Be Humble in Japanese: A Guide with Useful Phrases
Being humble and polite is a cornerstone of Japanese culture and society.
You know all the essential polite phrases necessary for daily conversation. But to speak Japanese like a native speaker, you need to learn the cultural context of the language.
While learning to speak Japanese in a culturally-sensitive way is best done by living abroad in Japan, it 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?
- A Quick Look at Humble Forms of Speech
- Useful Japanese Phrases to Sound More Humble
Why Sound More Humble?
During my first week of work in a Japanese office, I asked my new coworker Takashi which slides we were supposed to present the next day.
He told me, “I think we need slides 103 and 107.” I nodded and went to my other coworker and asked the same question to confirm. But in doing this, I unwittingly offended Takashi.
When Takashi said, “I think,” I thought it meant he wasn’t certain about his answer. But in Japanese, using “I think” before a statement is a common way to sound polite.
When I asked another coworker the same question, it looked like I thought that Takashi wasn’t competent! Not a great way to build office relationships.
Learning to sound humble is a must in Japanese so you can avoid sounding rude, aggressive or vain. It’s not always taught in textbooks, but it’s something I rely on heavily, especially when meeting people for the first time.
A Quick Look at Humble Forms of Speech
The differences between casual, polite, honorific and humble Japanese speech are very distinct. There’s no direct comparison to English, where the rules are a lot looser.
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.
Humble words and expressions are often used in customer service or within an office, so you may already know some basic humble expressions and vocabulary. 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.
(なにかのみますか) — Do you want something to drink?
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?.
(でんわください) — Please call me.
お電話ください (おでんわください) — Please do not hesitate to call me.
(なまえはなんですか) — What is your name?
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.
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 (I think)
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.
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.”
が (but/so therefore)
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 (a little)
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…
一応 (sort of/somehow)
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.
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:
I somehow graduated from university.
I graduated from the Harvard University.
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.
Some typical conversations 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:
— 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.
Talking with guests
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…”
Knowing what phrases to use in which circumstances may not always be obvious, but hopefully the above guide will help you get the basics down.
To learn more about how to use humble speech, it’s helpful to hear it used in context. The more you encounter humble speech, the more you’ll start to intuitively understand it.
If you’re not living in Japan, then your best bet is to expose yourself to lots of Japanese media like TV shows and movies.
Another option is to try a video-focused language learning program like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Videos with everyday interactions, particularly in professional settings, will give you a good sample of humble speech and clarify how and when it’s used.
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!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
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FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
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All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
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