Online Lessons

Online Lessons
Politeness in Japanese
March 15, 2017  |  By GaijinPot Blog

Last chapter, as we learned about how three special verbs in Japanese to express giving and receiving in Japanese, we also started to learn a bit about politeness rules and quirks in Japanese. Politeness is one of the trickiest aspects of the Japanese language for foreigners, so in this chapter, we will continue our studies in this topic.

Outside and inside and, above and below

When we learned how Japanese has two verbs for giving – one for giving “upwards” or “outbound” and one to give “downwards” or “inbound” – we also learned one of the basic tenets of the politeness rules in Japanese: speak highly of those outside your circle and/or above your rank, and speak humbly about yourself and those in your group.

Using words such as hierarchy, rank, in-group or out-group often gives foreign students of Japanese the idea of an almost feudal level of language and society. I distinctly remember some European colleagues at language classes in Japan proudly saying that in their countries everyone is equal to another and that the concept of hierarchy was alien to them.

In reality, though, things such as politeness levels and honorifics exist in almost all languages. No one bats an eye when addressing someone older as “ma’am” or “sir”, and we certainly do not speak with strangers or our bosses the same way as we do with our friends. Having said that, Japanese grammar makes you think more often of hierarchy, and it has a great impact over things such as verb conjugations.

Polite speech in Japanese is called keigo (敬語, which literally means “respectful language”) and is, in turn, normally divided into three categories: teineigo (丁寧語) or polite language, sonkeigo (尊敬語) or respectful language, and kenjougo (謙譲語) or humble language. While we will address the last two, we will mostly concentrate our studies in this chapter in the first type.


First, good news! You have already learned a good bit of teineigo – just think of all the polite verb conjugations you learned, meaning those that end with ます. In the same way, the copula です is the polite version of だ.

PlainPolite (teineigo)English
私はみどりだ。私はみどりです。I am Midori.
おれはひろきだ。私はひろきです。I am Hiroki.
すしを食べるの?すしを食べますか?Do you eat sushi?
ぼくはべんきょうした。<それで、田中と話した。私はべんきょうしました。それで、田中先生と話しました。I studied. Then, I talked to professor Tanaka.

As you see, the changes are not that massive. In addition to the transition of the plain form to the polite form, and from だ to です, there are some other things to check out. First, the word we have been using to represent “I” – 私– is but one of the possible ways to talk about yourself (yes, there are several words in Japanese that can be used as personal pronouns). Those that read manga or watch anime are no doubt familiar with the words ぼく and おれ, both also meaning “I”.

The answer for “which first-person pronoun should I use?”, as always in Japanese, depends based on your current setting and with whom you are talking to.

Watashi is the pronoun we have been using as a standard in this series, and rightly so. Using 私 has many advantages, as it is a polite expression that can be used by both women and men in most formal occasions as well as in more casual situations too. 私 would be appropriate from a job interview to meeting a new person at a gathering. When in doubt, stick to 私.

Also note that 私 can be used with two different pronunciations: the first is わたくし, and is the most formal pronoun, best reserved by very formal situations, such as a court hearing. The second one is あたし, used almost exclusively by females to give them a girlish or “ladylike” ring.

僕 (ぼく)

Originally meaning “servant”, 僕 is a pronoun you will increasingly hear as you become more acquainted with people in Japan. It is mostly a masculine pronoun, but it can also be heard from women, especially young ones or those who want to show some disdain for customary gender divisions in Japan (And for female Japanese singers, it is not uncommon at all to refer to themselves in their songs as 僕, even in less recent times.). It tends to be used mostly by younger boys, and especially for informal conversations. Although it is softer than the next pronoun, it is not recommended for formal situations.

俺 (おれ)

俺 has a definite coarse sounding to it, and, as such, it should only be used in casual settings and/or with people who are very close to you. It gives the impression that the person with whom you are talking to is of lower standing compared to you, which is something you might want to be careful about in Japan. Again, it has a very masculine ring to it, although use by females is not unheard (but certainly uncommon).


Derived from the 内 (inside, as in inside-group) kanji, although always written in Hiragana, うち is very common first-person pronoun in the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, among other cities. うち is mostly used by females, although in can be heard being used by males, especially in some regions in Kyushu (the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands).

Japanese honorifics

An honorific is prefix, suffix or otherwise a title that is appended to one’s name in order to show esteem or respect when addressing or referring to that person. Known as けいしょう (敬称) in Japanese, the use of honorifics in Japanese is one of the most distinctive marks of the language – and, I guess, you have heard them long before you ever decided to learn Japanese. Given their function, it is no surprise that honorifics are a key element in showing respect and politeness and that their use is very dependent on the setting. Let’s check some of the most common honorifics and their usage.


さん is the most common honorific, especially when spoken, and also probably the first one you ever heard (for Daniel-san, in my case). さん is the most used honorific because it can be used in both formal and informal contexts, for both male and female names, and with either surnames or given names.

Although さん is often compared to English honorifics such as “Mr.” or “Ms.”, bear in mind its usage is broader than those terms – for example, high school and college students often address each other by さん, while that might be a tad too formal in English. It can also be attached to job occupations – for example, doctors (いしゃ) are often called おいしゃさん – and even to shops: a bookshop (ほんや) is often called ほんやさん. さん can even be used for “everyone”, when a lecturer or a presenter wants to address every person in the room, as in みなさん.

Finally, さん can be used to create some somewhat humorous sentences, such as だれかさん (literally “somebodyさん”), when you want to obviously, but indirectly, refer to someone, as in 誰かさんも今夜のパーティに来る” (you-know-who is also coming to the party tonight).

Please note thatさん is always written in Hiragana.

さま (様)

さま is the more respectful version of さん, normally used for people of higher rank than oneself. Like さん, it can be used regardless of the gender of the addressee. As a customer (きゃく) in a Japanese shop, you will normally be called おきゃくさま. In fact, there is a common adage that says おきゃくさまはかみさまです, meaning “the customer is a god” (how truthful that adage is will be up to you to find out once you live in Japan).

I have seen this term translated as “sir” or even “lord”, but it does not go that far. The two things that さま conveys are 1) a difference in rank between the speaker and the addressee, and 2) some familiarity with the addressee. Its usage can range, then, from simple flattery towards customers to real admiration you have to someone, like a famous writer, scientist, or artist.

Finally, さま also appears in set phrases such as おつかれさま, which is said to departing work colleagues or students and means something akin to “thank you for a good job” (the more literal meaning, if translatable, would be something like “honorable tiredness”).

君 (くん)

Differently from the two previous honorifics, くん is used by people of senior status towards those of junior status. Far from implying disdain, it implies some degree of endearment.

くん is more commonly used towards males, especially young men and boys, but it can also be used towards females. For example, in companies and schools, older males will often address their junior female colleagues as くん, avoiding both the extra formality of さん and the excessive intimacy of the next honorific, ちゃん. くんcan be used to name a close friend or family member of any gender.

くんalso has a kanji (君), but it is more often written out in Hiragana. Note that the kanji 君 can also be used for きみ, a third-person pronoun that will not be covered in this article.


Possible the second most well-known Japanese honorific, ちゃん can be considered the diminutive suffix in Japanese, showing that the speaker finds a person or something to be “cute” or endearing (it bears saying that the “ch” sound is considered cute in Japanese; for example, the word ちいさい is sometimes spoken ちっちゃい for things like babies and animals).

As such, it is all over the kawaii culture to call people and things ちゃん: for babies, pets, close friends (particularly for and between women), one’s grandparents, lovers, etc. Some people even call themselves in the third-person using ちゃん. On the other hand, using it in the workplace would sound condescending and even demeaning.

The next honorifics may also be used as stand-alone title in addition to being used as suffixes:

先生 (せんせい)

Meaning “former-born”, 先生 is, as we have often seen in this series, used to refer to or address teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, and authority figures. It is also used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain degree of ability or mastery in an art, be it musicians or martial artists.

