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Keigo, the Complete Mess

Keigo How to be nice in Japanese


Japanese has a complex system of honorific speech to show respect and an understanding of social rank.

When using "desu" instead of "da" or "~masu" instead of the dictionary form of verbs, you are actually using polite (teineigo) language already. Knowing honorifics beyond masu / desu will help you fit in better when talking with Japanese.

Take a deep breath and let's go through some honorifics.

1) Prefixes - お or ご (for kanji kings, both are written with this kanji 御):
  • お + noun (Usually the noun is of Japanese origin - This is the kun reading of 御)
  • ご + noun (Usually the noun is of foreign (Chinese) origin - This is the on reading of 御)


ご飯 (gohan - rice/meal)
ご主人 (go shujin - your husband)
お茶 (ocha - tea)
お酒 (osake - sake/alcohol)
お金 (okane - money)
お土産 (omiyage - souvenir)

You may know set phrases using this such as:

yoroshiku onegaishimasu
Nice to meet you.


2) Suffixes for names
  • sama - use in place of さん. To be polite to someone you don't really know well or who has a higher social rank than you, use 様 after their name: 田中様 (tanaka sama - Mr. Tanaka)

    Note image You will also hear this at any store: お客様 okyakusama (notice the honorific お and 様)
    Note image Common usages that have really become words in their own right are: 神様 (kami sama - God), 王様 (ou sama - King)
    Note image As with さん you don't use this with yourself unless you are wanting to be sarcastic - 俺様 (ore sama - I (something like Mr. Number one (meaning myself)))


3) Pronouns / Question Words

When on the phone, you shouldn't ask "who is this" with "dare." Instead use the more honorific "donata" when refering to the person on the other side of the line:

誰 dare Arrow Image どなた donata or on the phone you can also say どちら様ですか? dochira sama desu ka?

Use "kata" instead of "hito" when referring to someone else. You can also use the humble "mono" instead of "hito" when referring to oneself.

あの人  ano hito Arrow Image あの方 ano kata



4) Verbs

There are three basic types of honorifics for verbs. It depends on your social rank as to which form to use.

A) Humble (謙譲語 kenjougo) - This is when referring to oneself or one's family members and (usually) speaking to someone higher up in social rank, position or some other criteria for determining status. However even some people with high positions may choose to use the humble form with those under him/her.
B) ~masu - As mentioned above ~masu / desu is actually 丁寧語 teineigo or polite language, but I'm using the familiar ~masu form for an easy comparison to the the kenjougo and sonkeigo forms.
C) Respectful (尊敬語 sonkeigo) - This is what you say to your boss or those higher up when speaking to them. If you are speaking about yourself, you will use the humble form.

(speaking to your boss about yourself)
(speaking to your friends)
(speaking to your boss about your boss)
haiken shimasu
to see
goran ni narimasu 
You know this from "name to moushimasu"
to say
to eat
meshi agarimasu


This is the humble form for both to come and go!

to come

to go


This is the respectful form for both to come and go!

to do

 Here is an example which should make things clear as mud: Red is humble and Blue is Respectful (black is normal)

A dialog at a company that makes Cakes

Employee: ただいま、(まい)りました。社長(しゃちょう)がもうすぐこちらへいらっしゃいます

{The boss arrives}

Boss: おはよう。この書類(しょるい)を見(み)てくれますか?

Employee: はい、拝見(はいけん)します。こちらの書類(しょるい)ご覧(らん)になってください

{A cake is brought out for the boss}

Boss: このケーキは会社(かいしゃ)で一番(いちばん)おいしいな。

Employee: おっしゃたとおりでございます。みんなもそう(もう)しております。ケーキをどうぞ(め)し上(あ)がってください

Boss: (いただ)きます

Note image When the boss is spoken of or to, it is BLUE (respectful)

Note image When the employee and even the boss speaks of himself and wants to use keigo, he uses the humble RED form

Note image On the last Employee statement, we use おります. This is actually the teineigo (polite) form of いる / います.


5) Special Conjugations

お + stem + になる (humble)


shachou to hanashimashita ka?
Did you speak with the boss? (normal)
Arrow Image


shachou to o hanashi ni narimashita ka?
Did you speak with the boss? (humble)


nanika nomimasen ka?
Won't you drink something? (normal)
Arrow Image


nanika o nomi ni narimasen ka?
Won't you drink something? (humble)

お + stem + ください This also makes a normal verb polite; it is used when asking things - "please give me..."


utte kudasai.
Please sell (me this). (normal)
Arrow Image


o uri kudasai.
Please sell (me this) (humble)


tabete kudasai,
Please eat. (normal)
Arrow Image


o tabe kudasai.
Please eat. (humble)

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naze desu ka?

In special conjugations example 2
why has か been used twice, firstly with 何 and then at the end of the sentence?


The first か is part of the word for 'something' in 'Wouldn't you like to drink something?'

Thank you for the help

Thank you for the help Sir.Though I got a vague idea of what ただいま is,but I am still a beginner and the page contains a lot of kanji which I am unable to understand.So it's still unclear :>

what is the meaning of ただいま?

what is the meaning of ただいま? Is it some kind of greeting?

Just out of curiosity :p

ご主人(go shujin)-Since go is just an honorific and as far as I guess shujin would be meaning husband, then where did "your" husband come from? Or do these prefixes tend to add some specific meaning to the noun to which they are added?


Since ご主人 is honorific, by definition it has to be talking about somebody else's husband, and the most likely case is the speaker is referring to the listener's husband. By convention, honorifics are translated as 'your ___' and humble terms are translated as 'my ___' when they are without context. In context, of course, it may vary, but it's usually quite explicit when it's -not- simply 'your' and 'my' being implied by honorific and humble terms.

Thank you Sir!Though there is

Thank you Sir!Though there is no mention of humble terms in this page. What are humble terms?May be I'm aware of them but I am not able to get what are those that you are referring to as humble terms.


Section 4 above talks about humble/normal/respectful, which is what I meant by humble/normal/honorific. I'm used to the term honorific, didn't realize this page was saying respectful, sorry.

Humble terms are to make yourself sound humble, and respectful terms are to make other people sound more important.

Thanks :)

Although this made my small accomplishment of learning the Hiragana and Katakana seem practically meaningless, it really helped me with Japanese culture and cleared the air quite a bit.
a humble beginner.

April8's picture

Thanks for your info

It's very useful for me.
Even too difficult, if i pay more attention.
Hopefully that i'll understand more and more.

Thanks to read.


HawaiianBoy's picture

Mistake in the audio

In the humble form of "won't you drink something?" It is written as "何かお飲みになりませんか" but the audio says "何かお飲みになりますか?"

Pianogirl123's picture

strange words

If you did weird mixes of polite and casual forms like...




what would be the interpretation? or is it just wrong...


I think it would sound like you were trying to be polite and didn't know how, perhaps. At any rate it would sound either mistaken or unnatural (which is almost the same as mistaken.)

ござる needs to use the special conjugation though and become ございます、ございません.
You can use ござる in the plain form if you are an ancient samurai, but you can't ever conjugate it by 'normal' rules. (Fortunately, inserting the い is easy enough to remember since everyone knows おはよう ございます!)

I -believe- it would be right to say 「さむらいでございません」 but I really only know enough keigo to not get totally lost when someone starts speaking in it, as long as they speak slowly or it's written dialogue.


"...if you are an ancient samurai..."

I guess this is why you're not supposed to study from anime ;)

April8's picture

You're funny guy

You're funny guy



Heh, yes... well, studying from certain genres of anime can be misleading if your goal is to communicate with modern Japanese people... but it's not a problem at all if your goal is to understand anime (or, in the case of ござる, period dramas and period films as well.)

However, there -are- modern dialects that use でござる・でございます in preference to だ・です, so it's necessary to learn eventually if you want to understand everyone and not only people from Tokyo. And as this lesson should indicate, it's a critical part of keigo, so you'll need to learn it to interact in certain very formal situations, or to understand scenes set in those situations, regardless of genre or dialect.

(Yeah, that's a long answer to a short quip, I know.)

furrykef's picture

Teineigo / kenjougo

This article says that teineigo is humble speech, but actually it's desu/masu speech, or what you call "normal" here. The word you're looking for is 謙譲語 (kenjougo).

Also, at one point in the article, the kenjougo form is called the "keigo form", which as far as I know has no meaning.

- Kef

Founder of Learning Languages Through Video Games.
Also see my lang-8 journal, where you can help me practice Japanese (and Spanish, and Italian!)

clay's picture

Thank you for spending the

Thank you for spending the time to go through this. I fixed what you mentioned and removed some other arbitrary language. I also added a bunch of sound files.

I'm slowly going through these old articles. Many are in need of a major overhaul unfortunately.

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