To maintain your honor, keep your pecking up

by Roger Pulvers

First of two parts

The subject of keigo, or terms of respect, is complex, and I beg your indulgence this week and next for my modest efforts to deal with it. Although keigo includes teineigo (polite expressions), I am going to confine my discussion to two main categories: sonkeigo (honorifics) and kensongo (expressions of humility).

Japanese society is hierarchical, as befits its neo-Confucian nature. As such, it is essential that you be aware of where you stand in the pecking order of things so that you know when to peck up and when to peck down. When in doubt, my advice is, always keep your pecking up.

Perhaps the simplest honorific is san, together with its more exalted form, sama. You should refer to your friend’s granny as obasan or obasama. (Your own granny would be obasan or basan.) If you are on particularly close terms, you might even use what is an endearing diminutive form of the honorific and call the old lady obachama. To translate this as “dear little gran” would be correct, if a bit twee.

Adding san can give a sense of station to someone, as in gakuseisan (student). It can also be used ironically, as all formal language can be. If you refer to the national broadcaster as NHKsan, you may be showing respect, but you also may be cocking a mild snoot at them.

You can see that using honorifics does not necessarily imply stiff formality. There can be an intimacy involved in their use as well. This intimacy is usually expressed by particles at the end of a sentence. They emphasize the point that closeness to someone does not rule out politeness.

Let’s say a woman arrives a bit late at the station to meet a friend and says, “Nagaku omachi ni natta no?” This phrase uses both the honorific form of matsu (wait), omachi ni naru, and the end particle no, which adds familiarity and intimacy. In English, it might be rendered, “Hope you haven’t been waiting long for me.”

The prefix o often indicates an honorific. O can be added to adjectives, as in ojozu (good at something); to nouns, as in okane (money); and to verbs, osewa ni naru (thank you for the help).

This last one is a cliche of greeting in business and commerce. People have said to me “osewa ni natte orimasu (thank you so much for your assistance)” when I haven’t done a thing for them. This just proves that an ounce of keigo is worth a pound of sincerity.

Women generally use a lot more keigo than men, as they are generally more sensitive and deferential to the feelings of others. They would tend to put the prefix o in front of many words where men would leave it off. They also use honorific verbs with more frequency.

The verb “to be” has its common honorific in irassharu, and “to say” in ossaharu and itte orareru. So, “He said he would be there” comes out as Ano kata wa irassharu to osshaimashita. Note that kare for “he” would not truly jive with the lofty register of the honorific verbs, and the lady uses the honorific kata (person, individual) instead.

“To know” is similar. The honorific form of “do you know?” is Gozonji desu ka? Again, with all due respect, don’t be fooled by the honorific form. This can be used with great intimacy, too. If a woman says to a man, Gozonji na no? (Didn’t you know that?), well then, guys, you may be getting the best of both worlds: respect and intimacy. If she says to you, Anata wa obakasan desu ne, don’t take it literally as “You’re such an exalted idiot.” She may be telling you, “Come here, you big stupid lug!”

Honorifics can be stiff and formal, as in onakunari ni narareru (pass on to greener pastures); simply polite, as in meshiagarimasu ka? (Would you care to eat?); or respectfully disrespectful, as in Okotoba o kaesu yo desu ga, or I beg to differ.

A multitude of everyday cliches are keigo, such as gomen nasai (I am sorry), okaeri nasai (Welcome back) and gochisosama deshita (Thank you for the meal). And remember, it is thanks to keigo that Japanese often drop pronouns. The keigo tells you who is speaking to whom, so why bother with a superfluous “I” or “you”?

Non-native speakers of Japanese tend to overuse “I” and “you” when speaking Japanese, where a simple honorific will do the trick concisely and politely.

Now, I beg to inform you that next week, unaccustomed as I am, I will be throwing all false modesty to the wind to discuss humble forms of Japanese. Otanoshimi ni!, or, “Look forward to it!” Will you?