先輩 (せんぱい) and 後輩 (こうはい)

Another common word for the manga/anime crowd, 先輩 is used to address or refer to one’s senior colleagues at school or work (note the kanji 先 indicating seniority). In school, the students in higher grades than you are your senpai. At work, those with more experience or time in the company are your senpai. One’s boss, though, would not normally be called senpai, but simply “boss” (ぶちょう).

The opposite of 先輩 is 後輩, a junior. Although presented here for completeness, 後輩 is not nearly as common as 先輩 as an honorific; normally, さん, くん or even ちゃん are used to refer to one’s junior.

氏 (し)

You will very rarely hear this honorific, as 氏 is more commonly used in formal writing, such as newspapers, legal documents, academic journals and the kind. Note that, although certainly respectful, appending氏 to a name lacks the familiarity which さんor さま imply. 氏 may also be used as a stand-alone title without the person’s name as long as there is only one person being referred to.

No honorific! (よびすて)

Japanese people do not use honorifics all time with everyone. Dropping the honorific – what is called よびすて – means the speaker is addressing someone with whom he is familiar, and is therefore better reserved family, close friends, or one’s spouse. English speakers may think of this as the equivalent of being on a “first-name basis” with someone.

Be careful that addressing someone without honorifics without this closeness can be seen as rude; on the other hand, some Japanese people may, believing that foreigners have no knowledge of Japanese rules of formality and etiquette, address them without any honorifics, trying to come across as friendly or unreserved. The misunderstandings that might arise are part of the charm of living with people from different cultures, I believe.

Other marks of politeness: お and ご

If you go back this article a bit to the part where we were discussing Japanese honorifics さん and さま, you might have noticed that there was an extraneous お added to some words, such as おいしゃさん (doctor), おきゃくさま, and おつかれさま (“thank you for your efforts”). This お, which also appears in some words that have entered the English lexicon such as ofuro, is not nominally part of the word, but a prefix added to make it sound more polite.

Following the basic rules of Japanese politeness, you can guess that you never add お to yourself or your own things, only to someone else’s. So while you would say やまださんはおいしゃさんです (Mr. Yamada is a doctor), you would never say 私はおいしゃさんです, only 私はいしゃです (I am a doctor).

In addition to お, there is also the prefix ご, which serves a similar function (you might have heard the word ごはん, meaning cooked rice; the ご was actually once a prefix making it more polite). So when to use お, and when to use ご?

There are three basic guidelines:

Use お with Japanese native words;お茶 (おちゃ, tea)
お知らせ (おしらせ, notification);
お帰り (おかえり, welcome home!)
お届け (おとどけ, delivery)
おやすみ (good night)
Use ご with words of Chinese origin;ご注意 (ごちゅうい, take care)
ご注文 (ごちゅうもん, order, request)
ご連絡 (ごれんらく, communication, message)
ご報告 (ごほうほく, report)
Do not use either お or ご with words of foreign origin other than Chinese.おコーヒー (coffee)
おニュース (news)
ごビール (beer)

These guidelines are helpful, but they require you to know which words are of Japanese origin and which ones aren’t! One hint are to check the Japanese and Chinese readings of each Kanji, which these articles normally provide at the Kanji section. Another is to remember that normally isolated Kanji use Japanese readings, while Kanji compounds use the Chinese one.

But at the end of the day, my advice to you is to simply do not worry about it and try to remember them word-by-word, especially because there are many exceptions to those guidelines. For example, 食事 (しょくじ, meal) and 散歩 (さんぽ, stroll/walk) are both words of Chinese origin, but you say お食事 and お散歩 instead of ご散歩. Furthermore, it is possible to find words of foreign (non-Chinese) origin that also take the お or ご: for example, the word タバコ (tobacco), of Portuguese origin, can be called おタバコ.

Finally, one group of words that are very useful to learn using the polite お prefix are family words.

