One of the first few things we notice about the Japanese language when we start learning is that there are various levels of politeness. In fact, the basic Japanese that we all learn at the start is in fact one of the polite speech styles!
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the most polite. Politeness is a huge factor in Japanese culture and manners. Depending on who you talk to and what social situation you’re in, you adjust your polite speech style to accommodate it. How, you might ask?
You’ve come to the right place. Everything you need to know about the level of politeness, what affects it and how to be polite in basic Japanese is just a scroll away!
What affects politeness?
There are a few things that affect the way you speak to another person in terms of politeness. While it’s important in English as well, it’s even more important in the Japanese language.
First of all, how familiar you are with another person affects this politeness level. When you’re more familiar with another, you tend to speak more casually. For example, you speak in informal terms with family and close friends. Sometimes, slang is introduced in informal situations. With people you aren’t close to and strangers, you’re more on formal terms.
This goes into the second factor, and that is social hierarchy. This is extremely significant in Japanese culture. Where you stand in that social ladder affects your level of politeness. Here’s a basic breakdown of rank:
Higher rank: Teacher, employer, guest, customer, senior in terms of age
Lower rank: Student, employee, host, salesman, junior in terms of age
The combination of familiarity and social hierarchy basically determines the level of politeness in speech.
Levels of politeness in the Japanese language
Let’s take a look at the levels of politeness in the Japanese language. In the English language, politeness is often achievable through the words and phrases used, and tone. Sometimes, even in business situations, you might not even need to be all that polite. In the Japanese language, politeness is crucial.
In basic Japanese, politeness is achieved through its grammar primarily. While the words and tone used are also important, grammar is the ultimate way of achieving various levels of politeness. And how many levels are there?
Teineigo (丁寧語) literally means “polite language”. When we first learn Japanese, this is the form we learn, and sometimes it’s referred to as “formal” speech. It’s the default form when two strangers talk to each other. This is also used when speaking to someone higher in rank.
In teineigo, you use the polite copula “desu” (です) at the end of nouns and adjectives, and the polite verb suffix “-masu” (〜ます). You often don’t cut out anything in the sentence and use full sentences when speaking. Prefixes such as “o” (お) and “go” (ご) are also used.
When we get into a deeper understanding of the language, we learn that there are special forms for politeness in the Japanese language, and that’s known as keigo (敬語). This is a step up above teineigo and is an umbrella term that covers humble and honorific forms of speech.
Now that might be a whole lot to process, but let’s break that down. Keigo is used when talking to people significantly above you in rank by either exalting the superior or by humbling yourself. The basics of keigo when it comes to politeness is passiveness and indirectness.
One form of keigo is the sonkeigo (尊敬語), also known as the honorific language. This is used when talking to a superior and exalting them and their actions. If you talk to your boss or teacher and are referring to them and their actions, the honorific form is used. We teach how to use this form in our Nihongo Master podcast in our Nihongo Master Podcast Season 6 Episode 6!
Another form of keigo is the kenjougo (謙譲語). This is the humble language. As you can tell, it’s a form of humble speech. When you talk to a superior but you’re referring to yourself, you use the humble form. We teach how to use this form in our Nihongo Master Podcast Season 6 Episode 9!
Honorifics in polite speech
One of the most important things to note is the usage of honorifics in polite speech. That’s the basics of politeness in the Japanese language.
The simplest way to add a touch of politeness to your speech is by adding a “san” (さん) to someone’s name. It’s like the equivalent of “Mr” or “Mrs” in the English language. This is the most basic honorific that you’ll learn in Japanese.
Sometimes, you can refer to one as “sama” (様). For example, when a staff member approaches a customer, they would refer to them as “okyakusama” (お客様) as the utmost level of politeness.
Different positions in Japanese society can have various honorifics. A teacher has “sensei” (先生) attached to their name, like Tanaka-sensei.
You’re always starting off with referring to someone with “San” until you’re told otherwise. Often times, your friends would tell you to drop the honorific, and maybe change to the more familial honorifics like “chan” (ちゃん) or “kun” (くん). However, with your superiors, continue using it unless told otherwise!
Add a dash of politeness to your Japanese!
We now know that there are more than a few ways to be polite in your Japanese speech. And this all depends on how familiar you are with the other party, and where in the social hierarchy you both rank. It never hurts to be polite, so add a little bit of politeness in your speech! Check out our other blog posts and also our podcast to learn Japanese the fun and easy way!