When to Use Keigo (Honorific Speech): Hierarchy in Japanese Society

Have you ever been unsure whether you should use keigo (honorific speech) or not in Japan? I have. Growing up in Japan, I’ve always faced the uncertainty of speaking keigo. If you are a fluent Japanese speaker or serious Japanese learner, I think you will be able to relate to my experience.

* I will refer to casual speech as tamego (タメ語) in this article although tameguchi (タメ口) seems to be more common.

How the Japanese learn keigo

Happy days

In the beginning, everyone is equal. In kindergarten and elementary school (1st to 6th grades) you don’t worry about keigo. You speak ‘normally’ with other children regardless of your grade. When I was six, I lived in an apartment building where there were many elementary school kids. Some of them were younger and some older. I never used keigo with them.

As far as I remember, children don’t use keigo with grown-ups either. I spoke tamego with my friends’ parents as well. You can even address your teachers without keigo. You may think that teachers are well-respected in Asian cultures and that’s certainly true to some extent, but teacher-student relationships in Japan can be quite casual (including in universities, although you will definitely use keigo with professors).

Still, you might use keigo with strangers or perhaps your distant relatives. When it happens, your parents guide you through it. Keigo is not easy for children so even if you make mistakes, adults are forgiving. Some kids won’t use keigo unless their parents explicitly tell them to.

When you are a kid, everything is simple.

Wake up call

Things are not quite the same once you enter Japanese junior high school (7th to 9th grades); you are introduced to the Japanese hierarchy.

You will notice some changes. All the older kids you used to play with start acting differently. They are now considered senpai (elder ones) and are entitled to be respected. You are suddenly uncomfortable talking to them. Something is wrong. You are supposed to use keigo with them from now on.

The change is so drastic that it’s funny. I used to take care of kids in some extracurricular activities. They spoke tamego with me up to the 6th grade but as soon as they were in junior high school, they started to speak keigo. I didn’t ask them to do so. I would actually have preferred it if they had continued speaking tamego. But they felt they had to speak keigo. In fact, some of them took pride in doing so. For them, speaking keigo was a sign of adulthood.

The senpai-kohai system in junior high school is quite strict. Some people abuse the power. It’s not unusual for a senpai to ask a kohai (younger one) to do menial tasks. For example, your senpai might ask you to buy a drink for him from a vending machine. This is called pashiri (パシリ). You don’t want to be a pashiri. It’s demeaning.

Some are unhappy with this hierarchical relationship. I would often hear kids say, ‘Why do senpai act so arrogantly as if they are superior human beings? They are just one year older than us. That’s not much different.’ Well, too bad for them; once you enter the hierarchy, there’s no going back.

And so it goes.

Afterwards

You will pretty much be using keigo throughout the rest of your life except with your close friends. The innocent days are over. Now you will face uncertain situations where you don’t know whether use keigo or not. Welcome to adulthood in Japan.

When to use keigo

Basic rules

The basic rule is simple: use keigo for older people. Have you noticed that Japanese people ask your age within a minute of meeting? That’s because they need to figure out whether you are older than them or not. If you are older, they will keep using keigo; if not, they might drop it.

Workplace

The rule for the workplace is quite easy: always use keigo. As long as you stick with keigo, you are safe. With your boss, subordinates, clients, other colleagues, using keigo is almost always appropriate. This is especially true if you are new to the company. Use keigo regardless of your position until you figure out the company’s hierarchy. When you are not considered new there anymore, you might explore other possibilities.

Exceptions: traditional Japanese company

If you are a new graduate and newly hired, you will use tamego with other new graduates. This rule usually applies to traditional, large Japanese companies that only hire new graduates once a year. If you go to this kind of company, you are likely to go through some kind of training programme with other newcomers where you build tight relationships with them.

Traditional Japanese companies are a lot like school: you have equal relationships only with people in the same year. With them, you use tamego; with people more senior (senpai), you will use keigo; with newer people (kohai) you will use tamego but they will use keigo with you, so the relationship is not equal.

