“Japanese Honorifics” from Terry

“Japanese Honorifics” from Terry

For those of you doing your best to study the Japanese language, one of the things most difficult to figure out would be Japanese honorifics.

Japanese people place a great deal on face/appearance. No one is made to look bad in front of others, if possible, and everyone tries to be as polite to each other when meeting. The attitude allows them to maintain “Wa和” or harmony. When everyone is living in close proximity to each other, when modes of public transport involve travelling in conditions best described as crushing, it is inevitable that a set of social decorum develop to ensure that everyone can get along, know their place in society and maintain respect for each other.

Honorifics in Japanese is also used to emphasise social standing, or the difference in rank and position between various parties. It also allows social intimacy between equals and people of similar rank. To better understand this system of honorifics, we should have a look at the Japanese concept of Uchi and Soto “In-Out”(内-外).

In Japanese, 内 means home or inside. As a concept, 内 refers to all the people you know inside a specific social circle: your family, your company, your club. For example, inside the 内, family members may drop titles.

In Japanese, 外 means outside. As a concept, 外 refers to all the people who are not inside your specific social circle. For example, another company’s employee. Japanese speech differs depending on the social context of the person you are having a conversation with. So, keep in mind that you will not use honorific words when speaking about insiders (people from your social circles) as compared to outsiders.


This system of honorifics is very extensive. It includes various levels of humble, respectful and polite speech. It includes both special vocabulary and grammatical forms. It is also longer than more direct speech.

Honorific speech is referred to as Keigo 敬語. This literally means “respectful language”. There are three main categories in Keigo:
1. Sonkeigo 尊敬語 – respectful language
2. Kenjogo 謙譲語 – humble language
3. Teineigo 丁寧語 – polite language

Here are a few examples to help understand this concept:

When using the verb “to do”, it would be suruする. You would use this when with family and close friends.
In Teineigo, this would be shimasuします. You would use this in most of your daily interactions with other people.
In Sonkeigo, this would become nasaruなさる. This would be when you are talking to a customer or a superior. When using in the humble form, it becomes itasu致す.

Teineigo is characterised by the use of desu at the end of a sentence and masu with verbs. The addition of the words “o” and “go” are used as a prefix when describing neutral objects. Teineigo is actually the form of Japanese first taught to beginners, so you have already been learning keigo!

Sonkeigo, or respectful language, is used when talking about superiors or customers. You never use sonkeigo to talk about yourself. In general, sonkeigo is directed at those in positions of power e.g. a superior in the workplace, or a customer. Using sonkeigo also implies that you, the speaker, is acting in a professional capacity.

Here are some examples to show what I mean:
When a customer visits an establishment, the staff will ask them to take a seat. They will say “O kake ni natte kudasai”. This means “Please sit down”. If they want to refer to themselves sitting down, they would say “suwaru” instead of “o kake ni naru”. This respectful version can only be used to refer to other people.


Sonkeigo is characterised by long polite expressions. Common verbs may be replaced by more polite alternative verbs, as in the example suru given earlier. Other examples would be “hanasu 話す(talk)” with “ossharu 仰っしゃる” when the subject is a person of respect. Some of these transformations are many-to-one: “iku行く(go)”, “kuru来る (come)”, and “iruいる (be)” all become “irassharuいらっしゃる”, and “taberu食べる (eat)” and “nomu飲む (drink)” both become “meshiagaru召し上がる”.

Honorific prefixes are used when referring to or speaking with a social superior, or speaking about a superior’s actions or possessions. They are not usually used when referring to oneself or one’s own actions or possessions, or those of your in-group. For example, you would say “chūmon注文” when referring to your order in a restaurant but the staff would refer to it as “gochūmonご注文”. I would refer to my family as “kazoku家族” but would call someone else`s family as “gokazokuご家族”.

Nouns also undergo substitution to express respect. The normal Japanese word for person, hito, 人, becomes kata, 方, in respectful language. Thus a customer would normally be expected to be referred to as a kata rather than a hito.

There are too many examples to go into here but suffice to say, if you are serious about staying and working in Japan, you really have to learn to be familiar with this system of honorifics. Keigo is speech designed to show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations.

It is difficult, even for Japanese native speakers, and many are given lessons when starting work, so pay attention when the lessons are on offer.

To help you along, here are keigo words for the workplace that you should memorise, as they will help in your career and getting along with your colleagues.

Casual Japanese Appropriate keigo for work
Tomorrow 明日 Ashita あした 明日 Asuあす
After tomorrow 明後日 Asatte あさって 明後日 Myougonichiみょうごにち
Last night 昨日の夜 Kinō no yoru きのうのよる 昨夜 Sakuya さくや
Tomorrow morning 明日の朝 Ashita no asa あしたのあさ 明朝 Myouchou みょうちょう
From tomorrow 明日以降 Ashita ikou あしたいこう 後日 Gojitsu ごじつ
This year 今年 Kotoshi ことし 本年 Honnen ほんねん
The other day この間 Konoaida このあいだ 先日 Senjitsu せんじつ
That day その日 Sonohi そのひ 当日 Toujitsu とうじつ
Last year 去年 Kyonen きょねん 昨年 Sakunen さくねん
Year before last 一昨年 Ototoshi おととし 一昨年 Issakunen いっさくねん
Soon/Shortly Mousugu もうすぐ Mamonaku まもなく
Now 今 Ima いま 唯今 Tadaima ただいま
Earlier/Before 前に Maeni まえに 以前 Izen いぜん
Later 後で Atode あとで 後ほど Nochihodo のちほど
Immediately 直ぐに Suguni すぐに 早速 Sassoku さっそく
This time/Now 今度 Kondo こんど この度 Konotabi このたび
Just now Sakki さっき 先ほど Sakihodo さきほど
Where Doko どこ Dochira どちら
This way Kochi こっち Kochira こちら
That way Atchi あっち Achira あちら
Which one Dotchi どっち Dochira どちら
Just a minute Chotto ちょっと 少々 Shoushou しょうしょう
Very・terribly Tottemo とても 大変 Taihen たいへん
Very・greatly Sugoku すごく 非常に Hijouni ひじょうに
How many/How much Donokurai どのくらい Ikahodo いかほど
A few/a little 少し Sukoshi すこし 些少 Sashou さしょう
A lot/numerous 多い Ooi おおい 多大 Tadai ただい
About/approximately Gurai ぐらい 程 Hodo ほど



So, you can see that keigo seems to be like a different language and you will have to make a bit of extra effort to learn and master it. Most foreign students don`t take the time to learn keigo so if you do your best to master it, you will definitely increase your professional options in Japan.