Good morning everyone,

It was fantastic weather yesterday, and today and tomorrow are looking great too! Both days will be sunny and warm with highs around 24C. Wednesday and Thursday will be a lot cooler with highs of only 18C or so and it looks like rain both of those days as well. Then, it should clear up on Friday (but remain cooler) before warming up on Saturday.

Wait, what is keigo exactly?

The word keigo is written with the kanji “to respect / admire” and the kanji for the language: 敬語. Japanese society has always cared for hierarchy till the point that the honorific speech seems to be whole other language. Do you know that Japan had a caste system in the past? Until the Meiji restoration, people in different castes would not speak the same Japanese as a matter of respect of social ranks. Despite the disappearance of the caste system, honorific speech is still used to mark the degree of intimacy or the social standings between people.

Broadly speaking, using keigo is in itself showing your consideration and respect for someone older than you, a person with a different position or degree of experience in your company or someone who is 'outside' your workplace. That is to say, your speech will differ according to the person in front of you: a friend, a colleague, a boss or a client all require different types of speech. And it also depends on who you are referring to: yourself, your friend, colleague or client. And apparently, it's just as hard for native speakers. Japanese kids learn keigo the hard way, as they enter Junior High School and are confronted to the Japanese hierarchy. Suddenly, they have to mark the difference between “senpai” (elder students) and “kouhai” (junior students).

The concept of uchi and soto?

To better understand the respectful speech, one should take a peek into the Japanese concept of “in-out”.

  • In Japanese, “uchi” means home. As a concept, “uchi” refers to all the people you know inside a specific social circle: your family, your company, your club. For example, inside the “uchi”, family members may drop the title.
  • In Japanese, “soto” means outside. As a concept, “soto” refers to all the people who are not inside your specific social circle. For example, another company’s employee.

Japanese speech differs depending on the situation. So you should keep in mind that you will not use honorific words when speaking about insiders (people from your social circles) to outsiders.

The basic rules of Keigo

1) When using the respectful style, some words can be substituted for a more respectful version. The word ashita (tomorrow) and hito (person) will become asu and kata respectively when you are speaking to a higher ranking person. This form of speech is called “改まった言い方”: formal speech.

2) Japanese honorific prefixes o or go can be added to certain nouns and verbs. The easiest examples are certainly tea, cha which becomes “o cha” and family, kazoku, which becomes “go kazoku”. The adjunction of honorifics after names is also a part of the respectful speech. The polite “-san” as, “Tanaka san” becomes “Tanaka sama”.

3) The respectful language is actually divided into three groups: the polite style,  the humble style and the honorific style.


Polite keigo: 丁寧語, teineigo

The polite style is definitely the easiest form of keigo as it is ruled by regular grammar with a structure not far from the casual speech. For such reason, it is the first form of keigo to be taught to Japanese language learners. So actually, when you are using desu and masu instead of the dictionary form, a considerate and formal tone of Japanese, you are already using keigo. Desu comes after nouns, adjectives, and adverbs; generally, at the end of a sentence while the suffix masu is added at the end of a verb.


Honorific keigo: 尊敬語, sonkeigo

The honorific style is used to show respect to someone of higher position – a superior or a customer – when you are speaking about them. You should never use sonkeigo form to refer to yourself. Not only is the usage of sonkeigo difficult to understand, but it is characterized by lengthy polite sentences: common verbs will change for more polite ones and some will even change into a respectful form.

Humble Keigo: 謙譲語, kenjougo

When referring to yourself, you shall be humble. When referring to someone of your inner circle (family, colleagues), you shall humble them too. The kenjougo is a style to lower your social status when speaking about yourself: it should be used when you are speaking to someone higher up in social rank and describing your action and the actions of someone of your circle. Like for the sonkeigo, the kenjougo substitutes verbs with other forms. Nouns may also change: the word “hito”, previously mentioned, will become “mono” (者).

Here's a list of  honorific and humble special set-expressions, along with the polite and casual speech forms.


NOTE: The following humble set-expressions “おります”, “参ります”, “いたします”, “いただきます”, “もうします”, “存じでおります” are part of a category called “teichougo” (丁重後). This courteous form of keigo is not often referred to and is used when your action does not directly involve the listener, but when you are talking to someone to who you want to be very polite.

Wait, there’s a Keigo conjugation too?

For both honorific and humble styles, as seen previously, certain verbs have set expressions. For the verbs without such set expressions, they obey to keigo conjugations.

The first rule is the adjunction of the polite prefix “o” to the stem of the verb.

  • For the honorific style, the construction of the verb will be as following: o”/”go” + stem of the verb + ni naru.
    The honorific style can also be expressed with what is called the “easy keigo” with verbs used in the passive form “reru” or “rareru”. Although said to be easier, this form of keigo can be confused with the passive voice and should be used with care.
  • For the humble style, the construction of the verb will be as following: “o”/”go” + stem of the verb + suru. You have certainly heard it before in “o+negai+shimasu” (“please”).

When is keigo required?

Well, the respectful language should be used toward older people, toward a distinguished person, and in the workplace. Of course, exceptions exist and that is why keigo is as difficult for native speakers as for learners. Respectful language can be used strictly in one company and more loosely in another. Japanese often cut me some slack as they do not expect a non-native to master this complicated level of speech. The difficulty also resides in the unknown: imagine you're at a gathering of people you do not's impossible to know what level of speech to use, not knowing who is your superior, who is your age and who is younger. Then in other contexts, casual speech would be preferred as an ice breaker because keigo would be considered too distant.

Got it? I'm glad to hear it, because even after 15 years in Japan I still don't have a clue about how to use it...ha ha!

Have a great day!

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