An Introduction to Japanese Keigo

Last Updated on 04.03.2022 by Coto Academy

Japanese Keigo: Honorific Form, Humble Form, Conjugation & More

Whatever the reason you are studying Japanese, we believe you were having fun and you enjoyed writing your first hiragana and katakana. Gradually, you were able to express yourself and to hold a steady casual conversation in Japanese.

Well. That was at the beginning.

As you reach for the intermediate step, the fun fades away and you are shaking your head with despair as you try to understand Japanese honorific speech!

Introduction to Keigo
The Concept of Uchi & Soto
Basic Rules of Keigo
Polite Keigo: 丁寧語
Honorific Keigo: 尊敬語
Humble Keigo: 謙譲語
Keigo Conjugation
When is Keigo required?


Introduction to Japanese Keigo

The word 敬語 is written with the kanji “to respect / admire” and the kanji for the language. Japanese society has always cared for hierarchy till the point that the honorific speech seems to be a 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 form of respect of social ranks. Despite the disappearance of the caste system, honorific speech is still used to mark the degree of intimacy or social standing between people.

Using keigo is showing your consideration and respect for a person older than you, with a different position or experience in a company. Your speech will differ accordingly to the person in front of you: a friend, a colleague, a chief or a client; and to whom you a referring to: yourself, your friend, colleague or client.

Don’t believe keigo speech is easier for native speakers! Japanese kids learn keigo the hard way, as they enter Junior High School and are confronted with the Japanese hierarchy. Suddenly, they have to mark the difference between 先輩 (elder students) and 後輩 (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” (内-外).

  • In Japanese, 内 means home. As a concept, 内 refers to all the people you know inside a specific social circle: your family, your company, your club. For example, inside the 内, family members may drop the title.
  • In Japanese, 外 means outside. As a concept, 外 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 social context of your interlocutor. So keep in mind that you will not use honorific words when speaking about insiders (people from your social circles) to outsiders.


Basic Rules of Keigo

1) When using keigo, some words can be substituted for a more respectful version. The word あした (tomorrow) and ひと (person) will become あす and かた respectively. 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 is certainly tea, cha which becomes “o cha” and family, 家族, which becomes ご家族. The adjunction of honorifics after names is also a part of the respectful speech. The polite さん as, 田中さん becomes 田中様.

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

The polite style is the easiest form of keigo ruled by regular grammar with a structure similar to casual speech. Thus, it is the first form of keigo taught to Japanese language learners. So when you are using です and ます instead of the dictionary form, a considerate and formal tone of Japanese, you are already using keigo!

As a reminder, the copula です comes after nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, generally, at the end of a sentence while the suffix ます is added at the end of a verb.



Example Sentences:
I am going to buy a book.
Regular:本を買いに行く Hono kaini iku
丁寧語: 本を買いに行きます Hono kaini ikimasu
The phone is broken.
Regular: 携帯(けいたい)が壊(こわ)れた。Keitaiga kowareta
丁寧語: 携帯が壊れました。 Keitaiga kowaremashita
What is this?
Regular: これは何Korewa nanda
丁寧語: こちらは何ですか Kochirawa nandesuka

Honorific Keigo: 尊敬語

This style is to show respect to someone of higher position – a superior or a customer – when speaking about them. You should never use 尊敬語 form to refer to yourself! The usage of 尊敬語 is difficult to understand, and characterized by lengthy polite sentences. Whereby, common verbs will change for more polite ones and some will even change into a respectful form.

 Example sentences:
“Excuse me,  is Mr. Tanaka here?”
Normal : すみません、田中先生はいますか。Sumimasen, tanakasenseiwa imasuka
尊敬語:すみません、田中先生はいらっしゃいますか。 Sumimasen, tanakasenseiwa irasshaimasuka

“How was the interview?”
Normal: 面接はどうでしたか。Mensetsuwa doudeshitaka
尊敬語: 面接はいかがでしたか。Mensersuwa ikagadeshitaka

Humble Keigo: 謙譲語

When referring to yourself, you should be humble. When referring to someone of your inner circle (family, colleagues), you should humble them too. The 謙譲語 is used to lower your social status when speaking about yourself. It should be used when you are speaking to someone of higher social rank when describing the actions of you or someone of your circle. Like for 尊敬語, the 謙譲語 substitutes verbs with other forms. Nouns may also change: the word 人, previously mentioned, will become 者.

In the table below, you will find the honorific and humble styles’ special set-expressions, along with the polite and casual speech forms.


Example Sentences:
” I am Sakura.
Normal: 私はさくらです。Watashiwa sakura desu
謙譲語:私はさくらと申します。Watashiwa sakura tomoushimasu.
“I read the book”
この本を読みました。Konohono yomimashita
こちらの本を拝読しました。Konohono haitokushimashita

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 third category called 丁重語. This courteous form of keigo is not often referred to and is used when your action does not directly involve the listener, but most likely the person you are talking to is someone to whom you want to be very polite.


Japanese Keigo Conjugation

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: お/ご + stem of the verb + になる.
      The honorific style can also be expressed with what is called the “easy keigo” with verbs used in the passive form れる or られる. 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: お/ご + stem of the verb + する. You have certainly heard it before in お+願い+します(“please”).

When Should I Use Japanese Keigo?

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 than for learners.

The respectful language can be strictly applied in one company or more loose in another. Foreigners often get slack from Japanese as they do not expect a non-native to master this speech.

The difficulty also resides in the unknown: a gathering of people you do not know and here you are at lost, not knowing who is eminent, who has your age and who is younger. In some context, casual speech is preferred as an ice breaker while Keigo would be considered as too distant.

Keigo is also widely used in the workplace, check out our business Japanese courses and send us an inquiry if you want to know more about Japanese Keigo .

Click to tweet this article and share it with others! 

Coto Japanese Academy is a unique Japanese Language School in Iidabashi Tokyo, we offer relaxed and fun conversational lessons for all levels of Japanese learner. Coto Japanese Academy prides itself on its community atmosphere and fun lessons that focus on creation of opportunities to speak and learn Japanese. If you are interested in studying Japanese in Tokyo – please visit our contact page here.

Start taking Japanese lessons and learn how to use Keigo properly!