Your FamilyOther people’s Families
母 (はは)Motherお母さん (おかあさん)
父 (ちち)Fatherお父さん (おとうさん)
姉 (あね)Older sisterお姉さん (おねえさん)
兄 (あに)Older brotherお兄さん (おにいさん)
妹 (いもうと)Younger sister妹さん (いもうとさん)
弟 (おとうと)Younger brother弟さん (おとうとさん)

I believe that learning the words for family members serve well as a summary of our lesson so far. Note that the polite form of family members all use the honorific さん, and most also use the polite お prefix (interestingly, the young siblings do not receive one). Also note that that is not a typo: the plain form of older sister and brother are あね and あに, but the polite versions are おねえさん and おにいさん.

Also note that these words from the first column are to be used when talking about your own family members to someone else, not to address your family members directly. So a basic conversation would be like this:

田中先生: ひろきくん、お母さんは何の仕事をしていますか?
ひろき: 母はいしゃです。

Professor Tanaka: What does your mother do?
Hiroki: She is a doctor.

This brief exchange show us some of the peculiarities of Japanese politeness. Professor Tanaka is clearly Hiroki’s superior, addressing him as くん; she, however, treats ひろき’s parents with deference, as they do not belong to her group, addressing Hiroki’s mother as さん. Since Hiroki’s mother obviously belong to his group, when replying Professor Tanaka he addresses his own mother without any honorifics or polite-お, calling her simply 母 and いしゃ. At home, though, Hiroki would probably call his mother by a more endearing name, like, perhaps, 母さん (かあさん), or, if he were younger, 母ちゃん (おかあちゃん), as many young children do.

Sonkeigo and Kenjougo

What we have been learning so far is teineigo, or basic polite Japanese. As mentioned earlier, there also exists even more polite versions of Japanese, called sonkeigo, which is used to speak highly of others, and kenjougo, used to speak lowly about yourself and your group.

We, however, will not be dealing with sonkeigo and kenjougo in this basic course, for one simple reason: it is not basic Japanese at all. Many Japanese themselves struggle to use its rules correctly, and many only learn it after graduating high school and/or college and getting jobs.

As you advance in your Japanese studies, though, it will pay off to learn some sonkeigo and kenjougo, especially as you will often soon experience them as a customer in Japan.
For example, if you have ever entered a shop, you probably have heard the sentence “いらっしゃいませ!” being yelled by shopkeepers whenever a client enters the shop. This greeting comes from the verb いらっしゃる, which is the sonkeigo version of the basic verb いる.

As for kenjougo, two relatively easy sentences to learn using it are how to introduce yourself using ともうします and to greet people with お;待たせしました.

ひろき: 私はひろきです。 (regular polite) (I am Hiroki.)
ひろき: 私はひろきともうします。 (humble, very polite) (I am called Hiroki.)

ドウドウ: 田中先生!お待たせしました。(Professor Tanaka! Sorry to keep you waiting*.)

*Please note that you would say this even if you arrive on time, but after the other person. In fact, if you arrive late, you would have to apologise and use another expression. Don’t be late!

A word of advice: when to use politeness

While the use of politeness can vary according from place to place, as a good rule of thumb, you should be speaking keigo whenever you feel you would be speaking in a more polite way in English: in the workplace, toward your superiors – like your professor or your boss – or older people, and with people you are not yet comfortable with.

My Japanese friends often mentioned that keigo can be a marker of politeness as well as detachment, so using it with closer friends can give the wrong impression of being stiff or avoiding familiarity (there is something as being too polite, even in Japanese!). When in doubt, though, I would stick to keigo, especially if you find yourself not knowing people around you or among older people, and let them know you if you can be more informal.


After this difficult lesson, we will be checking in greater detail 10 Kanji that we have seen in this article. This is our list for today:

This Kanji means “mother”. The Japanese reading, as we have seen, is はは, also appearing in はは (Mother’s Day, in Japan, the second Sunday of May), although when used in the polite version, it changes its reading to おかあさん. The Chinese reading is ぼ, and is used in words like 母国ぼこく (homeland/motherland), 母国語ぼこくご (mother’s tongue), and 母乳ぼにゅう (breast milk).

Sample sentence: 来週らいしゅうははですね. (Next week is Mother’s Day, right?)

