• SHARE

KEIGO IN MODERN JAPAN: Polite Language From Meiji to the Present, by Patricia J. Wetzel. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 206 pp. with illustrations, 2004, $45 (cloth).

Keigo is often thought of as a separate kind of Japanese (often called “polite speech,” “honorifics,” or the like) that is used to show respect to whoever is being addressed. It is an entire speech style and can be complicated. One writer notices that there are two dozen ways of asking “Did (X) go to Tokyo yesterday?” depending on who is saying it to whom, in what setting and just who (X) is. A choice must be made as to the degree of politeness (respect) to be expressed.

In any two-person interaction, the speech style is determined by the statuses of the speaker and the addressee, and also the degree of intimacy between them. In general, however, status superiority supersedes intimacy. Junior ranking members of a team, for example, are expected to use a polite style in addressing friends of even only slightly higher status.

Some foreign commentators have seen in keigo an example of a rigidly hierarchical social structure. As one critic has phrased it: “By elevating the addressee through exalted terms and lowering the speaker through humble terms, a great distance is created between the two, thereby expressing deeper respect for the addressee.”

This, so far as it goes, is true, but (and this is the point of Patricia J. Wetzel’s well-researched and closely reasoned study) it doesn’t go far enough. Keigo is not just the icing on the cake of language, it is an integral part of Japanese culture itself. While it is a barometer of social status, it is also a measure of cultural identity. Indeed, Wetzel can convincingly argue that there is nothing in the Japanese language that is not keigo.

Certainly the role that keigo plays is much wider than is ordinarily assumed. As said scholar Yasuto Kikuchi: “Japanese keigo is the Japanese heart, our way of thinking, our way of behaving, our way of assigning value.” And the possibilities are rigorously assumed.

Other languages have keigo too, of course. This is the implication of the “vous/tu” dichotomy in French, and the “sie/du” of German. And in English, all of us learn how to watch our tongues when in company that calls for their elevation and our diminution.

Japan, however, has built a more much complicated system, and one that has many ramifications. Keigo, for example, can come packed with meaning. A scholar, Agnes Niyekawa, points out that the keigo phrase “John wa sensei ni hono o itadaita” really means “Our John received a book from the teacher.” If a non-keigo verb had been used, the superiority of the teacher and the inferiority of “our John” (and consequently us) would not have been suggested.

Indeed the uses of keigo include providing a context so secure that pronouns can be deleted, and routinely are. “I” and “you” are usually missing from polite speech because they are redundant. Verb phrases determine just who is on top in any given situation and humble usage ensures that persons are ascribed, with no recourse to pronouns at all — unless the intention is for emphasis.

Language schools are still teaching their hapless students that “anata” means “you.” That may be true, but it is rarely used. It is no longer an exalted term and can be used only to intimidate equals or those lower in status. It can also be insulting if spoken to a person of higher status. In practice, however, one hears it only when used as a term of endearing intent: “anata” as spoken by, say, wife to husband where it denotes a kind of intimate and still respectful possessive. It is typical of a status-scaled society that the husband will usually not use the word with his wife unless he is angry.

Among the distinctions of keigo is that there exists such a category as keihigo (scornful terms), a very interesting-appearing territory into which Wetzel does not venture, perhaps because her concerns are elsewhere. Yet, as Niyekawa has maintained, “the different shades of politeness allows for respect in informal situations as well as subtle disrespect in formal situations.”

Wetzel, however, is quite properly concerned with defining keigo anew and pointing out that its elaborate structure has political uses and political results. All of these, argues the author, took center stage as keigo was put to use in the service of modernization and democratization — so much so that keigo has now become a matter of “common sense.” And how this occurred makes a fascinating story indeed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW