Politeness and Formality in Japanese

This lesson is a brief introduction to an important cultural issue that pervades all of Japanese speech: that of politeness and formality. These English words are basically interchangeable in this context, so don't be confused when I switch between them.

Levels of Politeness

It's often emphasized that Japanese has some number of distinct "levels of politeness" (I was first taught that there were four, personally). This isn't entirely accurate; as you might expect, it's more of a spectrum than a rigid scale. What makes Japanese different from many other languages is that "politeness" or "formality" is explicitly coded into the grammar. If you think about English, in formal speech we change our choice of words and use more complete (or even excessively long) ways of phrasing what we want to say. This is true in Japanese too, but here there are also different verb forms for different levels of formality.

Alright, you say, but how many? This is where things get sticky, because there are actually two separable grammatical components of politeness in Japanese. So rather than get into that, let's first look at the factors affecting choice of level of politeness.

Linguistics Tidbit: In Introduction to the Japanese Language, we talked about dialects, which are primarily geographic in nature. The language used by a speaker of any particular dialect also varies by situation–who you are talking to, where, and so on. We call these different varieties of speech registers. Level of formality, then, is primarily a difference in register.

Factors Influencing Politeness

One such factor is the speaker's psychological distance from the listener; in other words, their familiarity with the other person. In general, informal, or casual speech is used among family and close friends, while more formal, or polite speech is used when talking to people you are less close to (basically everyone else). Speech directed at the general public, such as radio and TV broadcasts, is also formal.

The other factor is rank, which is exactly what it sounds like. Each person in Japanese society has a relative rank to every other person, depending on the relationship between them.

Higher rank Parent Teacher Employer Guest Customer *Senior in age
Lower rank Child Student Employee Host Salesman *Junior in age

*This last relationship is the most general. As in other East Asian cultures, the young are expected to respect the old, even if the difference in age is rather small.

If both speakers have equal rank, such as between two friends or two strangers, degree of familiarity determines speech style. In the case where two speakers have different ranks, one might use informal language while the other uses formal speech. Or, depending on the relationship, the speaker with higher rank might use formal speech, and the the speaker with the lower rank might even more polite speech, typically known as honorific speech.

The combination of familiarity and rank, then, determines the basic level of politeness.


So how do we make speech more polite, anyway? One method you'll start using right away is with honorifics.

The honorific prefix お "o" (not to be confused with the particle を "o") is used to show towards items related to the listener. So while you might tell someone your own namae (name), you would almost certainly ask for their o-namae instead. "O" is also used with general nouns, typically those with cultural significance, like o-sake (rice wine) and o-tera (temple), and in some cases becomes almost inseparable from the root word, as in ocha (tea).

Equivalent to "o" is another prefix, ご "go", as found in gohan (cooked rice), another case where the honorific basically part of the word itself. So what's the difference? Basically, "o" is typically used for words of Japanese origin, while "go" is preferred for words of Chinese origin.

Use of "o" and "go" is a little tricky. In the case of words that always include the prefix, I'll simply treat them as if they're a part of the word. You'll get a feel for when to use them with words that sometimes include the prefix. Really, you can stick them on to basically any noun, but the result can be unnatural, so I'd advise against this. You can safely use "o" and "go" with words you hear them used with, but otherwise assume that they shouldn't be.

Basic Speech Styles: Formal, Informal, and Keigo

At this point, it's time to introduce the Japanese terms for the rough levels of politeness that I've hinted at above.

The first is ていねいご (teineigo), literally "polite language", which I will sometimes call "formal". This is style you will be learning first, since it's the default used by two adults with no particular relationship to each other. It's also used when speaking to someone higher in rank.

Formal speech is marked by the use of the polite copula (to-be word) "desu" and the polite verb suffix "-masu" (you'll learn more about these very soon), and generally uses complete sentences with a minimum of contracted forms. The honorifics "o" and "go", which you learned above, are also frequently used.

Next is くだけた にほんご (kudaketa nihongo), or "casual language", which you can also call "informal". It uses plain verb endings, and allows abundant contractions, colloquialisms, and the like. Informal speech is by definition less formal than formal speech, and therefor is less predictable. Because of this, you'll start to learn the casual style a bit later on.

Naturally, the informal speech used by close friends (who would have an equal rank) will be different from that used by someone who is higher in rank than their listener. Also, plain language without the distinctly casual elements is often used in writing; this is an example of an intermediary style.

Finally, けいご (keigo) is "honorific language", which is a step higher than teineigo in politeness. This is the style used when speaking to someone significantly higher in rank.

Keigo also makes an extra distinction as to who the speaker is talking about; this is the second grammatical distinction of politeness. One form, そんけいご (sonkeigo), or respectful language, is used when talking about the exalted listener, or people or things related to them, while the other, けんじょうご (kenjougo), or humble language, is used when talking about things related to oneself.

The basics of keigo are not as hard as some people make them out to be (it basically amounts to a couple extra verb conjugations, which are easy, and some irregular forms, which are not so easy), but being the most complex speech style and less necessary in the beginning stages, this is the style you'll learn last.

Note: I've heard teineigo referred to as "formal" and keigo as "polite", but this is unnecessarily confusing seeing as how we use those words interchangeably otherwise. I've also heard teineigo, keigo, and sonkeigo translated various other ways since their literal meanings are similar. This sort of naming confusion is common when trying to translate culture-specific terminology.

In summary…

くだけた にほんご
kudaketa nihongo
is casual/informal language and uses plain forms
ていねいご teineigo polite/formal language "desu" and "masu"
けいご keigo honorific language respectful and humble forms

So, if you still want my answer, there are three basic levels of politeness in Japanese.

It's important to remember, though, that there is a lot of variability within these levels, and arguably some notable sub-levels. For example, I'd say that there's a somewhat distinct "polite(+)" level that includes some keigo and a "polite(-)" level that is somewhat less formal (in the sense of being complete and proper). And perhaps more obviously, there's usually room to make keigo even more excessively polite and move kudaketa speech towards being extremely casual, or just plain rude.

Learning the Spoken Language

In this section we looked at the basics of language variation within interpersonal communication. It goes without saying that other forms, such as the presentational style and the written style, have their own rules as well. In the remainder of this introduction as well as the Beginning Lessons, you'll learn the basics of teineigo, the polite style, and the rest you'll learn over the course of your studies.

There's also a dirty little secret as to why Japanese learners are taught formal language first: its verb conjugation is the easiest. I'm dead serious. Almost all Japanese verbs fall into one of two conjugation patterns, but once you get them into masu form (the polite form), they all conjugate the same way for simple changes like past tense and negation. This makes one part of your job super easy while you worry about your other main task, which is learning how to string together a coherent Japanese sentence.

With that, it's time to start learning grammar.

What Next?

The Structure of a Japanese Sentence

Names and Introductions

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