One thing that makes Japanese particularly difficult to learn is the different levels of politeness. This is especially true for those of us who don’t have to worry about this kind of this in our mother language.
When speaking Japanese, you’re going to use different language depending on who you’re speaking to, but also who you’re speaking about. Most learners of Japanese get that first part down, but sometimes figuring out how to be respectful to the subject of your sentence can be a little tricky. It gets even trickier if you’re studying Japanese online and don’t always have a teacher or friend to explain each situation to you.
Let’s break down politeness in Japanese to try to make this a little easier to understand.
A Handy Chart
The easiest way to explain this concept is with a chart that someone showed me when I first started learning Japanese, but I didn’t understand it until much later. Hopefully, it will make sense to you a lot sooner than it did for me.
This very helpful, very simple chart (that I certainly did not make in Photoshop in the middle of writing this), is a good visual to have in your head when determining how to form your sentences with the proper levels of politeness.
As you may have learned during your study of the Japanese language, there are a lot of ways to be polite. There’s a reason the Japanese language has an actual word for speaking politely (keigo 敬語), and it even ends in 語 like it’s a completely different language. In some ways, learning to speak politely is like learning a different language from what you would use with friends.
The trick is knowing when to use your fancy Japanese and when to dial it back. And that’s what this chart is for.
The red line represents the listener. Depending on the listener, you will either use polite Japanese, which I will explain soon, or casual Japanese, which is usually called “plain form” when you’re learning.
(Disclaimer: There’s Japanese words for all of these grammar terms, but unless you’re in a university-level advanced Japanese grammar class, you probably won’t know what any of them are, and you really won’t need to know them. No one is going to stop you on the street and ask you what the 終止形 of 食べる is. I’ll be using English words here.)
The blue line represents the subject or object of the sentence. This is whatever you are talking about. Generally, if you’re using honorifics for this, it is a person, and they may or may not be present. In Japanese you still need to be polite to people of significant status, even if they aren’t there to give you looks of disapproval.
So, the red line is the listener, and the blue line is the subject/object. Now that we have these basics, let’s get into a little more detail with how this works in conversation.
Being Polite to the Listener
The red line in the chart is mostly going to affect how you end your sentences. As you learn Japanese, you learn the difference between polite verb endings and plain verb endings. Putting –masu at the end of your verb or adding desu after adjectives and nouns makes your sentence polite.
When you are speaking to someone, it is important to understand your relationship with the person. Obviously, when you are speaking to someone older, such as a teacher or a coworker who outranks you, you need to show respect. But sometimes that line gets blurry. How long do you have to know someone your age before you can slip down into plain form? The best answer I have for this is to read the air. Err on the side of politeness, but if your friend starts using plain form, it should be okay for you to do that too. I’ve even met some Japanese people my age who were okay with using plain form with me right when I meet them. Just pay attention to how they speak and make a judgement call. And if you really aren’t sure, be polite a little longer.
Speaking in plain form means you don’t worry about all those –masu’s and desu’s. It makes Japanese go a lot quicker, and the conversation flows easier. It’s like you’re (wait for it) talking to your friends. So use it when it’s appropriate, but please don’t use it when you shouldn’t. You’ll come across as very rude if you try to talk to your boss in plain form. And they might not be your boss much longer after that.
Being Polite to the Subject
The red line is the easy part. When you first start learning Japanese, you learn the importance of ending your sentences properly. But the blue line will determine what words you use in your sentences.
The concept of showing respect to whatever you’re talking about can get really tricky. It generally requires expanding your vocabulary so you can use the right words in the right situation.
To give a very simplified example of this, let’s look at the word “to give.” Or rather, the words “to give.” There’s a lot. The word you use for “to give” depends on who is giving and who is receiving.
When one person is giving to another of equal status who is in their “in-group,” or basically someone close to them, the word kureru (くれる) is used.
When one person is giving to another of equal status who is not in their “in-group,” generally a stranger, acquaintance, or not-so-close friend, the word ageru (あげる) is used.
There’s a really, really polite version of that second one for when the subject is giving something to someone who hopelessly outranks them, and that is sashiageru (差し上げる).
If the subject is giving to someone below them or very close to them, sometimes the word yaru (やる) is used.
And if someone very high ranking is giving to someone hopelessly below them, this uses the word kudasaru (くださる). Fun fact: This is where kudasai came from, and that’s why it’s a really polite word.
There’s a lot of words for “to give,” and this probably isn’t even all of them. In English, we have a lot of words for “to give” as well. One look in a thesaurus gave me present, provide, relinquish, bestow, entrust, grant, and even sacrifice. These all kind of have the same meaning, but not quite. The difference is that the English words have slightly different meanings, and their use can depend directly on the pompousness of the speaker, whereas the Japanese words depend on who is performing the actual act of giving.
If the emperor gives you a piece of cake, you will use a different word than when your sister gives you one.
Combining the Two
A good example of how all of this politeness and not politeness fits together can actually be seen in the Tale of Genji. That’s right. Japanese has been this complicated for over a thousand years. For the record, it actually used to be more complicated until some people in the Meiji Period decided the language needed to calm down a bit, and they simplified everything. You should thank them for that.
Anyways, back to Genji. If you’ve never read the Tale of Genji, first off, it’s wild. You’ll be reading it, and you’ll be very lost. But at some point, you’ll realize what a crazy soap opera it is (Ghosts kill people? Like, more than one person?). One day I’ll write a full review, but we’re here to talk about the language.
The Tale of Genji is set in the Heian Period court. This means the author talks about the emperor a lot. He’s a pretty major character (being Genji’s father), and everytime she mentions him, the author has to use all the proper, super flowery language to describe what he does. The honorifics in Classical Japanese are even more intense than anything we use nowadays. But despite all this, she still ends her sentences in plain form. This is because she is telling the story to you: the reader.
If you were to place the language of the Tale of Genji on the chart, it would be in the top left corner. A lot of respect is shown to the subjects and objects in the sentences, but because you are just a lowly reader, the sentences are always ended in plain form (Honestly, the author was probably more high ranking than you will ever be anyways, so don’t feel bad).
To give a more modern example, we could pretend you are talking to your friend about their mother. Because you are talking to a friend, it’s alright to use plain verb endings. But when referring to their mother, you would want to call her o-kaa-san (お母さん) because she is not your mother. You would also use more honorific words when describing things she did in order to show respect to her. This language would also be in the top left corner of the chart.
Talking to your boss about what you did on your day off would put you on the opposite side, in the bottom right corner. You would use polite speech with your boss, but you would use humble language to refer to yourself.
Both of the lines in the chart are a sliding scale. There are levels of referring to someone using honorifics, such as the difference between –san and –sama. You can also vary how humbly you refer to someone, with yourself generally being the most humble. With the red line, –masu and desu aren’t the end of the line. There are a lot of fancy ways to end sentences with more polite forms of words like gozaru (御座る) and itasu (致す). As you expand your vocabulary, you can learn what all of these fancy pants words are and when to use them. You will also probably start to understand what the announcements in train stations are actually trying to say to you.
You Don’t Always Want to Be Polite??
After all this talk of politeness and not offending anyone, how could I possibly say that sometimes you don’t want to be polite?
Let me tell you a story.
I had an American coworker who was assigned to work closely with one of our Japanese colleagues. They were about the same age, and they worked together for months. After all that time, the Japanese guy finally snapped. He got really mad at the American for being too polite.
He explained to the American that because they were always using polite Japanese, he didn’t feel like they could ever become friends. Despite being the same age and holding the same position, the American had built a wall in between them just with how he spoke to his Japanese coworker. This was really frustrating for my Japanese coworker, but he went with it for months because he didn’t know how to express his irritation.
This is why understanding the chart above is so important. There is a time and place for you to be at every point of the chart. Even if you try to stick to the more polite side of the chart, speaking like that won’t always be appropriate. You need to know how to balance the way you speak and really understand how politeness works in Japanese.
You’re not going to perfect from the start. This can be a really tricky concept to understand as a learner of Japanese. But Japanese people are really nice. If you forget a word for something, just ask them. If you mess up and use plain form when you should have used polite, just correct yourself and maybe apologize if you need to. Language learning involves a lot of mistakes.
If you can figure out these different levels of politeness, it can help your Japanese go from good to great really quickly. People will understand you a lot better, and they’ll probably respect you for being able to talk to them in Japanese that is comfortable for them to hear. This isn’t an idea you’ll regret putting the time in to learn.