What is Japanese respect language?

Types of respect language

Japanese has an extensive system of honorifics, including various levels of respectful, humble, and polite speech. Honorifics in Japanese language are broadly referred to as keigo (敬語), "respectful language", and fall under three main categories: sonkeigo (尊敬語) (respectful language), kensongo (謙遜語), modest or humble language, and teineigo (丁寧語), polite language. Each type of speech has its own vocabulary and verb endings.

For example, the standard form of the verb "to do" is suru. This form is appropriate with family members and close friends. The polite (teineigo) form of "to do" is shimasu. This form is appropriate in most daily interactions. When showing respect, such as when talking about a customer or a superior, however, the polite form shimasu becomes the exalted form nasaimasu, and when referring to one's own actions or the actions of a group member, it becomes the humble itashimasu or shiteorimasu.

Polite language

Polite language, teineigo, is characterized by the use of the verb desu and the verb ending masu and the use of prefixes such as o and go towards neutral objects, such as o-sakana, "fish", or go-han instead of meshi for rice. Television presenters use polite language, and it is the form of the language taught to most learners of Japanese.

Some nouns have polite versions. For example, the words otoko (man) and onna (woman) are not considered polite language. To make them polite, for example, one can use the words dansei (man) and josei (woman), or otoko no hito (man) and onna no hito (woman).

Polite language does not convey any particular respect or humility. It can be used to refer to one's own actions or those of other people.

Respectful language

Respectful language, sonkeigo, is a special form of language used when talking about superiors and customers. It is not used to talk about oneself. For example, when a Japanese person requests an honoured guest to take a seat, they may say o kake ni natte kudasai (おかけになってください) to mean "please sit down". However, they would use the verb suwaru rather than o kake ni naru to refer to themselves sitting down. The respectful version of language is only used to refer to other people.

Respect language is characterized by lengthy polite expressions. Verbs may be substituted by more polite ones, for example, suru (do) by nasaru, or hanasu (talk) by ossharu. Some of these transformations are many-to-one; iku, (go), kuru (come), and iru (be) all become irassharu, and taberu (eat) and nomu (drink) both become meshiagaru.

Verbs may also be substituted by more respectful forms. One respectful form is a modification of the verb with a prefix and a polite suffix. For example, yomu (read) becomes o-yomi-ni-naru, with the prefix o added to the i-form of the verb (see What is the `i' verb ending?), and the verb ending ni naru.

The passive form can also be used to convey respect, thus "did you read it?" (yomimashita ka) becomes "was it read by you?" (yomaremashita ka).

Nouns also change 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.

Humble language

Humble language is used when describing one's actions or the actions of a person in one's in-group to others such as customers in business. Humble language tends to imply that one's actions are taking place in order to assist the other person.

Humble language (kensongo or kenjōgo) is similar to respectful language, in substituting verbs with other forms. For example suru (do) becomes itasu, and taberu (eat) becomes itadaku. These two verbs are also seen in set phrases such as dō itashimashite (you're welcome) and itadakimasu (a phrase said before eating or drinking).

Similar to respect language, verbs can also change their form by adding a prefix and the verb suru or itasu. For example, motsu (carry) becomes o mochi shimasu. This has an implication of doing something for the other person; thus a Japanese person might offer to carry something for someone else by saying o mochi shimasu. This form also appears in the set phrase o matase shimashita, "I am sorry to have kept you waiting," from matsu (wait) and yoroshiku onegai shimasu from negau (request or hope for). Even more politely, the form motasete itadaku literally means "humbly be allowed to carry."

In humble language, name suffixes are dropped, hence when referring to oneself, one does not use the suffix san. Similarly, when referring to people from inside one's group, one drops the suffixes.

Similarly to respectful language, nouns can also change. The word hito, 人, meaning person, becomes mono, written 者. The humble version is used when referring to oneself or members of one's group, such as one's company.

The following table shows how some plain verbs are replaced by respectful or humble versions:

Meaning Plain Respectful Humble
see miru (見る) goran ni naru (御覧になる) haiken suru (拝見する)
meet au (会う) regular o-me ni kakaru (お目にかかる)
be/come/go1 iru (いる) (be)
kuru (来る) (come)
iku (行く) (go)
oide ni naru (おいでになる)
irassharu (いらっしゃる)
oru (おる) (be), mairu (参る) (come, go)
know shiru (知る) go-zonji de aru (ご存知である) zonjite oru (存じて居る)
eat taberu (食べる) meshi-agaru (召しあがる) itadaku (いただく)2
do suru (する) nasaru (なさる) itasu (いたす)
say iu (言う) ossharu (おっしゃる) mōsu (申す)

1 The distinction between these three verbs is lost in some respectful forms.

2 itadaku (いただく) is the humble form of receive (morau (貰う)); it can also be used to mean drink.



Honorifics are considered extremely important in a business setting. Training in honorifics usually does not take place at school or university, so company trainees are trained in correct use of honorifics to customers and superiors.