Exception: smaller companies

Things are different in smaller companies as they tend to hire experienced people throughout the year. These companies have their own unique cultures and hierarchy. Some companies might be very strict like the traditional ones but others are much more relaxed.

In my company for example, people tend to speak keigo with each other regardless of their positions. Some people use tamego to newer people but it’s entirely up to them. As for me, I almost always use keigo except with four people (out of 50). Obviously, I used keigo with them initially, but as we went to lunch and sang karaoke together many times, I dropped it and they followed. The interesting thing is that most of them are actually older than I am. On the other hand, they are newer. My analysis is that since I’m younger, they are comfortable using tamego with me and since they are newer, I’m comfortable as well. It also should be noted that their personalities are very frank. They are not the most traditional Japanese people either; coincidentally, they speak above average English for the Japanese.

Workplace warning

Mind you, just because you get close to somebody at work it doesn’t mean that you can drop keigo. Many people keep using keigo even if they become friends. This is rather remarkable because friendships in the workplace occur quite often in Japan.

On the other hand, if you date somebody from work, you are most likely to drop keigo. But then, many couples keep using keigo at work to keep it professional. They also might want to keep it private from their co-workers. If you want to know more about this, take a look at my article about Japanese office love (http://www.yutaaoki.com/blog/japanese-office-love-what-everyone-was-doing-behind-my-back).

Parties

Parties are where the real trouble begins. Let’s define a party as a gathering of people who don’t necessarily know each other beforehand (so I’m excluding office parties and parties with your close friends here). International meet-up events or your friends’ semi-public birthday parties are good examples. These parties are so out of the traditional Japanese context that you don’t know what kind of Japanese you are supposed to speak.

Remember the general rule: use keigo when the other person is older. This is the polite and correct way. However, in the modern Japanese context, using keigo isn’t always appropriate. It can also create a distance and you can be seen as cold if it’s a casual party and people are there to have fun. Imagine a party in a casual bar or club. In this setting, speaking keigo can be seen as uptight or even pretentious. Keigo reminds you of the traditional hierarchy which young, edgy people might not be fond of.

Sometimes, using tamego with older people is more appropriate. But the question is this: how do you know? This is a difficult task. Can you just ask him? Well, it can be awkward and rude. Can you just assume? You also risk being rude. You have to figure it out yourself in some way, but in order to decide, you have to talk to him first, which means you have to choose whether to use keigo, or tamego.

This is where your dilemma lies.

For this reason, getting to know Japanese people at a party has always been tricky for me. It takes me a while to be comfortable talking to Japanese people (or people who speak fluent Japanese). I need time to establish the social context; I need to know what kind of person he is, his social and educational background and age.

Gender effects

This is an interesting observation of myself: I have less trouble talking to random Japanese women than men. In a casual setting, I tend to just use tamego with Japanese women even if they are older and it makes things a whole lot easier. Also, younger women always figure out that it’s OK to use tamego with me even if I don’t explicitly say so. I’m not sure why I can do this. Maybe it’s because women tend to be less hierarchical. I could speculate that women put more weight on personal relationships than social hierarchy.

This also seems to apply to non-Japanese people speaking Japanese. It seems that whenever they speak Japanese, my brain automatically tries to put then in a Japanese context. So when they are men, I have the same difficulty but when they are women, I can just use tamego (unless they are exceedingly polite).

This is a very personal experience of mine so I’m not sure if other people experience similar things. If you have an opinion, please let me know.

Family relationships

You can freely use tamego with your family unless you live in an ultra-traditional patriarchal family. I’ve seen Japanese historical dramas where people speak keigo with their fathers, but I don’t think those families are common today. I’ve been using tamego with my parents and brother since I started to speak.

There’s one situation where I get uncomfortable: texting. I always feel awkward texting my family. Perhaps it’s because texting is still quite new for me. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I got a mobile phone, and before that I rarely wrote to my family.

Also, talking to my grandmother is very awkward for me. I didn’t talk to her much when I was a child and now, I just don’t know how to speak to her. It feels too polite to use keigo but too casual to use tamego. One possible reason is that she speaks the Hiroshima dialect which I used to speak but don’t anymore. If I hadn’t forgotten the Hiroshima dialect, maybe it would be easier to talk to her.

In public

Use keigo when you order something in a restaurant. This might be different in other regions (I live in Kanto), but here, speaking keigo is the norm unless you are a regular and know the staff well. You might see some old people use tamego with waitresses (my father does that sometimes), but I consider that an exception.

If you work at a restaurant, you are most definitely expected to use keigo with customers.

I’ve heard that in 109 (a young women’s clothing store complex in Shibuay, also known as a mecca of gyal style fashion) the staff tend to use tamego with their customers who are usually young girls. This is seen positively and it also gives them a sense of belonging: using tamego means that they belong to the same group and they are friends. This is a very good example of how using keigo and tamego can have different effects in different contexts.

Conclusion

Being highly individualistic and egalitarian, I’m not very fond of keigo and the Japanese hierarchy . But that doesn’t mean I think keigo is bad in itself. On the contrary, I consider it to be part of the richness of Japanese culture. It’s just that living in that culture isn’t always easy.

Also, the rules I wrote in this article are based on my experience which is essentially biased. I’m sure that other people have different experiences from mine. So, if you have different rules, please share!

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7 thoughts on “When to Use Keigo (Honorific Speech): Hierarchy in Japanese Society

  1. Panman

    Some Japanese people may say Japanese can even be hard for them at times; This is probably what they mean. Interesting read.

    Reply
  2. Anonymouse

    Huh, I wonder if it's a Kanto/Kansai thing but I live in Kansai and none of my friends (ranging from the late teens to late 30s) bother to follow the "use keigo with older people" rule. Also, I rarely see people asking ages, and even then I never see them switch their style of speech according to the other person's age. It might just be that people in Kansai tend to be more informal? I get annoyed when people use tamego with servers, though; it comes off to me as being rude, although it's not exactly uncommon in these parts.

    Reply
  3. Young looker

    I'm a foreigner of East Asian descent working in Tokyo, and I have been always told that I look young, to the extent that I have been mistaken as a senior high school student. As a result, I have been involved in many awkward situations where my age is discovered and our conversation would suddenly become cold and distant due to the use of keigo.

    My younger colleagues prefer to avoid the entire keigo/tamego issue by communicating solely in English.

    Reply
  4. aeTIos

    That's a really interesting article, thanks a lot for sharing! I watch quite a lot of anime and while of course a lot of things in that are exaggerated, I might just start to pay more attention to how they speak. You mention that in highschool everyone suddenly starts speaking keigo to upperclassmen, do relations with them really get that much harder? That seems pretty harsh :C In my high-school time, I had really good relations with my upperclassmen to the point where I almost exclusively hung out with them 😛

    Reply
  5. Luke

    Even within 敬語, there can be varying levels of formality, which makes it all very confusing. ござる/でござる seems like it is usually too formal to use (unless you are speaking to someone whose social stance is WAY above you), but it can be tricky knowing when to use the ます/です form versus 尊敬語/謙譲語 (e.g. いらっしゃる/参る). I think there are also many cases where 尊敬語 would be appropriate, but probably not 謙譲語. I notice that some people avoid the use of ます altogether when asking questions, usually opting instead for dictionary form + んですか. So the discussion of タメ語 versus 敬語 is even MORE nuanced and complicated.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  6. Dodo

    Hello!
    I'm from Hungary, it's a European country, and think i would have no problem when i need to use keigo or tamego, because in our language we also use polite and informal speech, almost the same kind of situations.
    There are times when we also have a problem which should we use. In that situation we can speak in a neutral way, when we don't name the other party, we just use their name, or say excuse me, and then say the sentence where we our phrases refers to ourselves. This is similar as the usage in English the phrase "may i".
    e.g "Can you tell me which destination should i head?" or "May i ask which destination should i head?"
    I know in english "may" is the formal way of speech, but in the same time it's a neutral language as well.

    Reply

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