Japanese Keigo: The Most Polite Speech in Japanese
What is Keigo?
Keigo refers to words, phrases, and conjugations in the Japanese language that are used in formal or official situations. Some keigo is used or at least heard every day, and some keigo is used very infrequently.
What you can expect from this article:
a. Situations where you might come across (or wish to use) keigo
b. A crash course on keigo verbs
c. Thoughts on which keigo words and phrases are the most useful to memorize
For additional articles on Japanese grammar and conjugation, click here to visit the Grammar section of the Kawa Kawa Blog!
Do we need to memorize Keigo?
If you are traveling to Japan for business, we recommend that you memorize and learn to use some basic keigo. If you are traveling to Japan for pleasure, you will most likely not need to use any keigo yourself.
However, you will almost certainly hear use of keigo phrases, and so it is still a good idea to gain a cursory understanding of the most common keigo words and phrases.
When is Keigo Used?
The places you will probably hear/see keigo the most is actually in the following:
a. Train stations
c. Supermarkets (and other kinds of stores)
d. Public announcements
e. Employees of all sorts when speaking to customers or clients
f. Packaging and usage instructions for various products
You, however, do not necessarily need to use keigo when visiting stations, hotels, or stores.
If you are a casual traveler in Japan, you may want to use a sprinkling of keigo occasionally when thanking someone, when writing a letter or e-mail, or when you are speaking to someone and want to show extra respect. That being said, as a visitor to Japan you will not be frowned upon if you do not use keigo.
If you are proficient in Japanese and/or are traveling to Japan on business, you will want to make more frequent use of keigo.
For example, when speaking about the president of someone else’s company in a business setting, you would want to use keigo. Some people may even use some degree of keigo simply when speaking to someone they do not know, when speaking to someone over the phone who is not a close friend or family member, or when speaking to someone to whom they wish to be particularly respectful (such as a teacher).
In general, it is a good idea to know how keigo works, even if you will not need to use it much!
How Do I Use Keigo?
Keigo can seem very intimidating before you begin to learn it, but it’s really just a matter of learning some new words. In fact, some of the first words you learn when you open any Japanese textbook are technically keigo!
For example, the ございます gozaimasu in ありがとうございます arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) is essentially a keigo version of the common words あります arimasu and います imasu (to be/exist)! And, if you add a で de to the front (でございます de gozaimasu), you’ve got a keigo version of the all-important です desu.
So, for example, the sentence:
Kyou wa atsui desu ne.
It’s hot today, huh?
Can be made more polite by changing the ending to:
Kyou wa atsui de gozaimasu ne.
Generally speaking, there are several different kinds of keigo:
a. Some keigo is used to speak deprecatingly or humbly about yourself or those associated with you
b. Some keigo is used to speak honorifically or with greater than usual respect about someone else or those associated with them.
c. There is also general keigo (such as ございます gozaimasu) that simply elevate the general politeness of the phrases in which they are used.
Though there are also keigo versions of many common nouns, one of the most noticeable changes in keigo sentences is in the verb department.
Several of the verbs that are most commonly used in daily life (eat, see, do, go, etc) have completely different “keigo versions” (usually one humble and one honorific) that are used in place of the normal verb. If a verb does not have a keigo version, there are special conjugation patterns that can make it either more humble or more honorific.
First, the special conjugation patterns that can be used with any verb that does not have a “keigo version.”
For both the humble and honorific conjugation patterns, essentially all you need to do is change your ordinary verb into stem form and then add either する suru or なる naru. The stem of the verb is what you get if you remove the ます masu from a -Masu Form verb.
Ordinary verb: 読みます yomimasu (to read)
Humble (speaking about yourself): お読みします o-yomi shimasu
Honorific (speaking about someone else): お読みになります o-yomi ni narimasu
Now, here are a few examples of verbs that have “keigo versions.”
Watashi wa bangohan o tabemashita.
I ate dinner.
Humble (speaking about yourself):
Watakushi wa bangohan o itadakimashita.
I ate dinner.
Honorific (speaking about someone else):
Yamanaka-san wa bangohan o meshiagarimashita.
Mr./Ms. Yamanaka ate dinner.
Note 1: いただきます itadakimasu is used as a set phrase before eating.
Note 2: One of the places you will most encounter 召し上がる meshiagaru is on the packaging for food products. For example: 召し上がる前にお温めください。 Meshiagaru mae ni o-atatame kudasai (please heat [this product] up before you eat [it]).
Watashi wa 10 ji ni kimasu.
I will come at 10:00.
Watakushi wa 10 ji ni mairimasu.
I will come at 10:00.
Yamanaka-san wa 10 ji ni irasshaimasu.
Mr./Ms. Yamanaka will come at 10:00.
Note 1: The honorific verb いらっしゃる irassharu can also be used to mean “to be” (when describing a living thing) and so is also frequently used on the telephone to say things such as 山中さんはいらっしゃいますか？ Yamanaka-san wa irasshaimasu ka? (Is Mr./Ms. Yamanaka there?)
Note 2: A request/“please do” conjugation of いらっしゃる irassharu is nearly always called out by at least one employee (and sometimes by every available employee) every time a customer enters their restaurant or store. This phrase functions both as a stock greeting and a request for the customer to come into their establishment.
Watashi wa eiga o mimashita.
I saw the movie.
Watakushi wa eiga o haiken shimashita.
I saw the movie.
Yamanaka-san wa eiga o go-ran ni narimashita.
Mr./Ms. Yamanaka saw the movie.
There are other verbs that have “keigo versions,” but we will end with those three examples for now.
What Keigo Should I Memorize?
If you are traveling to Japan for fun, there is no reason to sweat learning too much keigo. However, learning a little bit can be helpful in understanding what people (or announcements) are telling you, and if you learn a bit more you can really impress your host family or Japanese acquaintances!
- ご注意ください。Go-chuui kudasai (Please be careful). The verb for “to be careful” does not have a “keigo version,” so the special conjugation pattern discussed above is used to make the verb into keigo. This phrase is often played as a recording on buses and trains.
- いらっしゃいませ／いらっしゃい！Irasshaimase/irasshai! (Come in!) This phrase is called out with varying levels of intensity by employees at nearly every shop and restaurant whenever a customer enters the establishment.
- お預かりします。O-azukari shimasu (I’ll take care of [that]). This phrase can often be heard when an employee takes your payment, or when they are wrapping or packaging a purchase for you.
- 少々お待ちください。Shoushou o-machi kudasai (Please wait a little).
- よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu (Please regard me kindly). This phrase can be translated a variety of ways. Its literal meaning is something close to “I wish for nice [dealings],” and can be used whenever you meet someone with whom you will be spending some time (such as a teacher, classmate, coworker, potential friend, etc).
- お世話になりました。O-sewa ni narimashita ([You’ve] taken care of [me]). This phrase is frequently used along with a thank-you to just before you part ways with your host mother or host father and return home. It can also be used when thanking other people you feel have cared for you during your time in Japan.
And that’s it on keigo for now! We hope that this article has given you a good idea what keigo looks and sounds like. If you have any more questions about keigo, please leave us a comment or send us a message!
Also, we would love to hear about your experiences with keigo. Do you use it a lot, occasionally, or pretty much never? Share your thoughts below!