In groups and out groups

When using polite or respectful forms, the point of view of the speaker is shared by the speaker's in-group, so people in the in-group do not take honorifics. Members of one's own company are referred to with humble forms when speaking with a person from outside the company. The family of the speaker are referred to humbly when speaking to guests. Similarly, the out-group addressee or referent is always mentioned in the polite style (though not necessarily with honorifics).

Mastery of politeness and honorifics is important for functioning in Japanese society. Not speaking politely enough can be insulting, and speaking too politely can be distancing (and therefore also insulting) or seem sarcastic. Children generally speak using plain informal speech, but they are expected to master politeness and honorifics by the end of their teenage years. Recent trends indicate that the importance of proper politeness is not as high as before, particularly in metropolitan areas. The standards are inconsistently applied towards foreigners, though it is generally recommended for adult Japanese learners to master the distal style before attempting the others.

Depending on the situation, women's speech may contain more honorifics than men's. In particular, in informal settings, women are more likely to use polite vocabulary and honorific prefixes, such as gohan o taberu for "eat cooked rice", whereas men may use less polite vocabulary such as meshi o kuu for exactly the same meaning. This is part of a general pattern of difference in speech by gender. However, in many settings, such as customer service, there will be little or no difference between male and female speech.

informal polite formal polite formal
kore wa hon da. (これは本だ) kore wa hon desu. (これは本です) kore wa hon de aru. (これは本である) kore wa hon de arimasu. (これは本であります)

The informal style is used among friends, the polite style by inferiors when addressing superiors and among strangers or casual acquaintances, and the formal style generally in writing or prepared speeches. The plain formal and informal styles of verbs are identical, with the exception of the verb de aru used as a copula. However, formal language in Japanese uses different vocabulary and structures from informal language. For example, formal language uses many two-kanji Chinese derived words conjugated with suru, and substitutes highly formal vocabulary such as joshi for josei (woman)

Expressing respect

Further to this, there is another factor, respect, which is indicated in yet other ways. For each politeness level there are two respectful forms. The respect language (sonkeigo (尊敬語)) form shows respect to the subject of the sentence. The humble language form gives respect to the direct object or indirect object by a variety of means, the most common being to humble the speaker. These respectful forms are represented by different verb endings. Since verbs come at the end of the sentence in Japanese, most of the factors formality, politeness, and respect is expressed at the very end of each sentence.

Verb form Japanese (kanji/kana) Japanese (rōmaji) English meaning
Plain form ジョンさんが佐藤さんを待っている Jon san ga Satō san wo matte iru John is waiting for Sato.
Respect for subject 先生がお待ちになっている Sensei ga o-machi-ni-natte iru The teacher is waiting.
Respect for object 先生をお待ちしている Sensei wo omachi-shite iru. We are waiting for the teacher.

The omachisuru humble forms carry an implication that the waiting or other activity is being (humbly) done by the speaker for the benefit of the person being addressed. Thus a humble sentence is unlikely to take a third person subject. For example, a sentence like jon ga sensei wo o machi suru (John waits for the teacher) is unlikely to occur.


O- and go- are honorific prefixes which are applied to nouns and sometimes to verbs. In general, go- precedes kango, words from Chinese or made from Sino-Japanese elements, and o- precedes native Japanese words. There are exceptions, however, such as the Sino-Japanese word for telephone (denwa), which takes the honorific prefix o-.

Although these honorific prefixes are often translated into English as "honorable" (o-denwa, for example, would be given as "the honorable telephone") this translation is unwieldy and cannot convey the true feeling of their use in Japanese. These prefixes are essentially untranslatable, but their use indicates a polite respect for the item named or the person to or about whom one is speaking.

There are some words which frequently or always take these prefixes, regardless of who is speaking and to whom; these are often ordinary items which may have particular cultural significance, such as tea (o-cha) and rice (go-han). The word meshi, the Japanese equivalent of Sino-Japanese go-han, is considered unattractive.

In tea ceremony, common ingredients and equipment always take the honorific o- or go-, including water (o-mizu), hot water (o-yu), and tea bowls (o-chawan). However, these terms are often heard in daily life as well.

As with honorific word forms and titles, honorific prefixes are used when referring to or speaking with a social superior, or speaking about a superior's actions or possessions, but not usually when referring to oneself or one's own actions or possessions, or those of one's in-group.

For example, when referring to one's own order at a restaurant, one would use Chūmon, but when referring to a customer's order, the restaurant staff would use go-chūmon. Similarly, kazoku means "my family," while go-kazoku means "your family" (or, broadly speaking, someone else's family).

Foreign loanwords (except those that come from Chinese; see above) seldom take honorifics, but when they do o- seems to be preferable to go-. Examples are o-biiru (biiru: beer), which can sometimes be heard at restaurants, o-kaado (kaado: card, as in credit card or point card), which is often heard at supermarkets and department stores, and o-soosu (honorable sauce). See Words from other languages and Japanese and English for more about loanwords.


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