126 - Keigo Japanese - Part I

So you want to learn keigo. Or maybe you don’t. Actually I don’t know anyone who wants to learn keigo. But you have to, so let’s get over this hump, ★together★.

What is 敬語(けいご)?

It is the ultra-polite version of Japanese that is used in offices, in restaurants, and any time someone addresses a patient, client or customer. In short, keigois a super useful part of Japanese, and understanding it means understanding more of the everyday interactions you encounter.

A Japanese friend told me recently that people aren’t seen as adults in Japan until they have mastered keigo.

This really sucks, especially for foreigners. After we have worked so hard to just understand the basics of formal versus colloquial language, and conjugating verbs from dictionary to polite form; now there is a whole other layer to Japanese that is essential for being able to speak and understand like the grownups we are.

Don’t worry; I will try to make this as painless as possible.

There are two parts to Keigo, the humble form called 謙譲語(けんじょうご) and the honorific form called 尊敬語(そんけいご).

The first puts yourself on a lower level than the person you are speaking to, while the second raises up the person you are speaking to.

Let’s just focus on humble form for today.

Humble form is used only when speaking about yourself—since you are essentially putting yourself down. You would never use this kind of language when talking about someone else’s actions.

As with everything else in Japanese, it’s all about the verbs. Although there are a few nouns that you change when speaking in keigo, the most important part is always the end of the sentence, the verb.

There are 2 ways that verbs change in 謙譲語. The first is just replacing the verb completely with a different verb. Here is a list of the verbs that change.

To go — 行きます (いきます) —> 参ります (まいります)
To come — 来ます (きます) —> 参ります (まいります)
To be — います —> おります
To eat — 食べます (たべます) —> 頂きます (いただきます)
To drink — 飲みます (のみます) —> 頂きます (いただきます)
To hear — 聞きます (ききます) —> 伺います (うかがいます)
To see — 見ます (みます) —> 拝見します (はいけんします)
To meet — 会います (あいます) —> お目にかかります (おめにかかります)
To say — 言います (います) —> 申します (もうします)
To do — します —> いたします
To know — 知っています (しっています) —> 存じております (ごぞんじております)
To give — あげます —> 差し上げます (さしあげます)
To receive — もらいます —> 頂きます (いただきます)

Seeing as though we are just learning new verbs to replace the others, this is pretty simple.
Note: As you can see, both “to come” and “to go” become 参ります. And “to eat, to drink, and to receive” all become いただきます.

So let’s speak in keigo:

わたし は ライアン・ゴズリング と  もうします。
I am Ryan Gosling.
Literally: "I + は + name + am called"

In regular polite Japanese this would be 私はライアン・ゴズリングです。(わたしはライアン・ゴズリングです。)

きょねん の しがつ に  まいりました。
I came in April of last year.
Literally: "last year + の + April + に + came"

In regular polite Japanese, this would be 去年の4月に来ました。(きょねんの しがつに きました。)

きのう、 あの しょるい を はいけんしました。
I saw the document yesterday.
Literally: "yesterday + that + document + を + saw"

In regular polite Japanese, this would be 昨日、あの書類を見ました。(きのう、あのしょるいをみました。)

Learning the 13 verb changes above already gives you a huge amount of phrases you can now say in keigo. But what about verbs that aren’t on the list?

The second way to change verbs when you are speaking in humble form is this simple rule:


So, 持ちます becomes お持ちします.

Therefore, in a hotel, someone might ask you if they can carry their bags for you.

にもつ を おもちしましょう か?
May I carry your bags for you?
Literally: "bags (luggage) + を + carry + か"

In regular polite Japanese, this would be 荷物を持ちましょうか?(にもつを もちましょうか?)
Also, remember in the above sentence the person speaking is still talking about themselves, so they are using the humble form.

In an e-mail you might say:

ごれんらく おまちしております。
I look forward to hearing from you.
Literally: "ご+ contact + waiting"

Note: This sentence takes the above rule and conjugates it using て form. But instead of using います, we use the humble keigo おります。

Once you have mastered these conjugations, speaking in the humble form of Japanese becomes a lot less daunting.
One more time, you only use this form when speaking about your own actions!

That is part one of keigo. The next part we will be learning about is honorific form or 尊敬語(そんけいご). This is used when talking about someone else to raise their status. But we can wait until the next lesson, you guys worked so hard today!

This lesson was written by Cassy L., a guest contributor: