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Navigating the ‘keigo’ minefield

Foreigners in Japan are damned if they do, damned if they don't use honorific language

by Jenny Uechi

You’ve probably heard of blunders by Japanese businessmen in English, such as translating “hitotsu yoroshiku” as “one, please” instead of “I look forward to working with you.” Less known, but no less common, are the slip-ups foreigners make in Japanese, especially when using that dreaded form of honorifics known as “keigo.”

Appearing in texts as ancient as the “Kojiki” (712 AD), keigo is a fundamental part of Japanese, said to be as old as the language itself. While other languages have honorifics, such as “tu” and “vous” in French, keigo transforms virtually every aspect of a sentence and implies a distance and hierarchy between people who speak it.

There are five official forms of keigo — “sonkeigo” (honorific language to elevate someone), “kenjogo” (humble language to lower yourself), “teineigo” (polite language ending in “desu” or “masu”), “teichogo” (a form of humble language that doesn’t require the speaker to be on the receiving end of an action), and “bikago” (beautifying language, when “o” or “go” is put in front of a noun). All of these are used differently depending on the situation. The crazy uncle in the keigo family is “baito keigo,” a form of keigo spoken in convenience stores and restaurants that ignores the conventions of normal speech (e.g. “Udon ni narimasu,” which translates as “This will become udon”).

Once people start learning advanced Japanese, they have to go beyond the “desu-masu” and navigate the linguistic minefield of the keigo system — a system that confuses even native speakers. That means learning new and often radically different ways of saying familiar words and expressions: “Suwaru” (to sit) is transformed into “okake,” and basic verbs such as “miru” (to see) and “kiku” (to hear/ask) are replaced by alien words such as “haiken” and “ukagau.” Adding frustration to this is the fact that keigo requires the speaker to size up their interlocutor in a split second and judge how much keigo they should be using toward them.

The mystery of keigo and its usage is a source of constant anxiety for many foreigners who live and work in Japan. Samantha Seghers, who has been in Japan for 11 years and currently works as an English teacher, is no fan of the social hierarchy implied in honorific language.

“I feel uncomfortable when it’s used toward me,” she says. “I don’t feel I am in that much of a higher position than anyone else — especially if it’s just based on age.”

Seghers also finds that keigo inhibits spontaneity in conversations when spoken by someone who doesn’t know it very well.

“People don’t trust themselves enough (or are not trusted by employers enough) to ad lib polite language,” she says.

Seghers is not the only one who feels this way. Many native Japanese struggle with keigo, and second-guess themselves when speaking in formal situations. In an article on young professionals by Aya Onami in Aera magazine’s June 23 issue, a male government worker complains that one of his employees refused to take phone calls because she wasn’t confident about her keigo.

“If she was just slacking off, I could get mad at her, but because she actually tries very hard I don’t know what do,” he lamented, adding that she studiously took notes when other people used honorifics.

However problematic some people may find keigo, it remains so ingrained in everyday language that attempting to avoid it is like trying to dodge wasabi at a sushi restaurant. Hiroko Yamamoto, the principal of KAI International School in Shinjuku, says, “Even if you don’t speak keigo, you have to know what it means to understand what people are saying.” She notes that many Japanese are at a loss when foreigners ask them not to use keigo, as they don’t know how to speak casually to strangers without seeming rude.

According to Yamamoto, teachers sometimes find it difficult to explain to students the situations in which they would be expected to use keigo.

“If you explain keigo as a form of ‘respect,’ you might be countered with, ‘Well, I don’t respect that person,’ ” she says. “We try to say that keigo has to do with social standing and lack of familiarity with a new person — that using keigo toward someone doesn’t necessarily mean you revere them.”

In most situations, an obviously foreign speaker can get by without using keigo. Giorgio Matera, president of Passion Foods Inc. and owner of Piadina in Aoyama, has worked for 20 years in Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese, but finds no need for keigo when doing business.

“Actually, I tried (learning keigo), but I discovered that real communication is not about language,” he says. He believes that having shared interests — in his case, food, culture and business — is more effective when connecting with Japanese clients than obsessing over the subtleties of “o” and “go.”

Some foreign professionals have found that knowing too much keigo can actually put them at a disadvantage. Yamamoto admits that some Japanese suspect that Westerners are “posing” when they use honorifics toward them. “Unfortunately, the image that many Japanese have of Westerners is that of assertive Americans (even though many Americans don’t fit this stereotype), so it’s strange to see them adopt Japanese behavior.” She adds that some Japanese inadvertently hurt Westerners by saying things bluntly, under the misapprehension that foreigners don’t bother cushioning their words with politeness.

Kayoko Tajima, who teaches Japanese to foreign professionals at People Focus Consulting, says that most people don’t expect foreigners to know perfect keigo, and teaches Japanese as a means of gaining business results rather than as a goal in itself.

“Making mistakes in keigo or using too much keigo and seeming ‘ingin burei’ (appearing insincere with excessive politeness) leaves a worse impression than not using it,” she says.

This level of tolerance isn’t afforded to everyone. For example, native Japanese can be especially tough on Japanese raised abroad (“kikokushijo”). Envied for their ability to speak in a foreign language, kikokushijo often encounter problems in the workplace due to their shaky command of keigo. Even national icons like singer Hikaru Utada (who was born and raised in New York) have been criticized as “arrogant” and “childish” for not speaking keigo to older people.

While many kikokushijo are fully functional in keigo, some find it so cumbersome that they mainly use English despite knowing both languages. Jonathan Yaffe, principal of KAIS International School in Meguro, Tokyo, observes that many of his kikokushijo students “feel it is easier to communicate in English due to . . . the ease of being able to speak casually without it being perceived as rude.”

Kaede Saito, a university student raised in Canada, says, “They taught (keigo) to me in Japanese school, but I personally don’t remember going past the whole ‘desu-masu’ thing.” She confides that she sometimes speaks in English to avoid using honorifics toward other Japanese.

Even among people who have no trouble speaking keigo, it raises some questions on an ideological level. Takeshi Okamoto, CEO of marketing company Afia Corporation, writes on his Web site that keigo may not be compatible with the post-war Constitution, which stipulates in Article 14 that all citizens are equal under the law. In particular, he questions the social hierarchy implied by keigo expressions and asks, “Isn’t it a form of prejudice that keigo is used (or not used) toward people based on their age, their job record, and date of entry into the company?” Although Okamoto feels that keigo constitutes “a wonderful part of (Japanese) culture,” he warns that Japan will be unable to undergo major changes if keigo keeps being excused as a matter of “custom.”

Difficult to master and possibly unconstitutional, keigo may seem not to be worth the effort for people studying Japanese today. But in addition to being a lubricant for social relations, keigo is a source of Japanese pride amid fears of creeping Americanization. Books on proper use of keigo have sold well among people wishing to acquire “hinkaku” (classiness/dignity).

Yamamoto warns that people shouldn’t throw out their keigo manuals just yet: Far from going out of fashion, she says, keigo has become more widespread in recent years.

“Many people these days don’t use it properly, but they are using keigo more often out of fear of being disliked. As long as you use keigo, it’s unlikely that people will be offended,” she says.

That may be true — so long as keigo novices make sure not to use expressions like “gusai” (ignorant wife) and “heisha” (crumbling company) inappropriately. Addressed to the wrong party, terms like these will come across as anything but polite and could land you in hot water back at the office.

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