Keigo: the Spice of Japanese Life

No study of Japanese language would be complete without learning how keigo (敬語) works. Ostensibly, keigo is just honorific speak, but it’s also a good window into Japanese culture as well and reflects a lot of unspoken, cultural rules.

Kinship Terms

One cultural/linguistic rule is how you address your own kin versus another person’s kin. When talking about your own older sister, you use the term ané (姉), but when talking about the listener’s older sister, you use onēsan (お姉さん).  Note that this is not keigo per se, but it is super important to familiarize yourself with to avoid being impolite.

Other kinship terms include:

Relative Self Other
Older brother
Grandmother 祖母

For “wife” sometimes the term kanai (家内) is used for one’s own wife, but this is often sounds old-fashioned because it implies that the wife stays at home.

Honorific and Humble Words

Another unspoken rule is that, in some situations, you replace normal vocab words with either honorific terms when addressing another person or humble terms when describing yourself or people in your “inner circle”. The trick with such words is that, like a fine spice, a little bit goes a long way, while too much kind of ruins the flavor (not to mention sounds like you’re sucking up to people).

Good examples of people to whom you can/should address with honorific speech:

  • A customer (if you’re running a business)
  • Nobility
  • A teacher of your kids
  • Someone much older than you

But even here, it’s usually sufficient to use regular polite speech, and pepper keigo terms here and there.

Examples of honorific speech:

  • Instead of the verb する (suru, to do), replace with なさる (nasaru).
  • Instances of いる (iru), including when it is an auxilliary in te-form verbs, are replaced with いらっしゃる (irassharu).
  • The verb 言う (iu, to say) is replaced in all instances with おっしゃる (ossharu).
  • Many verbs can be made more honorific by changing to a noun-form, prepending with “o” and appending with “ninaru”. For example, with the verb 出かける (dekakeru, “to go out”) becomes お出かけになる (odekakeninaru).
  • A few verbs have more irregular honorific forms: 食べる (taberu, to eat) becomes 召し上がる (meshiagaru), 着る (kiru, “to wear”) becomes 召す (mesu), and so on. These just have to be memorized.

Similarly, examples of humble speech:

  • The verb 言う (iu, to say) is replaced with 申し上げる (mōshiageru).
  • The verb もらう (morau) is replaced with いただく (itadaku). This is often why Japanese say “itadakimasu” before eating a meal: it expresses humility in receiving the meal.
  • Similar to honorific speech, a few verbs have more irregular honorific forms: 合う (au, to meet) becomes お目に掛かる (omenikakaru), and 見る (miru, to see), is replaced with 拝見する (haiken suru) for example. These must be similarly memorized.

Passive Speech as Keigo

Another way to use Keigo, is to use passive speech when referring to someone.  Passive speech isn’t quite as polite as honorific speech, but it’s often sufficient for most situations and easier to use.  For example, instead of saying 帰る (kaeru) for “come home”, simply replace it with the passive form 帰られる (kaerareru), even if the sentence is not actually passive:

hon wo kaku (to write a book)

hon wo kakareru (to write a book, but more polite)

Polite Speech

As weird as it might sound, in Japanese there is a difference between keigo (honorific speech) and teineigo (polite speech).  Polite speech is, as the name implies, when you are speaking politely to another person, but still implies that you’re more or less on equal footing.  Honorific/humble speech overtly elevates someone else, which is why it’s sometimes out of place.

Polite speech is thus a more common and useful pattern of speech to use, and will work 85% of the time.

Chances are, you’ve probably learned polite speech before, but a few tips:

  • Verbs are expressed in masu-form: 食べる (taberu, to eat) becomes 食べます(tabemasu), 見る (miru, to see) becomes 見ます (mimasu), etc.
  • The conjunction が (ga) is often useful for connecting sentences.  It can either be a soft “but” or a soft “and”, depending on context.
  • Another conjunction なので・ので (nanode/node) is more polite than から (kara), but still implies “because” or “since”.
  • Remember those kinship terms above.  😉
  • Especially in business Japanese, regular verbs are often replaced with more formal sounding suru-verbs.  Instead of 答える (kotaeru, “to answer”) it’s more common to use 返事します (henji shimasu).


Part of your success in navigating Japanese culture and speech is being sensitive to hierarchy, and knowing the right amount of polite speech to use.  If you’re new to Japanese, you’re often tempted to either overdo it, or by force of habit, you might be simply too relaxed and forget your manners.  But, if you acclimate yourself to Japanese speech by listening to others’ conversations, you’ll gradually get a “feel” for what’s appropriate and when.

Good luck!

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: