The Japanese language has the interesting and curious trait of actually varying the forms of verbs used in otherwise normal, standard sentences to convey greater politeness and respect. This is often done in business, particularly in hospitality; however, “polite” speech is also the standard form in classrooms, on news broadcasts, and so forth.
Japanese Keigo (敬語、respect + speech) is divided by many into three broad classes, using “iu” (To Speak) as an example:
- Polite Speech (iu -> iimasu)
- Honorific Speech (iu -> ossharu)
- Humble Speech (iu -> mousu)
So far, all we have seen is what could be gleaned from a glance at Wikipedia. Nonetheless, this is not exactly correct in one sense: you can take honorific and humble verb forms and give them a -masu ending anyway.
Let’s briefly see this in action. (Note that the first part will not appear properly unless you have Japanese characters enabled in your browser. Regardless, I will use romaji for pronunciation purposes so that everyone can follow.)
私はReikaと言います。 (Watashi wa Reika to iimasu.) “I’m Reika. / Call me Reika.”
あの方はJohnと仰る. (Ano kata wa John to ossharu.) “He is called John.”
あの方はJohnと仰います。 (Ano kata wa John to osshaimasu.) “He is addressed as John.”
私はReikaと申す。 (Watakushi wa Reika to mousu.) “I am called Reika.”
私はReikaと申します. (Watakushi wa Reika to moushimasu.) “I am called Reika.”
…As you can see, it’s difficult to find ways to translate the finely detailed differences between the above. However, this is what is going on:
#1: “iimasu” is a normal polite form of “iu,” To Say.
#2: “ossharu” is the honorific form of To Say.
#3: “osshaimasu” is the over-the-top honorific form of To Say.
#4: “mousu” is the humble form of To Say.
#5: “moushimasu” is the over-the-top humble form of To Say.
This brings us to our second major issue: what in the world is the difference between “honorific” and “humble”…?
It’s simple, once someone stops and explains it to you. I shall now do so.
Honorific speech raises, in word at least, the social status of the person being addressed (spoken to).
In America, there is a common expression that states, “The Customer Is Always Right.” In Japan, one could express a similar idea as follows: “The Customer Is Always More Important Than You.” Thus, in Japan, the customer is often spoken to in not simply polite language, but honorific language, buttering the customer up and making the customer feel highly valued and important.
Honorific speech is also used by subordinates to speak to their superiors in a way that greases the wheels of social relations.
The key thing to remember about honorific speech is that, properly used, it is only used when addressing other people.
Humble speech is used to lower, in word, the social status of the speaker. Also, a speaker who is part of an identifiable group may speak humbly on behalf of another member of that group. In this way, a salesperson could speak using humble speech on behalf of a fellow salesperson for the same store.
Unlike honorific speech, humble speech is always used to refer to oneself, or one’s own side. Humble speech is going further than simply being polite; it is downplaying the importance of the self to emphasize the importance of the other party. Thus, it is being humble.
More Than A Golden Rule
Honorific speech isn’t simply treating others as well as you would like to be treated: it is treating others better than you expect to be treated in return.
When dealing with customers, a salesperson will address others in an honorific way to raise their importance, and address himself in a humble way to lower his/ her own importance.
This is not a reciprocal process. The customer is not under any obligation, spoken or unspoken, to speak to the salesperson in an honorific way. The customer is being deliberately treated in this way to thank the customer for doing the favor of just showing up and expressing interest. The customer is not even obligated to speak politely to the salesperson, though most will. However, this will be a “normal” level of politeness or, failing that, neutral speech that is plain but in no way rude or disparaging.
This is par for the course in business. The point of going through all this trouble is to relax the customer, not to make the customer feel stressed and nervous about reciprocating.
So how does a person learn Japanese keigo?
Honestly, it’s not something I’d want to teach people who aren’t fully ready for it. A person has to have fully mastered the “normal” verb forms before wading into these treacherous waters. Even for Japanese people, it takes something akin to apprenticeship to learn the ropes of using it under live fire conditions (that is, in actual commerce).
Nonetheless, once mastered, keigo is not only a sign of respect: it is a floral and beautiful part of the Japanese language. If spoken in a manner that comes off as honest and well meaning, it will make others feel as though they are being treated with a special, very personal touch. If that’s how they feel, then that is indeed how they are being treated, is it not?
I now respectfully bid you adieu.