japanese keigo

Mind Your Manners! The Polite Learner’s Guide to Japanese Keigo

If you have studied Japanese for just one day, then you know there’s a polite way and a colloquial way to say almost everything.

You know how to use plain form and polite form verbs depending on the situation.

But when you visit Japan, you can’t understand what the cashier is saying. The announcements on the bus have words you’ve never heard before. The supermarket sales ads are conjugating verbs in a way you have never seen.

The type of speech they’re using is all called keigo—敬語 (けいご).

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What’s Japanese Keigo?

敬語 is a super polite form of Japanese used to either convey humility or respect.

It’s a unique and beautiful part of the Japanese language and it gives learners a hint about Japan’s culture of honor and respect. This is the kind of language you would use when talking to the Emperor, the Prime Minister or even just your girlfriend’s grandparents. So you might think 敬語 isn’t useful. You might be thinking, “I’ll never be in a situation where I’ll use this.”

You would be wrong.

Not only is basic 敬語 used when you introduce yourself to your superiors in a company setting, or when you are addressing a client, patient or customer, it’s also something you’ll hear every day in Japan. When you visit or live in Japan, chances are, in almost every public interaction, 敬語 will be used. Whether it’s uttered by the cashier at the restaurant when you pay for your meal or by the cash machine’s computerized voice when you withdraw money from the ATM, 敬語 is something you’ll quickly become used to.

There are two parts to 敬語: 尊敬語 (そんけいご) and 謙譲語 (けんじょうご). Plus, there are some humble words that you’ll need to use within these types of speech. So, let’s get started learning all this!

Japanese Keigo: 3 Things You Must Know

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1. 尊敬語 (そんけいご)

How Is It Used?

尊敬語 is the language used to show respect to others. You conjugate verbs into 尊敬語 only when you’re talking about someone else in a higher social status than yourself (your superiors at work, people older than yourself, etc.) Because of this, you would never use 尊敬語 when talking about yourself or your close family members.

Special Cases

For some verbs, you can just replace them with a more polite word. This is very easy because you don’t have to deal with all the pesky rules of conjugations. Here’s the list of the special cases:

To go — 行きます (いきます) — いらっしゃいます

To come — 来ます (きます) — いらっしゃいます

To be — います — いらっしゃいます

To eat — 食べます (たべます) — 召し上がります (めしあがります)

To drink — 飲みます (のみます) — 召し上がります (めしあがります)

To see — 見ます (みます) — ご覧になります (ごらんになります)

To say — 言います (います) — おっしゃいます

To do — します — なさいます

To know — 知っています (しっています) — ご存知です (ごぞんじです)

To receive — くれます— くださいます

So if you’re asking someone, “When did you come to Japan?” the polite「いつ日本に来ましたか?」 would become 「いつ日本にいらっしゃいましたか?」in super polite 敬語. In this case, you’re elevating the person you’re speaking to by using the super polite verb which directly relates to them. Of course, don’t forget that the person you’re talking to can also use the super polite verb to elevate you.

So, as you can see, the first three on the list are easy! Whether you’re saying “to go,” “to come” or “to be,” they’re all conjugated as いらっしゃいます in 尊敬語.

Here are some other examples using 尊敬語.

At your new job, when you bring some treats to share from your home country, you’d say:

“Please go ahead and eat them.”

Regular Polite: どうぞ、食べてください。(どうぞ、たべてください。)

尊敬語: どうぞ、召し上がってください。(どうぞ、めしあがってください。)

You know the company president likes Marvel movies, so you ask:

“Did you already see the new movie?”

Regular Polite: 新しい映画をもう見ましたか?(あたらしい えいがを もう みましたか?)

尊敬語: 新しい映画をもうご覧になりましたか?(あたらしい えいがを もう ごらんに なりましたか?)

If you need to ask for directions from a shopkeeper, they will ask you:

Do you know Kyoto well?

Regular Polite: 京都を知っていますか?(きょうとを しっていますか?)

尊敬語: 京都をご存じですか?(きょうとを ごぞんじですか?)

尊敬語 Conjugations

Now, on to the verbs that don’t have special words. Like the rest of Japanese, there’s a rule for conjugating these verbs into 尊敬語. Simply say お、the ますstem of a verb and then になる.

お+ますstem+になる

Here’s an example:

読みます (よみます) —> お読みになります (およみに なります)

So when you’re nervously standing at the doorway when you have an important speech, someone might say to you:

“Please come in.”

Regular Polite: どうぞ入ってください。(どうぞはいってください。)

尊敬語: どうぞお入り (になって) ください。(どうぞ おはいり (になって) ください。)

As you can see, sometimes the になって is omitted for convenience. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant in Japan, you’ll be very familiar with the phrase, 「少々お待ちください (しょうしょう おまち ください)」, which means, “Please wait a moment.”

2. 謙譲語 (けんじょうご)

How Is It Used?

謙譲語 is the language used to show humility when you speak about yourself. In this case, you’ll only use 謙譲語 when speaking about yourself or those in your “inner circle,” such as close family or friends. Of course, you would never use 謙譲語 when talking about others, especially if they’re in a higher social position than you.

Special Cases

Just like 尊敬語, 謙譲語 has special cases in which the whole verb is replaced by a more polite version.

To go — 行きます (いきます) — 参ります (まいります)

To come — 来ます (きます) — 参ります (まいります)

To be — います — おります

To eat — 食べます (たべます) — 頂きます (いただきます)

To drink — 飲みます (のみます) — 頂きます (いただきます)

To hear — 聞きます (ききます) — 伺います (うかがいます)

To see — 見ます (みます) — 拝見します (はいけんします)

To meet — 会います (あいます) — お目にかかります (おめにかかります)

To say — 言います (います) — 申します (もうします)

To do — します — いたします

To know — 知っています (しっています) — 存じております (ごぞんじております)

To give — あげます — 差し上げます (さしあげます)

To receive — もらいます — 頂きます (いただきます)

So if you’re at a business conference and a potential employer asks you when you came to Japan, you would answer:

“I came in March of this year.”

Regular Polite: 去年の3月に来ました。(きょねんの さんがつに きました。)

謙譲語: 去年の3月に参りました。(きょねんの さんがつに まいりました。)

If you’re introducing yourself to your new coworkers:

“I am John Smith.”

Regular Polite: 私はジョン・スミスです。(わたしは じょん・すみす です。)

謙譲語: 私はジョン・スミスと申します。(わたしは じょん・すみす と もうします。)

When you tell your boss that you saw a famous photographer’s photo at an exhibition:

“I saw that picture.”

Regular Polite: 私はあの写真を見ました。(わたしは あの しゃしんをみました。)

謙譲語: 私はあの写真を拝見しました。(私は あの しゃしんを はいけんしました。)

As you can see, in all of these situations you’re talking about yourself in regards to a person who’s higher than you in social status. Therefore, you humble yourself by using the 謙譲語 verbs.

謙譲語 Conjugations

Just like 尊敬語, you can also conjugate other verbs using a simple rule. For 謙譲語 the rule is:

お+ますstem+する

Here’s an example:

持ちます—> お持ちします

If you have a lot of bags at a hotel, a bellhop would ask you this:

“May I carry your bags for you?”

Regular Polite: 荷物を持ちましょうか?(にもつを もちましょうか?)

謙譲語: 荷物をお持ちしましょうか?(にもつを おもちしましょうか?)

When you’re asking a guest professor to help you understand a concept from his lecture:

“I would like you to teach me a little about this…”

Regular Polite: ちょっと教えてもらいたいんですが...(ちょっと おしえて もらいたいんですが...)

謙譲語: 少々お教えて頂きたいのですが...(しょうしょう おしえて いただきたいのですが...)

3. 丁寧語 (ていねいご)

How Is It Used?

These are polite words for formal situations.

丁寧語 is the Japanese word that covers the concept of being polite. Not only are the verbs changed, but when you speak in 敬語, nouns and other parts of speech are sometimes also changed to become more polite. There are two ways of doing this. The first is just replacing the entire word. Here are some examples:

Good — いい — よろしい

A little — ちょっと — 少々 (しょうしょう)

Person — 人 (ひと) — (かた)

Today — 今日 (きょう) — 本日 (ほんじつ)

I apologize — ごめんなさい — 申し訳けありません (もうしわけありません)

Soon — すぐ — 間もなく (まもなく), ただいま

*Copula — です — でございます

“Is now a good time?” If you need to ask your busy boss a question:

今、よろしいですか?(いま、よろしいですか?)

You might see this sign on a shop that’s closed:

“We are sorry, today we are closed.”

申し訳ありませんが、本日はお休みします。(もうしわけありませんが、ほんじつは おやすみします。)

Honorific お~ and ご~ Used with Nouns

The second way to modify nouns to make them more polite is to simply add お~ or ご~ to the beginning of the noun. For example:

Tea — 茶 (ちゃ) — お茶 (おちゃ)

Customer — 客 (きゃく) — お客様 (おきゃくさま)

Information — 案内 (あんない) — ご案内 (ごあんない)

Chopsticks — 箸 (はし) — お箸 (おはし)

Question — 質問 (しつもん) — ご質問 (ごしつもん)

To transfer (trains) — 乗りかえ (のりかえ) — お乗りかえ (おのりかえ)

Now that you’ve learned the basics of 敬語, let’s see if you can figure out these common 敬語 sentences that can be heard every day in Japan.

Of course, 丁寧語 words can be used in everyday conversation to give respect to the items you’re using. They’re not only used with 敬語 speech. Please feel free to use them anytime you wish.

  1. まもなく京都、京都駅に到着いたします。(まもなくきょうと、きょうとえきに とうちゃくいたします。)
  1. この電車の手洗いは2号車にございます。(このでんしゃのてあらいは にごうしゃにございます。)
  1. 弁当、サンドイッチ、飲み物などを用意して、係員が席まで伺います。(べんとう、さんどいっち、のみものなどを よういして、かかりいんが せきまでうかがいます。)

(1. Soon, the train will arrive in Kyoto, Kyoto station. 2. The restroom is in car number 2 on this train. 3. Boxed meals, sandwiches and beverages are available. The salesperson will come by your seat.)

How’d you do?

No matter the results, keep practicing this important Japanese lesson, and use it the next chance you get!

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