Until you finally get used to Japanese and feel comfortable deploying all its various words and phrases fluently, it can be helpful to find conceptual expedients to use as crutches in the short term.

If one of these crutches can help you solve two problems, that’s all the better, and I’d like to share a particular trick that’s helped me better understand both the lack of explicit pronoun use in Japanese as well as 敬語 (keigo, polite speech), two of the language’s most intimidating features.

First, let me provide some background: Japanese rarely uses explicit pronouns. For example, when you’re saying goodbye to someone as you leave the house for the day, the appropriate Japanese phrase is 行ってきます (itte-kimasu). This literally means “I’m going” or could even be interpreted as “I’ll see you later” or “I’ll be back.” There’s no sign of a pronoun in the Japanese — no “I” (私 [watashi], 僕 [boku], 俺 [ore] or あたし [atashi]) or “you” (あなた [anata] or 君 [kimi]) — but it’s absolutely clear who is doing the going and who they will see when they return. The vast number of pronoun-less Japanese sentences are equally clear with their meaning.

Second, 敬語 is an important aspect of the Japanese language and culture. However, the different types of 敬語 and implementations for specific circumstances are so broad, diverse and minute that at times it can be overwhelming to even get started. There’s 尊敬語 (sonkeigo, honorific language), 謙譲語 (kenjōgo, humble language) and 丁寧語 (teineigo, polite language), and there are multiple ways to form each of these categories.

One thing that was not impressed upon me in the Japanese classroom was this secret: 敬語 verbs have their pronouns built in. Technically this is true for all Japanese verbs, but with polite speech the verb forms more distinctly refer to people in a way that makes it nearly impossible to confuse the actors in a sentence.

In order to simplify things, I’d like to limit this introduction to two particular forms. Whenever you’re using 敬語, the very first question you need to ask yourself is “Am I describing my own actions or the actions of another person?”

When describing the actions of someone else, Japanese uses 尊敬語, the honorific form of polite speech. One of the simplest ways to build the honorific is to use the passive form of a verb. This is as easy as switching 行きます (ikimasu, to go) to 行かれます (ikaremasu), and 飲みます (nomimasu, to drink) to 飲まれます (nomaremasu).

Once we make this switch, the pronoun of the person doing the action is baked into the verb. In a question like “ビール飲まれますか” (“Bīru nomaremasu ka,” “Would you like a beer?”), the pronoun is obviously “you,” and we know from the verb form that this particular “you” is likely someone in a position of authority, perhaps your 校長先生 (kōchō sensei, school principal) if you’re a teacher, the 県知事 (ken chiji, prefectural governor) if you’re in politics, or even just a 取引先 (torihikisaki, client/customer) if you’re in business.

This question is perfect to use at an 宴会 (enkai, party/reception) when you’d like to offer to pour beer for someone, which is a great way to build social capital and get some face time.

You can also switch します (shimasu, to do) to the passive されます (saremasu) and attach it to compounds to create a massive range of verbs. For example, in a vacuum without any context, the sentence 来月帰国されます (Raigetsu kikoku saremasu, He/she/they will be returning to his/her/their home country next month) may seem a little confusing, but the use of されます here would be a clear signal that someone higher up on the social ladder is the one doing the traveling, so perhaps this is a sentence that an administrative assistant would use when describing their boss’ travel plans.

When you’re describing your own actions, on the other hand, we need 謙譲語, the humble form, and I recommend modeling the most frequently encountered humble polite speech お願いします (onegaishimasu, please). This combines the polite kana お (o) with the stem of the verb, in this case 願い (negai) from the verb 願う (negau, to request), with します.

Thus, 聞きます (kikimasu, to ask) becomes お聞きします (o-kiki shimasu), 待ちます (machimasu, to wait) becomes お待ちします (o-machi shimasu) and 話します (hanashimasu, to speak) becomes お話しします (o-hanashi shimasu).

We can take the versatile verb 伺います (ukagaimasu, to ask/to visit/to go) and create the sentence 水曜日の午後にお伺いします (Suiyōbi no gogo ni o-ukagai shimasu), and despite the fact that there are still no pronouns, it is unmistakable that this means “(I) will visit (your office/you) on Wednesday afternoon.” That’s how powerful polite speech is.

If you’re calling a business to ask a question, ちょっとお聞きしたいのですが (Chotto o-kiki shitai no desu ga, I’d like to ask a question) is a great polite way to start the call, and the use of humble polite speech is such a clear beginning to the conversation that it will improve the odds that you get the the answer to the question you have.

If you’re receiving a message that you will pass on to someone, you can take 伝えます (tsutaemasu, to communicate something) and say はい、お伝えします (Hai, o-tsutae shimasu, Yes, I’ll relay [that message]). Not only is this more polite, it’s crystal clear who is doing the action for whom and where the information is going.

While these are just two of Japanese’s many different forms of polite speech, using passive forms as honorific and the お+stem+します form as humble speech are a perfect way to dip a toe into the water. Once you get situated and start to feel more comfortable not only using 敬語 but also not needing pronouns, you can expand your study to all the other polite speech options.

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