You’d think there’s no such thing, but, uh-huh oh wow, not so much.
The phenomenon of smug Western weeaboos smugly proclaiming they don’t have to learn the Japanese honorifics, because “nobody uses them in Real Life, anyway” is nothing new. What is still quite surprising to me, though, is how wide-spread this sort of attitude really is.
(It shouldn’t, because it’s obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy)
1. In Japanese, you’re not being polite to be nice or friendly. You’re being polite to show that you can correctly read a situation as one requiring polite speech, to indicate your distance to the speaker (you can also use more polite language when you’re unhappy with someone, suggesting something like “we’re not as close as before, anymore”; one frequently finds oneself saying “gokuroosama” ironically when fed up with someone etc), and so on. This means that you can’t assume you will be able to get close to everybody in five seconds after meeting them PLUS ignore social conventions just because you’re such a special snoflake.
2. As it happens, I have Sachiko Ide’s research right in front of me, harr harr.
(I sleep with her books under the pillow srsly)
It’s an article from 1986 about degrees of politeness according to addressee in Japanese and American English requests. There’s a huge table that illustrates the distribution of polite forms in everyday speech, and as can be clearly seen in the table, the most polite forms are most frequently used towards: teachers, older people, medical doctors, secretaries, post office workers, part-time job superiors, landlords/landladies, police officers, department store staff.
Please, by all means, please try and explain why this shouldn’t be Real Life conversation stuff, and how you’ll be totes able to avoid it all the time.
(I’ve also got an article about polite form usage among married couples, FFS –> e.g. Yoshida& Sakurai, 2005, in: Broadening the Horizons of Linguistic Politeness, ed. Ide, Lakoff)
(There’s also a fascinating article by Ide about politeness and gendered speech, which explains that women’s speech appears to be more polite, because women are statistically more likely to only have non-work-related conversations — because they might not work — which are automatically more polite than the work-related conversations in which men are more likely to participate; Ide, “Josei-no keigo-no gengokeesiki-to kinoo”, 1985)
3. That said, can a foreigner live without learning honorifics? Absolutely. They have, however, resign themselves to the position of an outsider, never getting a job, and missing out on a significant portion of the fun everybody else gets to have. A foreigner unable to use polite speech in Japanese will most likely be only friends with Japanese people who are used to foreigners and their wacky foreign ways, they might quite often not be taken seriously, and very likely will be treated like child who makes everybody happy when they manage to accomplish the trivial task of saying “good morning” properly.
I mean, nobody has to learn polite speech, if they don’t want to, but denying it exists? LOL, ignorance.
ETA: typos, as usual, meh.