This Kanji means “father”. The Japanese reading is ちち, also appearing in the word ちち (Father’s Day; in Japan, the third Sunday of June), and おとうさん in the polite version. The Chinese reading is ふ, appearing, for example, in 義父ぎふ (father-in-law).

Sample sentence:とうさんはやさしいですね. (Your father is gentle, isn’t he?)

This Kanji means “elder sister”. Note that it, like the next Kanji, contains the radical for woman, 女. The Japanese reading is あね, while the Chinese reading is し, appearing, for example, in 義姉ぎし (sister-in-law).

This is the Kanji for “younger sister”; try not to mix the two of them. The Japanese reading is いもうと, and the Chinese one is まい. These two Kanji together make the word 姉妹しまい (sisters), which also appear in some compounds like 姉妹会社しまいがいしゃ (affiliated companies) and 姉妹都市しまいとし (sister cities).

Please note, finally, that the last Kanji of the last word, meaning “city”, is the other radical of the Kanji 姉.

This Kanji, meaning “elder brother”, is an useful one to learn, as its shape appear in many other Kanji we will later learn, such as 祝 (celebrate), 党 (faction, political party) and 況 (condition, situation). This Kanji’s Japanese reading is あに and the Chinese one is けい, as in 長兄ちょうけい (eldest brother).

The companion to the previous Kanji, this symbol means “younger brother”. The Japanese reading, as seen earlier, is おとうと; the Chinese readings are だい, as in 兄弟きょうだい (brothers; note the irregular reading for 兄), and で, as in 弟子でし (apprentice).

This Kanji means “doctor” or “medicine”. In the ancient past, this Kanji was much more complicated, including elements from war and from medicine; the only connection that remains is that the “矢” part in the middle means arrow, indicating the need for a healer.

This Kanji’s Japanese reading, くすし, is barely used; much more common is the Chinese reading い, appearing in words such as 医者いしゃ (doctor), 歯医者はいしゃ (dentist; the first Kanji means “tooth”), 医学いがく (medical science) and 医療いりょう (medical treatment)

Sample sentence:かあさんはお医者いしゃさんですか? (Is your mother a doctor?)

いいえ、歯医者はいしゃです. (No, (she’s) a dentist.)

This Kanji means “person”. The Japanese reading is もの, which also means “person”. It also appears in the word 若者わかもの (young person) and 悪者わるもの (scoundrel, rascal).

The Chinese reading is しゃ or じゃ, and is a very common sighting in words that denote someone’s occupation. Among many examples, we have the words 記者きしゃ (reporter), 学者がくしゃ (scholar), 消費者しょうひしゃ (consumer), 労働者ろうどうしゃ (labourer, especially blue-collar worker) and 忍者にんじゃ (ninja).

Sample sentence:とうさんは記者きしゃですか? (Is your father a journalist?)

いいえ、ちち忍者にんじゃです. (No, my father is a ninja.)

We actually did not use this Kanji in this lesson, but it would be strange to learn it after the next one. This is because this Kanji means “before” or “in front”. For some reason, it has always reminded me of an old television set. The Japanese reading is まえ, appearing in words such as そのまえ (“before that” as in “before that, we had been to school”), 前書まえがき (preface) and 建前たてまえ (your public stance as opposed to your private thoughts), and sentences like えきまえ (in front of the station).

The Chinese reading is ぜん, appearing in words such as 前日ぜんじつ (previous day), 午前ごぜん (a.m. as in before midday) and 前者ぜんしゃ (former as opposed to latter).

This Kanji means “after” or “later”. It has a few Japanese readings, but the most common are あと and のち, in this order. “Later” as in “I will do it later” is normally written あとで, while “afterwards”, “after that” would be そのあと.

It has two Chinese readings: ご and こう. The former appear in words such as 午後ごご (p.m as in after midday) and 今後こんご (from now on), while the latter appear in words such as 後輩こうはい (kouhai/junior), 後悔こうかい (regret, remorse) and… well, 後者こうしゃ (latter).

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