Posted: August 13, 2009 in japanese, languages
Tags: , , , ,

So, you feel oppressed by the Japanese honorifics? You feel they make you speak in a subservient, obsequious manner? You’re slightly nauseous whenever you have to bow? You feel ridiculous, using all those verbs that suddenly get longer and longer and longer, while you could just as well say the same thing using half as many words? Not to mention, shorter verbs? And what’s the deal with the polite language anyway? Can’t we just all get along (insert “wah wah wah”)?

Well, BAM, you’re linguistically incompetent, at least as far as Japanese is concerned. I’ll now proceed to tell you why, in excruciating detail.

First off, let’s split it up!

(Of course, it would be best to read it all)

1. If your first language doesn’t have polite forms at all, like English, Hebrew or Chinese, etc.

2. If your first language has got some polite language, like French, German, Polish, etc.

3. If you’re just really fed up with all this.

1. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

There are no languages that haven’t got any forms that can be classified as polite. Haven’t you ever said “sir”, or “I’m sorry, could you…” or called professor Wang 王老師(1)?

The point is, in Japanese the polite forms are much more diverse, much more complicated (although not half as complicated as you’re likely to be thinking right now) and much more ubiquitous.

Also, just because there’s more of them, it doesn’t mean that the Japanese are more polite or that their language is more polite. This is very counter-intuitive, but in fact, the more of the polite language you use, the more likely you are to stop feeling that it’s so very polite. In other words, with increased use occurs a marked subjective devaluation of the politeness level expressed by the a priori polite words. Thus, because you are not at first used to too much honorifics, you might feel that they are in fact very polite and make you sound obsequious when they do not, and when they are not perceived like that at ll by the native speakers.

Quite the opposite.

By using more honorifics, paradoxically, the speaker establishes his or her position as the superior one. Nowadays, the honorifics are a clear signal of the speaker’s high status, high level of education and his or her ability to recognize the situation as requiring the use of honorifics, which suggests that he or she knows how to interact within the society, which is generally considered a very desirable skill.

Sachiko Ide(2) in her book 『わきまえの語用論』introduces the research she conducted on female office workers. Unsurprisingly, or surprisingly if you’ve got no clue as to how things really work, the women with higher position in a company would usually use higher and more elaborate honorific forms than their subordinates. That sort of usage sends a clear signal that roughly is equivalent to the following statement:  “My manners which indicate my social position are superior to yours. Therefore, I am the boss here”.

From the the usage patterns you can observe on your own, if you ever attend a university in Japan, is the typical polite way in which professors talk to their students. The students on their part of course use the masu/desu forms, but are never quite as polite as the teachers(3).

Something I observed during the dialect survey last week was that the interviewers, especially above the level of doctoral student, would use much higher honorifics than they dialect speakers and other interviewers.

Also: whatever Ruth Benedict wrote, no matter how accurate it was and it wasn’t wasn’t wasn’t, she wrote it more than a half century ago. You wouldn’t really use, let’s say, USian textbooks from the 1940 to conduct research on the current social issues in the US, would you?

Finally, the masu/desu forms are not used to indicate respect or any such ludicrous sentiment, but the degree of familiarity and psychological distance. All this frankly ridiculous drivel about respect and such comes from the earlier and entirely not cool era of Japanese history(4).

Another thing is that by using too much honorifics you can sneakily go around insulting people as much as you like. Good luck! And get rid of that martyr complex, seriously. It makes you look stupid.

2. So, your language’s got all those polite forms, so you think you don’t really have to learn anything, apart from the appropriate conjugations?


Chances are high that in your language, the polite forms solely depend on the kind of addressee you are talking to. There are fixed polite forms to use when speaking to you teachers (pan profesor Kowalski), customers (moechten Sie vielleicht…) and so on. And while there are indeed many rules concerning the sort of situation you are in and the sort of words you are permitted to use (like, you are not allowed to swear in front of your grandmother, or in public places(5)), the more important factor is usually the addressee. For instance, once asked to use only your boss’ name, you can continue using only her name, even in rather formal situations, such as conferences, as well as rather informal, such as parties.

