Hey there, Big Shot. Yeah, you.
You can read hiragana and katakana. Heck, you can even read kanji without skipping a beat.
You know all the essential polite phrases necessary for daily conversation.
Your Japanese skills are improving every day, and you’re feeling pretty confident – but there’s one more ingredient you need in order to master Japanese.
Even if you really are the hottest thing since sliced sushi rolls, you will need to inject your Japanese with a huge dose of humility.
This is because in order to speak Japanese like a native you need to understand the cultural context of the language.
It just so happens that being polite and humble is a cornerstone of Japanese culture and society. To get started, you can simply listen more closely to the language used in your favorite Japanese films, or ask your language exchange partner to explain how they speak to their elders and superiors.
All this structure might seem foreign to you at first, but all you need is a fresh perspective and lots of practice. Learning to speak Japanese in a culturally-sensitive way is best done by living abroad in Japan, so you can gain a deeper understanding of how things work.
Of course, for most of us, Japan is a long, long way from home. Luckily, all this can be accomplished just as well at home by studying key Japanese phrases to make yourself sound more polite and humble.
Why Sound More Humble?
Well, not all of us have had the luxury of learning this lesson at home.
During my first week of work in a Japanese office, I committed a major taboo.
“Do you know which slides we’re supposed to present tomorrow?” I asked my new coworker, Takashi.
He glanced up from his papers and gave me a slight smile and said, “I think we need slides 103 and 107.”
Sensing some ambiguity, I nodded and then went to my other coworker and asked the same question to confirm.
Little did I know I was unwittingly offending Takashi. When he said, “I think,” I assumed that he wasn’t completely certain with the answer he gave me. Using “I think” to make a statement is a common Japanese way to sound polite. By ignoring Takashi’s answer and going to another coworker with the same question, I looked like I thought that Takashi isn’t competent – all because of a language barrier that I didn’t know existed!
Not a great way to build office relationships. To avoid sounding rude, aggressive and vain, learning to sound humble is a must. It’s not something that’s always taught in textbooks, but it’s something I rely on heavily when meeting people for the first time, talking to clients and coworkers, or trying to sound extra sweet before asking for a discount.
A Useful Guide to Japanese Phrases That Will Make You Sound More Humble
A Quick Look at Humble Forms of Speech
Though different levels of politeness do exist in English, the differences between casual, polite, honorific and humble Japanese speech are very distinct. In English, I always try to be friendly with my boss, fitting as many bad jokes and puns as I can into conversation. In Japanese, however, my speech changes drastically and humble words suddenly pour from my mouth before I can stop myself.
You may already know some basic humble expressions and vocabulary. Humble words and expressions are often used in customer service or within an office. Many office workers will use humble speech when talking to their boss about themselves or their family.
失礼致します (しつれいいたします) is a humble/polite way to say “excuse me (for interrupting.)”
Nouns often have “お” placed in front of them to signify their beauty or importance:
お酒 (おさけ) – Sake
お花 (おはな) – Flower
お電話 (おでんわ) – Phone
You’ll see this pattern in songs, poetry or when someone is being polite in formal or business situations.
Verbs follow a similar pattern: お＋stem＋になる, お＋stem＋ください and お＋stem＋です.
何か飲みますか (なにかのみますか – Do you want something to drink?) becomes,
何かお飲みになりますか (なにかおのみになりますか – Would you like something to drink?).
電話ください (でんわください – Please call me.) becomes,
お電話ください(おでんわください – Please do not hesitate to call me).
名前は何ですか (なまえはなんですか – What is your name?) becomes,
お名前は何ですか (おなまえはなんですか – May I ask your name, please?).
Although humble Japanese can seem like another language within itself, there are plenty of easy ways to sound humble, modest or make your statements softer.
You can pick up on some of the ways Japanese speakers use speech patterns and expressions in everyday conversations by watching FluentU videos.
If you’re looking for a method to familiarize yourself with Japanese as well as deepen your knowledge of the culture, FluentU is the best way to go!
Useful Japanese Phrases to Sound More Humble
Speaking too directly can be considered rude if you’re not talking to a friend. Instead, many people add words to soften their speech while sharing opinions or stating facts. In English, we often use phrases like “a bit” to make our sentences sound more gentle or polite. Which one sounds softer: “It’s a bit expensive.” or “It’s expensive.”?
The following phrases are perfect for softening your speech and making more gentle statements:
と思います (とおもいます) roughly translates into “I think.” To avoid sounding rude or overconfident, と思います is often added to the end of a sentence to make it softer or more modest.
