Whether you’re Japanese or not, chances are you have conflicting feelings about Japan’s formal respect-language, keigo. On the one hand, it is one of the most difficult aspects of the language to truly master. On the other, many feel that it somehow contains and expresses a truly Japanese essence. Then there is keigo’s linguistic rarity, which by itself makes it worth preserving, supporters say.

Feelings quickly run high if discussion turns to the appropriateness of keigo in modern life and society. Among foreigners, keigo is mixed up with vague notions of a special Japanese politeness which somehow defines both a culture and a people. Such people resist the suggestion that it might no longer be appropriate in this day and age. Japanese, on the other hand, have even suggested it be abolished.

Most Japanese, do not use formal respect-language for everyday communication. Indeed, until they join the workforce most manage quite well without any real facility in it. So much so, that larger companies invest time and money teaching their new recruits how to speak “appropriately.” Even then the results are mixed, with the younger generation’s mangled utterances being a cause for continued concern.

The truth is that, contrary to some foreigners’ romantic notions, for many young (and even not so young) Japanese, keigo is both alien and alienating. Alien, because it is simply not used for authentic daily communication, and alienating because of its innate hierarchy and conservatism.

The problem is summed up in the two types of expression that must be mastered: sonkeigo (honor language), used to elevate superiors, and kenjogo (humility language), used to lower oneself. In order to know how you should speak, the relative status of the other person must first be assessed, which is one reason for the importance attached to business cards in Japan. Keigo both expresses the superior-inferior relationship, and constantly reinforces it by basing the way you say anything at all on a prior recognition of superiority and inferiority.

Such concerns were appropriate during the seven centuries of feudal warrior rule that began with the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192. Knowing one’s place was not just a social nicety; a wrong word might be the speaker’s last, with a quick slash of the insulted party’s sword putting an immediate end to impudence, real or perceived. In such a society, formalized respect-language allowed people to navigate the ambiguities unavoidable in natural language.

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo Period (1603-1867), respect-language was also useful in socializing the population to unquestioning acceptance of an unchanging feudal hierarchy, with the samurai unchallenged at the top, through the peasants and artisans, down to the merchants officially at the bottom. After all, if you make people think about who is superior and who is inferior every time they open their mouths, pretty soon they will know their places.

But is this sort of language appropriate today? Or is it actually preventing Japan and the Japanese from realizing their full potential in the new century?

In the Edo Period, when Japan was almost entirely without foreign contact, stability came at a great cost: Japan fell behind the outside world in science and technology. Today the stakes are much higher — a loss of competitiveness would likely be accompanied by rapidly declining standards of living, health and well-being. With scientific and technological developments continuing apace, unprecedented demands will be placed on our adaptability and flexibility. Of course, adaptability and flexibility in action depend on adaptability and flexibility in thought — something that keigo actively works against, with its conservative demand to respect established hierarchy and established ways of expressing oneself.

English usage has undergone a revolution since the 1960s, and few foreign champions of keigo would, I am sure, like to turn the clock back to the stuffy formality that the Baby Boomers saw themselves as overturning. On the contrary, the room for new usages and experimentation that we enjoy in English is, for many, not only a source of pleasure in itself, but essential for making sense of the diversity, innovation and changes that social and scientific developments continue to open up.

Young Japanese, while reputedly hopeless when it comes to keigo, are nonetheless famed for their constant invention and reinvention of new words and modes of expression. It is this flexible argot that allows them to express themselves, their current realities and their forward orientation. It is this flexibility and adaptability that is the key to expressing Japan and the Japanese people’s potential in the new century, and which is at odds with keigo and its conservative respect for established ways of doing and being.

Young people’s street Japanese, like its English equivalent, is not appropriate to the boardroom or the conference hall, but its flexibility, innovation, directness and ignorance of hierarchy are.

It may be anathema to those steeped in the conservative values of keigo, and those who believe in some romanticized essence in the Japanese language, but perhaps Japan would be better off learning from the young and turning its back on the language’s feudal remains.

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