What is Keigo?

Keigo (敬語; respectful language) is the polite or formal way of Japanese speech. This can be used when talking to people that are of higher social status or someone with power. Keigo is usually used for teachers, employers, elders, clients, customers… you get the jist. Japan is quite known for how polite and respectful the culture is so knowing keigo will be beneficial for people who would want to settle down and gain employment in Japan. This will be quite useful for foreigners who wish to someday work in a Japanese company where Japanese is used as their main tool for communication. Although it sounds quite easy to tell the difference between formal and informal Japanese, keigo is quite understandably more complicated to learn compared to informal Japanese. There are three different types of Keigo and we will be discussing Sonkeigo for this blog.

As you probably already know, formal language or Keigo (敬語; respectful language) is the type of speech used in Japan to show respect and politeness when talking to other people. This form of speech may have the purpose of showing respect and humbling yourself down when talking to someone of a higher status than yourself. It is commonly used in a business setting or a social setting with higher statuses or older people in general. Since Japan is quite known for its culture of respect and politeness, knowing when and who to speak in Keigo to in Japan is quite vital both socially and professionally. There are three main branches of keigo, mainly, Sonkeigo (尊敬語) or the “Honorifics keigo”, Teineigo (丁寧語) the “Polite keigo”, and there is this blogs main topic, Kenjogo (謙譲語) or what we call the “Humble Keigo”. Teneigo shows respect to the listeners, Sonkeigo shows respect to particular people and lastly, Kenjogo form which shows respect to the recipient of your actions. Keigo seems quite difficult to learn but mastering the basics has unknowingly already set you up quite nicely to learn proper Keigo. Remember that Keigo is usually only spoken to specific types of people and shouldnt be spoken unless needed. Speaking straight keigo to random Japanese people might give off the wrong impression!

What is Teineigo?

Teineigo (丁寧語) are polite words that are applied by the use of prefixes and verb endings of words you might already know from your Japanese textbooks. Considered to be the easiest out of the three types of keigo, this is also known to be less intimidating since it is technically part of learning the basics. An example of this is using “desu” and “masu” at the end of your sentences. Teineigo can be used for both yourself and referring to other people. Essentially, the main purpose of Teineigo is to show respect towards the other person in the conversation by talking in a polite tone. 

Teneigo basics

Teineigo : Verb conjugation (ーます)

For Japanese language students, this is considered to be one of the first things you learn when studying vocabulary. Usually called the “dictionary” form of verbs, this is one of the main vocabulary rules used when speaking in Teineigo.

EnglishJapanese (Casual)Japanese (Polite)

The Japanese Polite Three: Teineigo (Keigo)


What is Sonkeigo?

Sonkeigo (尊敬語、そんけいご) or the honorifics keigo is used when you are talking to or talking about a superior or person in a position of power. This can mainly be used to your boss, a senior at work, elders or maybe even customers. Essentially, this can be heard in a business setting or formal introductions/conversations with people who are of a higher status than yourself. Because this is a form of speech used for people of higher status, you should never use this for yourself or for close family members. This would make you sound too formal or a bit 変(hen: strange). 

Sonkeigo basics

Attaching ーお and ーご before nouns

Similar to Teineigo, Sonkeigo uses the prefixes, ーお and ーご for adjectives and nouns to show respect and politeness to the person you are talking to.

EnglishJapanese (Casual)Japanese (Polite)
Fine, healthy, lively元気Genkiお元気Ogenki
Learning the Japanese Keigo: Sonkeigo


What is Kenjogo?

True to Keigo fashion, Kenjogo (謙譲語; humble keigo) is a style used when you are speaking to a person of a higher position to yourself about yourself. In a way, it is a way of speech that humbles yourself or people who are close to you down in the eyes of the person you’re talking to, showing them that you acknowledge their higher position compared to yours and that you respect and look up to them. This in turn elevates the position of the person you’re talking to. This is probably the best type of Japanese to use when you are speaking to your boss or maybe even Japanese royalty if it comes to that point. Similarly enough to Sonkeigo and Teineigo, the main point is to show respect so do expect the vocabulary to change form and be in the honorific and polite form! Be careful of who you use it to To be honest, Japanese people do give a little bit of leeway for non Japanese people who try to speak in Keigo so although you would need to be strict with yourself in terms of speaking correctly, do not be scared to make mistakes. Making mistakes usually hinders progress because it prevents the student from speaking. Thus, trial and error will be good for you! Don’t be scared to speak in Kenjogo when the opportunity arises.

Kenjogo basics

Verb conjugations having お or ご + the Polite/dictionary Form + する/します

Similarly to what we’ve learned from Teneigo and Sonkeigo’s conjugations, make sure you know which words are of Japanese origins and Chinese origins. お should be attached to a word of Japanese origin and ご should be used for words with Chinese origin. If you are unsure, take a look at the kanji or look it up! It’s always better to be sure than sorry.

EnglishJapanese (Dictionary form)Japanese (Humble)Japanese (Humble-polite)
Learning the Japanese Keigo: Kenjogo


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