You hear it in anime and drama all the time, often without realizing it. It is the bane non-native Japanese speakers (or at least one of the numerous). It lurks in the shadows as it descends upon you with such suddenness and ferocity that leaves you confused and speechless. It was invented by the Japanese with the sole purpose of making foreigners suffer in eternal damnation and to punish us for pretending to speak the language.

It is 敬語 (keigo), or the dreadful “levels of politeness” in Japanese. Haruhi save us all. Keigo mainly involves the manipulation of verbs. Please read the chapter on verbs first if you haven’t already.

Japanese is a very polite language. You can barely swear with it. In fact, the easiest way to be insulting in Japanese is simply to NOT be polite. In that respect, Japanese is whole new world for English speakers.

There are various grammar rules dealing with politeness and they are all categorized under 敬語 (keigo). 敬 means “respect” and 語 means “language/words”, so it literally means “words of respect”. Clever, huh?

The types of Keigo are mainly as follows:

  • 尊敬語 (sonkeigo) – Honorific form
    Used to show respect for the actions/possessions of people who are higher in social status than you. (i.e. teachers, elders)
  • 謙譲語 (kenjougo) – Humble form
    Used to belittle the actions/possessions of yourself or people in your “group” so as to be humble.
  • 丁寧語 (teineigo) – Polite form
    Used for general politeness required when dealing with strangers/unfamiliar acquaintances.
  • 丁重語 (teichougo) – More Polite form (?)
    Not sure about the English term; more polite than teineigo and has generally been subsumed under kenjougo.
  • 美化語 (bikago) – Beautification form (?)
    Not sure about the English term; this simply refers to the addition of お (o-) or ご (go-) in front of nouns to make them more… uh… dignified? This has generally been subsumed under sonkeigo and teineigo.

A lot of textbooks teach the last two categories as part of the first three, so generally you will only learn three types of Keigo: honorific form, humble form and polite form.

尊敬語 (Honorific form)

ZOMG sir you are totally cool and awesome! Your brilliantness makes me tremble in orgasmic reverence and please confer upon me the honour of having your children! Heartfelt appreciations from the bottom of my heart!

Our goddess

Okay, so maybe it’s not that extreme, but the general idea of the honorific form is to glorify every action and item associated with a person who is of a higher social rank than you. This social rank can come in many forms, such as age, experience, wealth, skills and family structure.

Whether you use sonkeigo or not does not depend on who you are speaking to. Rather, it depends on who you are speaking about (of course the listener is often that person, but not always). This is very important.

Some situations where you have to use honorific form to describe the actions of another person:

  • You are describing the actions of your superior
  • You are speaking about the founder of your school
  • You are speaking about a teacher whom you respect
  • You are speaking about a well-respected historical figure
  • You are trying to suck up to that person
  • You are referring to a national leader
  • You are referring to Haruhi-sama
  • You are a maid speaking about your master

Here’s an example:

kana: キョンは閉鎖空間に入った
ro-maji: kyon wa heisa kuukan ni haitta.
english: Kyon entered the Sealed Dimension.

kana: ハルヒ様は閉鎖空間にお入りになった
ro-maji: haruhi-sama wa heisa kuukan ni ohairi ni natta.
english: Haruhi-sama entered the Sealed Dimension.

The two sentences above share the same meaning, but 入る (“to enter”) is replace with お入りになる for Haruhi-sama because we are describing the actions of a higher being. :P This is the basics of honorific form.

A more complex example:

kana: これは私の弁当だ。
ro-maji: kore wa watashi no bentou da.
english: This is my bentou.

kana: そちらのはハルヒ様のお弁当でいらっしゃる。
ro-maji: sochira nowa haruhi-sama no obentou deirassharu.
english: That is Haruhi-sama’s obentou.

Note the numerous changes made to the sentence even though the meaning stays the same. Keigo is like a whole new language by itself.

