりかじん です。
Where are you at the moment, (Mr.) Tanaka?
* san is a suffix that can be added to a name to show respect. It's similar to Mr. or Mrs., but gets used in a much wider variety of situations.
Note: If you use these ～ます・です forms with someone you've known for awhile, it can give the impression that you don't want to transition from acquaintance to friend. As such, part of getting to know someone is making the switch from polite to casual speech. When this point comes will differ from person to person–some people might use it right away, especially if you're about the same age, while others wait longer.
If you're not sure, you can simply ask: タメ口で話してもいいですか？（ためぐちで はなしても いいですか? ）- Is it alright if I/we speak using casual language?
Humble Language – 申す
The word 申す is the humble variant of 言う, and it belongs to a special category of language known as 謙譲語（けんじょうご・"Humble" language). This type of language lowers your own social status in relation to the person you are talking to, causing you to appear respectful and humble. It is most often used in business situations and towards customers.
Looking at our above sentences, we can only convert the second sentence into humble language. This is because sentences one and three are addressing another person: humble language can only be used to describe your own actions (or the actions of someone in your uchi circle).
わたくしは あめりかじん ですよ
(Note that this 私 is pronounced as わたくし, not わたし. わたくし is more polite than わたし)
I'm Sami / My name is Sami.
(Note: If you're saying this, you're probably meeting someone for the first time. That means you probably won't ever say this with いう. You don't know them well enough to be so casual – and by the time you get acquainted and using casual speech becomes appropriate, they'd already know your name!
If the situation isn't so formal, you could also say [name]といいます or [name]です instead of [name]と申します. These mean the same thing as the 申す・申します variant, but don't sound quite so stiff.)
To make humble verb forms:
- Conjugate a dictionary form verb to its ～ます form: 持つ (to hold/have) becomes 持ちます. If you don't know how to do that, refer to the Polite Form and Verb Stems entry of Tae Kim's free online Japanese textbook.
- Replace ～ます with ～します: 持ちます becomes 持ちします
- Precede the entire word with the honorific prefix～お (if its normal Japanese verb like 持つ) or ～ご (if its a noun＋する verb like 連絡する（れんらくする）- to contact): お持ちします
- Several common verbs have special humble forms. They are listed out here.
- You might also see the same sort of structure used with いたす (the humble form of する) or いただく (The respectful form of もらう - to receive) instead of します.
For now, just remember that there are several slightly-different humble structures for verbs. Whether someone says お持ちします, お持ちいたします, or お持ちいただきます, they're being humble.
Note: Given that situations calling for humbleness also likely warrant politeness, it is common to conjugate humble verbs into the polite ～ます form that we talked about above. In this case, 申す becomes 申します.
Respectful Language – おっしゃる
The word おっしゃる is the respectful variant of 言う, and it belongs to a special category of language known as 尊敬語（そんけいご・"Respectful" language). This type of languages raises the social status of the person you are talking to, showing that you hold them in high esteem. Sonkeigo and kenjougo are often used in tandem – when talking to your boss or a customer, for example, you'd use sonkeigo to describe their actions and kenjougo to describe your own actions.
Where are you at the moment, Mr. Tanaka?
May I have your name, please?
(Note: You'll have to "read the air" when answering this question. If you're checking into a hotel, the desk person may address you using keigo because you're a customer – and because you're a customer, you don't have to respond formally in turn! But if it's in a more formal situation like a test or interview, then you could respond with the [name]と申します structure we mentioned above).
To make respectful verb forms:
- Conjugate a dictionary form verb to its ～ます form: 取る (to take) becomes 取ります.
- Replace ～ます with ～なる: 取りになる (you might to change なる to its polite form, なります)
- Precede the entire word with the honorific preffix～お (if its normal Japanese verb like 取る) or ～ご (if its a noun＋する verb like 連絡する（れんらくする）- to contact): お取りになる
- Several common verbs have special respectful forms. They are listed out here. Alternatively, you can use the passive form instead of this お～になる structure – same meaning, just looks a little different.
- You can make a respectful command by replacing なる with ください (please): お取りください
Keigo is confusing, even for Japanese people! There are several websites (like nomad-salaryman and eigobu) which publish articles aimed at new Japanese employees who are feeling nervous about talking to their colleagues, partners and bosses. Here's an entire YouTube playlist entitled "A course in business manners for students and new employees," for example.
If you're just getting started, my advice is not to worry too much about keigo. Learn just enough to recognize when it's being used – so that you can follow Japanese content comfortably – and you'll eventually soak up the basics from exposure. If you do end up needing keigo down the road, it'll be a lot easier to pick up then, after you've had enough time to build a solid Japanese base.
Thanks for reading!