Monday, December 13, 2010


Honorific expression syndrome. The two characters read Keigo.
Before I came to Japan, I was aware that the Japanese have a heightened sense of respect for their elders and superiors, which they express by bowing to them. When I started taking Japanese classes at Colby, I learned that in addition to simple bowing are three levels of Japanese. First there is the regular Japanese which one uses when speaking to friends, family, and people of equal status. Then there are Keigo and Kenjougo. Keigo consists of different vocabulary and grammar and is used for addressing people of higher status, such as your boss, client, etc. For example, you wouldn't ask your Japanese boss whether he likes to play golf using regular Japanese. Instead, you would use Keigo to ask him the question, which would then sound more like "Do you honorably enjoy playing golf?" (Keigo has a different word for play as well as for enjoy). The same applies for Kenjougo; it consists of different vocabulary and grammar, and you use it while talking to people of higher status, with the exception that you use it show your subordination to the person you are speaking to. So for example when asked by your boss whether you like to play golf (which he asks you using regular Japanese), you will answer using Kenjougo: you humbly like to play golf, but are not very good at it (even if you were the world champion). To me, the use of Keigo and Kenjougo itself is not surprising. After all, many other languages use different grammar and vocabulary to express distinctions in hierarchy: French with its vous, Spanish with usted, German with Sie, Czech with Vy, and others, all of which also come with their special grammar, conjugation, declination, and such. The surprising thing about Keigo and Kenjougo is that the Japanese use them in situations where their quasi-equivalents in French etc. would be way too formal. I will give you an example from my own life in Kyoto.

As you may know if you have been reading my blog carefully, I have joined the Hiking Club here at Doshisha. The active members of the club, as of many other Doshisha clubs, only comprise of first and second year students. As they reach their third year at school, most of Doshisha students start the process of so called "job hunting", which apparently keeps them so busy that they no longer have time to take part in their club's activities. They only meet with the active members a few times per year for so called nomikai, or drinking parties (which are different from what a westerner would call a party and comprise quite an interesting part of Japanese social and work life and deserve a separate entry). As a result of this absence of older students, I am the only third year student who is also an active member of the club, and as such I get to be addressed by most of the club's members in Keigo. I get asked questions such as "how long are you honorably going to be in Japan?", "would you honorably help me with my lowly concern?", and others. Similarly, at a nomikai which I was recently invited to, the first and second years treated their retired seniors with the same respect. Moreover, they only addressed them by their last names, as they would address me if I had told them what it is. Some of the first and second years even address each other by their last names. Also, at the nomikai, the seniors were the first to choose their drinks, and when a group picture was to be taken, all of the seniors went to the front, their rightful place in any picture.

Although, being a foreigner, I am surely not the one who should be judging this aspect of Japanese culture, I certainly do have an opinion about it. And, being one who receives the honor of being talked to in Keigo, I believe that I am in the position to share it with you. In my opinion, using Keigo among fellow friends and students creates a weird sense of estrangement from others as well as an odd sort of shyness, both of which I have found to be typical Japanese personality traits. It is interesting to see how the relationships between people as well as their personalities are shaped by the language they speak. Is perhaps the French stereotype of Americans as being loud and rude a result of the English language lacking any sort of respectful language found in French? I am sure many have written about this before me; maybe I should read up a bit about the issue when my finals are over.

To conclude this entry, I will list a few more examples of situations in which I observed the Japanese showing their respect by bowing or using Keigo.

  1. Train and station attendants bow upon entering and leaving the train car.
  2. Airport attendants bow upon entering and leaving the check-in counter.
  3. Japanese call every doctor, scientist, and some elderly sensei, or professor. Also, calling your professors by their first name like in America is a first-class insult.
  4. Guides always bow. Always. And always use Keigo. Always.
  5. When picking up the phone, and especially when making a call themselves, many Japanese raise the tone of their voice so as to sound polite. Interestingly, they don’t do it when they talk to their family.
  6. When giving gifts, some Japanese say, using Kenjougo: “this gift sucks, but here you go”, even if they were giving you a million dollars.
  7. Announcements at train stations, especially those which require you to do something, always use the most polite Keigo, and always end with gokyouryoku kudasai, or “please honorably comply”.
  8. While walking on the streets, you can often hear shop owners shouting in a high-pitched voice “would you honorably like buy x”? To me, this actually has the opposite effect; when I hear it, I leave, because the high-pitched voice is extremely annoying.
  9. Keigo can also be misused to actually insult people. When you overuse it, it means that you are mocking the person who you are speaking to. So even to Japanese politeness, there is an acceptable maximum.
  10. There are Japanese who are aware of the occasional overuse of Keigo. Some call it the "Honorific Expression Syndrome", or Keigo Syndrome (see picture above).


  1. Hey Martin!
    This is fascinating! I have taken some linguistic anthropology classes and this is exactly the kind of stuff we have read on... When you say: " creates a weird sense of estrangement from others as well as an odd sort of shyness" ... it all comes down to the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis... Is that feeling created through language, or does that ideology already exist in the Japanese culture and is simply embodied and expressed through language ...? It's so cool that you are good enough in Japanese already that you can sense these elements...! Good luck!

  2. I have a question: has anyone in your hiking club not addressed senior students using keigo? Do they get annoyed if someone forgets to use it?

  3. There for sure are people who use Keigo less than others. Generally the rule is that the shyer the person, the more Keigo they use. The only person I know of for sure that they don't use Keigo to address senior students is myself. But then again, I am a senior student, so I don't have to.

    As to whether they get annoyed, I am not sure. But given their shyness, they wouldn't tell you even if they were annoyed. However, I am annoyed when they use Keigo, because that means that they don't really see me as a friend but as a person of higher status. That's the sense of estrangement I talked about.

  4. Japanese women look nice mostly because of how they dress!

    Japanese women try so hard to be looked nice and more like models on the magazines but no t so much by working out to have an actual nice toned body but by dressing up and make-up. You may be able to see a lot of Japanese women in the major cities go to the gym regularly but not so much in suburb areas. Japanese women are typically small and thin already, but a lot of them still want to be thinner to be like a runaway model. Anyway, the point here is that they know how to dress nice that match with their thin figures but still sexy. A lot of men are attracted by their look with those clothes on.

    - See more at: A little surprising fact of Japanese women