Next week will see the 退位 (taii, abdication) of the current Emperor, who will pass the role on to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on May 1.

It’s a historic event, made even more so because the current Emperor is still alive. Usually this kind of handover comes under much sadder circumstances, primarily the 天皇陛下の崩御 (tennō-heika no hōgyo, death of the Emperor).

What’s interesting about the phrase above is that it includes words belonging to the realm of 皇室用語 (kōshitsu yōgo) or 最高敬語 (saikō keigo), terminology and language used exclusively for the Imperial family. While the rest of us simply grow old and either 亡くなる (nakunaru, pass away) or, more bluntly, 死ぬ (shinu, die), the Emperor will 崩御される (hōgyo sareru, “become passed away”).

Japanese learners will, at some point, likely come across other forms of the language that help to make what they’re saying more polite to whoever is listening. 尊敬語 (sonkeigo, honorific language) and 謙譲語 (kenjōgo, humble language) are used when addressing your elders, your professors or your boss at work. Talking about the royal family, however, uses a whole other set of terminology, which we’ll likely get to hear when Japanese-language news covers the handover next week.

Now that he’s retired, let’s say you run into the Emperor on the street (stranger things have happened!) after he’s come back from a stay at his villa in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture. You might want to say, “天皇陛下、葉山でのご静養はいかがでしたか?” (“Tennō-heika, Hayama de no go-seiyō wa ikaga deshita ka?,” “Your Imperial Majesty, how was your rest in Hayama?”) — don’t forget the deep bow before speaking with him! Running into a colleague on the street in the same situation would merely warrant a, “葉山での休日はどうでしたか?” (“Hayama de no kyūjitsu wa dō deshita ka?,” “How was your holiday in Hayama?”) An even more casual way would be, “葉山はどうだった?” (“Hayama wa dō datta?,” “How was Hayama?”)

The word 静養 (seiyō, rest) can be used with ordinary citizens, but it’s a more formal word that must be used when the Imperial family is involved. In your royal greeting, you’d also use the word 陛下 (heika). This is a honorific that is used with both 天皇 (tennō, Emperor) and 皇后 (kōgō, Empress) that is similar to saying “your majesty.” One story has it originating in ancient China. Way back then, the Emperor would speak to people through vassals situated at the bottom of steps that would lead to him, since talking to the Emperor directly was regarded as disrespectful. The term 陛下 literally means, “at the bottom of the stairs.”

The Imperial couple aren’t the only ones with a fancy suffix, though. When you speak to someone about their 息子 (musuko, son), for example, it’s polite to add さん, so it becomes 息子さん (musuko-san, your son). The son of the Emperor, however, is given the title 皇太子 (kōtaishi, the Crown Prince) and the honorific 殿下, making him 皇太子殿下 (kōtaishi-denka, His Highness the Crown Prince) when addressed. The honorific is also used for the Crown Prince’s wife, Masako, 皇太子妃殿下 (kōtaishihi-denka, Her Highness the Crown Princess), but only for a week: She becomes 皇后 on May 1.

Due to the upcoming 退位, the Japanese government has added a couple of extra days to the annual run of 連休 (renkyū, consecutive holidays) that make up Golden Week. Have you made any plans to go anywhere?

There are many ways to express attending an event in Japanese — 出かける (dekakeru, to go out), 出席する(shusseki suru, to attend) — but when it comes to the royals, you’re more likely to hear the word お出まし (o-demashi, make an appearance), as in 天皇皇后両陛下が宮殿のベランダにお出ましになる (Tennō kōgō ryōheika ga kyūden no beranda ni o-demashi ni naru, Their majesties made an appearance on the balcony of the palace). To Japanese ears this sounds more graceful than the casual idiom 顔を出す (kao o dasu, make an appearance; literally, show your face) that I’d use in パーティーに顔を出してから、早く帰らなきゃ (Pātī ni kao o dashite kara, hayaku kaeranakya, I’ll pop in to the party, but I have to go home early).

In fact, there’s a whole section of 皇室用語 that deals with specific vocabulary related to お出まし, such as 行幸 (gyōkō, a visit by the Emperor only) or 行幸啓 (gyōkōkei, a visit carried out by the Imperial couple together).

The first public お出まし for the new Emperor is scheduled for May 4 and will be 一般参賀 (ippan sanga, congratulatory visits open to citizens)at the 皇居 (kōkyo, Imperial palace) where you perhaps may have an opportunity to see Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. As for the current Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, they will soon be referred to as 上皇 (jōkō, the Emperor Emeritus) and 上皇后 (jōkōgō, the Empress Emerita). Of course, if you run into the 上皇, don’t forget to add 陛下. He and his wife get to retain those honorifics.

To learn more about Imperial terminology, visit www.kunaicho.go.jp/word.

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