When learning Japanese, the dreaded formal Japanese keigo, 敬語 (けいご), is always looming in the background, ready to pounce and scramble your poor brain with its confusing rules and structures.
While 敬語 is a vital part of the Japanese language, here’s the good news: 敬語 isn’t something a foreigner is expected to master!
However, it is something you will hear every day in Japan, and knowing the most common formal Japanese expressions, as well as basic rules, will save you loads of headaches.
During my study abroad in Nagoya, I encountered 敬語 every day. Not just at school, but also when shopping at the mall, watching TV, waiting for the train, even going into the convenience store and being greeted with an いらっしゃいませ.
We were learning formal Japanese in class, but some of these expressions and how they were used were a bit of a mystery, especially when I first arrived. After a while, I was able to get a grasp on the basics and navigate hearing formal Japanese in daily life with no trouble.
From one Japanese learner to another, here’s a handy guide to hack your way to understanding six of the most common formal Japanese expressions you’ll hear!
Why Learn Keigo?
Like it or not, 敬語 is important to understanding Japanese. 敬語 is used to show respect to those of a different social rank than you are. Using formal and polite speech when speaking to someone older or socially superior to yourself, such as teachers, bosses, elders and upperclassmen, is considered good manners in Japan. Even if you don’t have to use it personally, these expressions are common in everyday Japan, and without a basic grasp on it, some confusion is going to take place.
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While the linguistic value is clear as day, it isn’t the only reason to learn formal Japanese.
Understanding Japanese culture.
Looking at the culture of Japan will help you understand how and where 敬語 comes from. Japan has a system called uchi-soto— 内外 (うちそと), which translates to “inside and outside,” which serves to group the people in one’s life into insiders (内) and outside (外). 内 is an “inner circle” of people you know, such as family, classmates, and colleagues. 外 is basically all those who are not a part of your circle.
These circles shift and change depending on the social situation you find yourself in, so it’s important to pay attention. (This is one reason why “reading the atmosphere” is so important in Japan!)
Let’s look at a waitress in a restaurant as an example. The other servers and the cooks are all part of her 内, as they are her colleagues. Customers are 外, since they do not work at the restaurant. When speaking to someone who is 外, especially in business situations, it is expected that you speak more formally or with 敬語.
Insight into communication.
When it comes to communicating with others, Japan has a reputation for being extremely polite. Politeness is highly valued in Japan, and this is not done only by keeping quiet on trains, bowing deeper to your boss, or pouring your guest drinks, but also by humbling yourself with words.
Formal Japanese plays directily into politeness, and depending on how the conversation partner relates to you socially, the manner in which you speak will change. Whenever Japanese people speak with each other, they consider each other’s age, friendship, social status and more.
Learning 敬語 will let you know who’s who and how people are positioned in any given social situation.
You’ll navigate Japan easier.
As said above, these expressions are heard everywhere. If you’re only used to the common verb and suddenly encounter that verb’s formal form, suddenly you’re left lost as to what exactly is going on! With a basic understanding of 敬語 under your belt, you’ll be able to order from a coffee shop or understand announcements much easier.
When Formal Japanese (AKA Keigo) Is Used
Formal Japanese is used in a variety of settings, but most commonly you’ll hear it in:
- Train stations
- Department stores
- Convenience stores
- TV (If you’re wide awake at 4 am, you might as well get some Japanese practice in by watching an informercial!)
In these situations, it’s the customer or the viewer that’s being spoken to. Flyers, clerks and broadcasters are are all addressing the person who will be receiving their service, and in Japan, the customer is king. That’s why when you hear a clerk using one of these expressions on you, you don’t need to reply in kind. In fact, you shouldn’t! If you want to be polite, all you need to do is thank them or give a little nod of the head.
How to Practice Listening to Keigo
The best way to practice your 敬語 is to listen to 敬語. Even if you don’t live in Japan, thanks to the internet, there are all sorts of resources right at your fingertips to get on track to grasping the sounds of Japanese!
Television is a great way to learn Japanese while entertaining yourself. While it can be difficult to access these networks outside of Japan, NHK World and News24 can be accessed in the US.
Youtube is a wonderful tool for learning, and there are a wide variety of Japanese Youtube channels available to watch!
FluentU offers authentic content that shows how language is used in the real world. Learning comes naturally when you’re interested in the subject being taught, and with FluentU offering dozens of videos that cover a wide range of topics, you’re bound to find something that catches your eye!
6 Common Formal Japanese Expressions You’ll Hear in Japan
Meaning: To go/come; to be
いらっしゃいます is respectful 尊敬語 (そんけいご) while 参ります is humble 謙譲語 (けんじょうご). Every store you enter will greet customers, either personally or over an intercom, with いらっしゃいませ, which literally means “someone honorable is here.” It’s important to note that it is not necessary to reply to いらっしゃいませ, and you definitely shouldn’t repeat it back to the clerk!
参ります is often heard in train stations when the train is arriving, you will encounter まもなく電車が参ります (まもなくでんしゃがまいります) over the intercom or on a signboard, and translates to “the train is now humbly arriving.” This just means that your train is pulling in now, so it’s time to hop on board!
Meaning: To eat/drink, to receive
召し上がります is the respectful form, and いただきます humble. When you’re at a cafe or a fast food restaurant, the cashier may ask こちらでお召し上がりですか？, meaning “will you be eating here?” On food packaging, as well as if someone gifts you food, you will also encounter お召し上がりください.
You may have heard that Japanese people always say いただきます before eating. It’s a simple polite expression to show your gratitude for the food. But did you know it can also be used in other situations? When receiving an object, people will say いただきます as well, to show gratitude to the giver for receiving food, a gift or even their time.
Meaning: Did you know~?
This is used to ask questions to someone in a polite way. When watching TV interviews, you’ll hear this word a lot when the anchor is asking the audience a question, or during commercials. You can also use this phrase with superiors or strangers, which is sure to earn you some bonus points for being so well-mannered.
Meaning: Please take a look.
Shopkeepers will use this phrase frequently, saying ご覧くださいませ! /どうぞご覧ください！(Have a look around!) when you enter the store. Signs will also use this to try and get your attention. And if you’re on a guided tour, your guide may use this phrase to point out something that’s worth seeing, so keep your ears perked if you don’t want to miss the best part of the tour!
Meaning: to do
Cashiers and hotel concierge will use this form when speaking of services they’ll be doing for you. If you made a reservation at a hotel, the concierge may ask ご予約はいつなさいましたか (ごよやくはいつなさいましたか, When did you make your reservation?), using the polite form to ask when you, the guest, made this reservation.
When your turn comes up after you’ve been waiting in line, the clerk or attendant will say お待たせいたしました (おまたせいたしました, I’m sorry to keep you waiting). Train stations will also use まもなく到着いたします (まもなくとうちゃくいたします).
As a side note: なさいます is different from ～なさい. While なさいます is the polite “to do”, なさい is used to make a strong command. If a mother says something like 静かにしなさい (しずかにしなさい, Be quiet!), it doesn’t mean “Respectfully, I must ask you to quiet down,”— she’s scolding her child for making a racket!
Meaning: “how about~?”/ “How is~?”/ “How do you like it?”
This phrase is useful in a variety of shopping situations. When you’re trying on clothes or testing products, a clerk may ask this in order to check in on you. For instance, if you tell the clerk you’re looking for some sneakers, they may offer a pair and ask これはいかがですか？If you like them, you can say それにします (I’ll take it), but if not, you can ask for another option by using すみませんが、他のがありますか (すみません、ほかのがありますか, I’m sorry, but do you have something else?).
When you’re coming out of the fitting room, the attendant may ask いかがでしたか？to ask you how it went. If you’re sold on the outfit, a good phrase is いいと思います。これ、お願いします(いいとおもいます。これ、おねがいします, It went great. I’ll have this, please). If not, すみませんが、これはちょっと… (I’m sorry, but it’s…) is enough to express your feelings politely.
However, if a friend is asking your opinion or vice versa, the phrase both of you would use is not いかがですか, but どうですか, which is a more informal version of “how about~”, and is the go-to in casual situations. (Helpful tip: Your Japanese friends will not be thrilled if you use overly formal Japanese with them. I learned that after using too many polite phrases while talking to my Japanese friend at the mall—she got annoyed at me!)
敬語 may seem overwhelming, but with these phrases under your belt, you’ll be one step closer to understanding formal Japanese! As a foreigner, nobody expects you to get it perfect, but learning these key words will definitely make life easier for yourself. So go out with confidence that you’ll know exactly what those announcements and clerks are trying to say to you!