This is by no means the case in Japan.

Obviously, addressing your boss by only her name unless asked to is absolutely unthinkable, but even if given permission, you are still not allowed to do so on formal occasions. And by “formal occasions” I mean mostly anything that is more formal than a drunken revelry, or a nice evening klatsch in a cafe.

The thing is, even couples are often required to address each other by their family names and the appropriate title on a bit more formal occasions, such as work-related gatherings, or at the university during classes.

Best friends will switch to the most polite, most elaborate honorific forms without hesitation in their official work-related e-mails.

Disregarding those conventions may lead to serious miscommunications and faux pas, even though you thought that because your language had a separate set of polite forms you would have no problems with mastering the Japanese ones. This is not the case.

3. Here, a vid :) At least you will now know how to use waribashi.

(1) Sorry, don’t have simplified Chinese font installed right now!

(2) Sachiko Ide, Wakimae-no Goyouron, Taishuukan 2006.

(3) Unfortunately, this depends largely on your field of study. In general, at any given university, history and Japanese history professors are bound to speak more politely than the Japanese language faculty. Linguistics professors are even less polite, and the “worst” of all are the science professors. At my university, everyone at the Astronomy Department, from the lowliest first year to the most dignified professor emeritus (that may be a slight exaggeration) speaks using the plain form, but that may only be a purely pragmatic decision made because of the amount of foreign students they’ve got over there.

(4) Some time ago, there was a Japanese linguist who suggested that the entire system of honorifics in Japanese, whose conjugation doesn’t depend on grammatical person and that often omits personal pronouns, was originally intended to indicate the subject and object of the verbs. The honorific meaning was supposed to be secondary. Sadly, I am currently at a loss as to the whereabouts of the post-it with the linguist’s name =_=

(5) Unless you want to be rude, obviously.

  1. pillowscrapbook says:

    I love it about Japanese language, the distance you create. It is one of its most comforting features, alas the appropriate use of keigo forms is really difficult for me. I hate it that the “you” and its immediate familiarity spreads in Poland. It makes me uncomfortable … like we don’t know each other, why on earth should we be on the first name basis? And I’m sure it’s different in Japan, but here in Poland when I hear a university teacher say: “let’s drop the mr/ms, shall we?” it’s a bad omen. Usually very lazy teachers, who want to be “pals” with the students, do that. They don’t expect much from their students, thus they don’t feel obliged to prepare for classes.
    Is it true that the younger generation has problems with using keigo correctly?

  2. atwitter says:

    It’s, like, for me, politeness, in general, is a sort of pre-made code that helps you communicate with people you don’t know in such a way that is inoffensive and efficient for everybody involved. You have this set of fixed expressions, and you can just choose some of them without thinking when you want to speak. This is why I think politeness is important, and should not be carelessly dropped in favour of forced familiarity, because, seriously.

    Uh-huh. Profs have approached you about dropping honorifics? In Poland? DUUUDE THAT’S HORRID*. Which university? Which department? Only younger ones, who are more or less in the same age group as you, or the older ones, too?

    I don’t think they have problems. I mean, young people. Obviously, I’m totally biased, because most of my pals are from the university, so, I don’t really meet the high school drop-outs and less educated people a lot, but, I’d say that the individual differences are much bigger than the generation gap.

    Also, the fact is that the usage itself has changed greatly, and many forms are not used very often today (like, gozaimasu – but you hear it from time to time, for instance, from middle-aged prefecture officials ^^;;; ), so from the perspective of an older person, the changed usage might seem incorrect.

    Which it isn’t.

    And, seriously. I still get half of my e-mails from people about two years younger than me written in keigo. They just can’t help themselves :D

    *No, really.

  3. pillowscrapbook says:

    The Warsaw Uni i’m afraid… in the Japanese faculty only young teachers have done that, and 3 out of 4 did it because they wanted to be lazy and not prepare for classes. In the applied linguistics I heard it from more seasoned (but not really the best or most respectable) lecturers, and some had a more disgusting agenda than lazyness- they wanted to party and have sex with students – no joke or mean accusation, one of the teachers stole my girlfriend.

  4. atwitter says:

    LOL seriously? Girlfriend-stealing profs FTF =_=! This is, like, totally unprofessional, and has skeevy power dynamics, and, well, stealing girlfriends is just uncool :( I wouldn’t steal your girlfriend!
    Do I know you? IRL? Because, like, maybe I should? Seeing as we’re from the same uni? And, partly, from the same department?
    I feel like I should know you ^^;;;;

    One of the younger teachers at the Japanese Studies department told me, like, ten times or so, to stop addressing him as “Dr XY”. The thing is, he was drunk, completely drunk every time he asked me, and, as a general rule, I tend no to do whatever a drunk person asks me to do, because, well, that way lies aneurysm and traffic accidents. But, well. Now that I think of it, it’s actually funny :D

  5. pillowscrapbook says:

    yup, drunk people should be approached with caution ;)

    the person my ex has become, well the prof can keep her for all care, but it was a drama back then ;)

    I’ve actually seen you around at the faculty (I checked your grono profile, since I found your blog through it, and there is a photo), but I don’t think we have ever talked, so I think saying we know each other would be an overstatement.

  6. atwitter says:

    Huh. I’m loud, aren’t I? people usually hear me screaming* before they actually *see* me.

    And, that’s totally presumptuous and stuff, BUT! I’ll be in Warsaw for about a week after 24 September, and I like your brain! So, if you feel like it, I’d be totally up to having a pint, somewhere :) Because, obviously, not talking to people whose brains I like should be remedied asap :)

    You don’t have to or anything, of course :)

    * I usually scream obscenities and “LOL STUPID”. This is because I’m secretly three years old.

  7. ekolog says:

    I can’t imagine writing an email to my supervisors beginning with Dear sirs or something like that. Everybody’s equal and titles are used more for having fun – as when you want to make a celebrity out of a marvellous prof. (of course in academic environment). I don’t want to remove using titles – esp. in contact with general public, but in environment, where no one wears suit/tie/bowtie using polite language looks/sounds archaic (I hope it’s a correct word).
    I’ve noticed different thing regarding emails. When I contact my friends on job issues, we use normal, casual talk. When we email on different subject, however, we can become very easily friendly rude – so there is a division between work language (common) and off-work language (rude-common). I don’t mean by rude using so called playground-latin instead of commas and full stops, but I wouldn’t use expressions from those emails talking to my supervisor or in public.

    • Ha, that’s interesting. I’ve mostly spent my academic career in politeness-rich environments ^^; (Polish, Japanese, German), so I was quite shocked when I visited a pal in the UK, and she was calling her academic advisor “John”. After a 30-second WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN HEATHENS HEATHENS HEATHENS moment, I parsed it correctly and moved on ;)

      I’ve never wrote a non-polite work/university-related e-mail in my life. I feel like I’m missing out on something >.>

  8. ekolog says:

    I think (and it’s based on pretty big anecdotal evidence), that many natural history researchers have this pretty relaxed attitude. It’s so natural, that when I go back to Poland and meet people from my previous Uni, it’s really hard to get used to using all the formal titles again.

    As an evidence for colloquialisms in work emails I can tell you about those famous Climategate emails, where professors chat and exchange free thoughts between themselves using common language.

    • Ah, those e-mails are cute :)

      OTOH, my prof back in Warsaw was on a first name basis with some of the students with whom he went out for a pint after the seminar. In the end, I think I’m just a pretty reserved person, IRL ;)

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