(I think) they already went home.
(I think) that would be fine.
When I first started using Japanese, this sentence structure confused me. I would often translate と思います too literally. Whenever my coworkers used と思います to make a statement, I thought they were unsure about something. This is not usually the case. Remember that adding と思います to a sentence doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s any uncertainty to a statement. For example 食べようと思います (たべようとおもいます) literally translates to “I think I’m going to eat,” however the intended meaning is simply, “I’m going to eat.”
Sometimes the particle が is placed at the end of the final verb in a sentence to make a statement softer. In this situation, it can be translated into “but/so therefore.”
Excuse me but…
This (gift) isn’t anything special but…
I’m thinking of going shopping, so…
When you use this, the listener will usually recognize your intentions and speak up. Here’s a more comprehensive post on this important particle.
This is nearly interchangeable with が. Usually けれども comes at the end of a main clause. When used after the final verb in a sentence, it leaves the tone of a statement more gentle sounding. けれども can be translated as “however/though” in this situation.
I can understand what you’re saying but…
I think it’s a good thing, though.
In more casual situations, someone may use けど instead:
That’s true but…
ちょっと means “a little” or “a little bit.” It’s also used to politely deny a request or to express a negative response.
I’m a bit busy so…
Excuse me for a moment.
(Sorry), but it’d be a bit troublesome.
In this context, ちょっと is often followed by an apology of some kind:
Excuse me (to get one’s attention)!
Sorry to bother you, but…
One other common situation you may find yourself in is receiving compliments. It’s good to take credit for your accomplishments and accept praise. You’re awesome and you know it. In Japanese, it’s common for someone to deny a compliment or say that a great achievement is “nothing, really.” This is seen as being appropriately modest. A typical conversation may go like:
“Your Japanese is great!”
“Oh, no. I still have a long way to go. I should study more.”
“I like your outfit today. You always dress nicely.”
“This? It’s nothing special!”
“Congratulations to your sister! I heard she got accepted into university abroad!”
“We can finally get rid of her. But she’s got such a big student loan…”
That’s right. Not even family members are spared when it comes to modesty.
There are lots of different ways to show your modesty, but here are some common phrases that you can use in most situations:
いえ – Oh, no
いえいえ – No, no
そんなことありません。- That’s not true.
まだまだです。- I still have a long way to go.
まだ勉強しないと 。(まだべんきょうしないと) – I still have to study more.
まだ (…) ないといけないです。- I still need to (…) more.
Don’t be afraid to accept a compliment. If you’d like to sound a bit more confident of your ability to do something, you can use 一応 (いちおう) in front of a statement. 一応 has many different meanings and uses, but in the examples below you can treat it as “sort of” and “somehow.”
I can sort of do it.
一応日本語を話せます。 (いちおう にほんごをはなせます)
I can kind of speak Japanese.
Be careful not to use 一応 in front of a well-known or important name, or the connotation changes. For example:
一応大学を出ています。 (いちおう だいがくをでています)
I “somehow” graduated from university.
一応ハーバード大学を出てるから。 (いちおう はーばーどだいがくをでてるから)
I graduated from “the” Harvard University.
Although I’m not one to be overly humble around friends, I’ve found that being humble among neighbors or house guests can help ease some tension and build good relationships. When inviting someone over (especially someone you don’t know too well), you can use a few expressions such as:
It’s messy inside but please come in anyway.
This place is a mess but please…
I find myself using 汚いところですが、どうぞ with friends who I’ve invited to my house for the first time, even if “messy” only counts as a magazine left open on my dining table.
I don’t have anything worth serving but…
In response, your guest may say:
Then let me come in for just a bit
Even so, allow me to come in
As in many countries, it’s polite to offer something to drink or a small snack to eat when someone visits you. At the end of a visit, even if you made a five-course dinner for your guest, along with live entertainment and the very best sake money could buy, you can still say:
I’m sorry that I didn’t serve you enough!
I’m sorry that I served you a simple meal.
When leaving someone’s house, it’s common to say, お邪魔しました (おじゃましました) which literally means “I got in the way.” Think of it as saying, “Excuse me for intruding,” or “Sorry to have put you out.”
Now you can invite your neighbors over and avoid awkward conversation — unless, you know, they spot some of your baby photos over on the mantel. And remember, if they compliment you on that tasteful painting in your living room: “That old thing? It’s just an original Gustav Klimt. No big deal…”
Using humble expressions will help you communicate with others in daily conversation (and even online) smoothly and naturally, and can ease any language-barrier tension easily. Keep these in your back pocket for your next social encounter!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.