Keigo (敬語) and Tameguchi (タメ口): Guide to Casual and Polite Japanese

Last Updated on 16.08.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Living in Japan, I’ve always faced the uncertainty of speaking keigo and “casual” Japanese (tameguchi). Beyond social hierarchy (as in who’s higher than you), the degree of intimacy and relationship plays a big role in how you should communicate. It’s not just the literal word that conveys the meaning, but the delivery and tone of speech that reveals your intentions. 

This won’t be a full breakdown of keigo, as we have a very thorough section dedicated to helping you understand the formal Japanese language (like knowing Japanese honorifics). This won’t also be a list of Japanese slang or swear words. Instead, this will be a more generic guide on the difference between using Keigo and tameguchi. 

Sometimes, people use a mix of keigo and tameguchi. If you’re starting out, you might be so conflicted on which form to use that you end up switching one with the other. This is completely fine — as fine as a common Japanese language mistake all learners make, of course.

Jump to:

Keigo (敬語) vs Tameguchi (タメ口)

Going back to the first sentence, I’ve faced a bunch of awkward conversations in the konbini where I would bounce between speaking in keigo and tameguchi with the employee. Here’s an example:

袋がいらないだけど。レシートをいただけますか?
Fukuro ga iranai da. Reshiito o itadakemasuka?
I don’t need a plastic bag, but can I get the receipt?

In the first sentence, I’m (involuntarily) using tameguchi: using da instead of desu. This makes my statement feels blunter. The second sentence uses the basic keigo rule: replacing morau (to receive) with its most humble form itadaku. 

Meaning-wise, you can bet that you get the message across, but imagining you’re talking with a mix of old, Victorian-era English with Gen-Z lingo. Yikes. 

Generally, keigo Japanese shows respect and politeness to strangers, but when you’re using it in every conversation with store staff and employees, you can sound as if you’re trying too hard — which, frankly, you are. At the same time, using a too-casual form can easily make someone frown. The easiest way is to stick with formal Japanese. 

However, as you get more comfortable with speaking Japanese, you may want to ‘upgrade’ said skill. After all, how can you prove you’re advanced in speaking the language when you don’t speak like a native?

What’s Keigo? Teineigo, Sonkeigo and Kenjougo 

Keigo is the Japanese polite form used when you meet someone for the first time or strangers, elders, people who have higher social status than you — and, often dismissed, when you’re talking to an out-group. 

The first three groups are pretty self-explanatory, and most of you probably know about this when you’re just starting to learn Japanese. If you go to luxury department stores, supermarkets or konbini, the staff will always speak in keigo.

いらっしゃいませ!
Irrashaimase!
Welcome!

When you’re talking to your boss and clients, you will also use the same keigo form. To address yourself and your own actions, you will use the Japanese humble form, kenjougo (謙譲語), in front of them.

However, when referring to someone in your inner circle, you should humble them too. What does that mean? For example, while you might use kenjougo to refer to yourself in front of your boss and clients, what happens when you’re out with your boss together to have a meeting with your client?

When this happens, you represent both the company and your boss. The concept of “in-group” stipulates that they’re part of you too, so even though your manager. An important thing to know is that you “raise” people from your out-group while you lower the peope in your in-group, regardless of the individual’s status from the beginning.

The other type of Japanese keigo is 尊敬語 (sonkeigo). Think of kenjougo as an honorific form that humbles the person who’s talking. Referring to yourself in the most humble way “raises” the status listener. Sonkeigo, on the other hand, “elevates” and shows respect for superiors, out-groups and people in a higher position. 

Keep in mind that Japanese keigo (polite form) is different from formal Japanese, also known as teineigo. For everyday interactions with strangers, standard teineigo (丁寧語) will do just fine. For example:

私の名前はコトです。
Watashi no namae wa koto desu.
My name is Coto. 

私はコトと申します。
Watashi wa koto to moushimasu.
My name is Coto. 

The first sentence uses formal Japanese, while the second uses the most humble form of “~ to say”. Although both means “My name is (name)”, these sentences carry a different nuance and will present you in a different way. 

When You Shouldn’t Use Keigo

While it is okay to use keigo to strangers who might be younger than you, if you are an adult talking to an obvious kid in keigo, you’ll get a few raised eyebrows. They’ll probably understand (although some younger Japanese children may not know keigo yet), but they will feel strange. 

The most important thing is to not use exaggerated keigo speech you hear and read in Japanese pop culture: anime, manga or historical movies. Remember that the Japanese used in these media are totally different than the ones in real life. You don’t want to sound like a low-caste farmer talking to a feudal lord during the samurai era

What’s Tameguchi? Casual Japanese Form

Tameguchi is a form of Japanese language used to refer to speaking to someone else as an equal — without using humble, honorific or even formal language. Tameguchi” means a way of talking that doesn’t contain polite expressions in Japanese conversation. 

The ため in this word was originally a gambling term, referring to when a pair of dice landed on the same number. The word “guchi” comes from the kanji kuchi (口), which means mouth or way of talking. The other name for tameguchi is tamego (タメ語) — 語 meaning “language”. 

Tameguchi is casual and, if used in the wrong scenario, impolite. One of the easiest ways to spot the difference between polite, formal and casual Japanese is the length. 

やっば〜!宿題忘れちゃった!
Yabbaa! Shukudai wasurechatta!
Oh no! I forgot my homework! 

Tameguchi, or casual Japanese, tend to be shorter compared to keigo. Let’s take a look at a scenario where you are asking someone to pass you the salt.

お塩を回していただけますでしょうか。(Keigo)
Oshio o mawashite itadakemashouka?

塩ちょうだい。(Tameguchi)
Shio choudai.

Notice the first sentence is way longer than the second? This is because it incorporates all the basic rules of keigo: adding the honorific prefixes of o (お) or go (ご) and いただく.

Another example is written below. 

大阪へはどうやっていけますか?(Teineigo)
Oosaka e wa dou yatte ikemasuka?
How do you get to Osaka?

大阪へはどうやって行くの? (Tameguchi)
Oosaka e wa dou yatte iku no?

When Can You Use Tameguchi?

When you’re talking to someone younger, it’s usually okay to use casual Japanese — even if you are meeting them for the first time. Remember that seniority plays a big part in Japanese society. Elders will use it when they’re talking to kids. It is, however, a big red flag when you reverse the situation. You should never use tameguchi to someone you’re trying to show respect to.  

Japanese people adopt a high-context culture, which means there are many factors taken into consideration in communication: status, social relationships, social environment, formality, non-verbal gestures and even silence. Because of this, you might come across a few trials and errors before you can discern the appropriate time to use tameguchi and keigo.

When you are not sure, formal Japanese is probably the best form of the Japanese language. 

When Should You Not Use Tameguchi?

If you have just met a person and they talk to you as if they’ve known you all their life, you might feel a bit uncomfortable. 

In Western culture, ‘casual’ language is a great way to break down the ice and help relax the mood. However, you don’t want to present yourself as ‘too friendly’ in front of a stranger. There’s not really an exact point when you can use tameguchi, but generally, you both need to establish a good, intimate relationship. 

Where to Learn — and Not to Learn — Tameguchi

The same thing goes for tameguchi. You wouldn’t want to imitate the slang and way of talking from anime or manga — particularly if it’s shounen (young boy’s) genre.

Think of anime dialogue as the sort of dialogue you’d hear among 12-year-olds at recess, where they’re just shouting “Baka!” While some shows do take place in business seating and incorporate more polite, realistic characters, most of them tilt towards one extremity: super polite or super rude.

In most cases, dialogue in anime is very direct. Used outside the context of anime, it comes off as coarse, insulting, and even derogatory. The easiest way to look at it is this: even anime voice actors don’t speak like that. Instead, they often overexaggerate the words and manipulate the tone of their voice depending on the character’s personality. 

Learning Japanese from anime might make you more comfortable with the language and its structure, but taken by itself, it can really throw off your progress. The last thing you want to do is default your Japanese speaking skill to super-casual. 

Learning Japanese casual forms is a bit more tricky than learning keigo as there are seldom formal lessons about it. JLPT N2 and N1 examine your ability to use Japanese in the business setting, so keigo is usually part of the curriculum of many JLPT prep courses and advanced-level classes. 

However, tameguchi is not often taught in classroom lessons as often as in formal forms. Your best bet is to learn from comics, social media — and Japanese people. Try listening to your Japanese friends when they’re talking to one another. Slowly, you’ll start to adopt a few informal Japanese and obtain enough fluency to interact with them on a more personal, casual level. This is what’s known as immersion-based learning, where you learn a new language in the most natural way by interacting directly in the environment.  

Conclusion

Some people use tameguchi when they speak to foreigners because it’s simple and straightforward, while keigo relies on a lot of implications. 

However, Japanese people are more tolerant when non-native speakers use tameguchi in the wrong setting. Using over-enunciated street slang or super-casual Japanese isn’t seen as ignorance, but rather “beginner errors” in the use of language. 

What is tameguchi?

Tameguchi is a form of Japanese language used to refer to speaking to someone else as an equal — without using humble, honorific or even formal Japanese expressions.

What is keigo?

Keigo refers to words, phrases, and conjugations in the Japanese language that are used in formal or official situations.

When should we use keigo?

You use keigo when you’re talking to someone who is older than you or has a higher social status. You may also use them when you are talking to a stranger.

Learning the Japanese language that you can actually use in real life can be tricky. What you learn in textbooks may not always be used in real life. Coto Academy has excellent teachers and lessons that can take you from beginner to advanced. We also offer programs to improve your business Japanese and understanding of Japanese culture. If you are interested in learning with us, contact us here.

Move to Japan in April 2023
Long term study at quality Japanese language schools in Japan. Application deadline is End of October.

Coto is now providing a matching service for students who would like to study Japanese in Japan long term.

Apply
https://cotoacademy.com/studyinjapan
I'm not interested