The prefixes お or ご (depends on the word) for nouns make them more polite. This is usually used in conjunction with the honorific form, but there are some words that almost always come with the prefix. For example, お金 (okane) and ご飯 (gohan). There are also some nouns that convert differently, for example the bikago of 家 (ie), which means “house/home”, is usually お宅 (otaku) and not お家 (oie). BTW, that is where “otaku” came from, but that’s a topic for another day…

Some common conversions to honorific form for verbs:

To go: 行く (iku) → いらっしゃる (irassharu)
To come: 来る kuru) → おいでになる (oide ni naru)
To be: だ (da) / である (dearu) → でいらっしゃる (deirassharu)
To eat: 食べる (taberu) → 召し上がる (meshiagaru)
To look: 見る (miru) → ご覧になる (goran ni naru)
To know: 知る (shiru) → ご存知である (gozonji dearu)
To say: 言う (iu) → おっしゃる (ossharu)

Still with me? Good. Fortunately, most conversions to honorific form are not as senseless. The examples above are actually the exceptions. Most verbs follow a general rule when converting to honorific form:

お + Root -masu form + になる

Simple huh. Some examples:

To listen: 聞く (kiku) → お聞きになる (okiki ni naru)
To enter: 入る (hairu) → お入りになる (ohairi ni naru)
To meet: 会う (au) → お会いになる (oai ni naru)

Please read my chapter on verbs if you don’t know what is -masu form.

There are of course other rules associated with honorific form, such as the passive honorific. But you get the general idea… right?

謙譲語 (Humble form)

I suck. I am the most useless person in this room. All my so-called achievements could never have happened in a million years without the help of everyone here. I will go orz in that corner now.

Koi no Magical Mikuru

For some reason, Mikuru comes to mind. But nevermind, it’s not important.

Anyway, kenjougo or the humble form is used to describe your own actions and the actions of people who are in your “in-group”. It is used when speaking to a person of higher level or equipped with more +rep rare items.

An “in-group” is a vague and Japanese definition that changes depending on the situation, but the general idea is people who are close to you and are on the same level as you, such as your classmates and your siblings.

Some situations where you have to use humble form to describe your own actions:

  • You are speaking to your company’s CEO
  • You are a student speaking to the headmaster
  • You work in the service industry
  • You are speaking to your ancestors through a spirit medium
  • You are a maid slaving working for Haruhi-sama
  • You belong to a harem and your character type is submissive
  • You are just really polite all the time (until you go oyashiro)
  • Your first name is Kotonoha


kana: キョン:「俺はSOS団に入った。」
ro-maji: kyon: “ore wa SOS-dan ni haitta.”
english: Kyon: “I joined the SOS-dan.:

kana: みくる:「私はSOS団にお入りしました。」
ro-maji: mikuru: “watashi wa SOS-dan ni ohairishimashita.”
english: Mikuru: “I joined the SOS-dan.”

That’s basic kenjougo. You can be even humbler:

kana: 私はSOS団にお入りさせて頂きました
ro-maji: watashi wa SOS-dan ni ohairisasete itadakimashita.
english: I joined the SOS-dan.

It still means the same thing, but now the sentence translates literally to “I gratefully received the permission to join the SOS-dan.”

If you’ve ever watched Ai Yori Aoshi, let me just tell you that Aoi spent the entire series speaking this way. Go rewatch it if you don’t believe me. She uses keigo no matter who she’s speaking to. It’s scary.

Some common conversions to humble form for verbs:

To go: 行く (iku) → 伺う (ukagau)
To come: 来る kuru) → 参る (mairu)
To be: だ (da) / である (dearu) → でござる (degozaru)
To eat: 食べる (taberu) → 頂く (itadaku)
To receive: もらう (morau) → 頂く (itadaku)
To look: 見る (miru) → 拝見する (haikensuru)
To know: 知る (shiru) → 存じる (zonjiru)
To say: 言う (iu) → 申す (mousu)

So now you know where “itadakimasu” came from. :P Just like with honorific form, the above examples are actually exceptions. Most other verbs follow a general rule when converting to humble form:

お + Root -masu form + する

Please note that the end is suru and not naru like in honorific form (if you use honorific form on yourself, you’re gonna get it). Some examples:

To listen: 聞く (kiku) → お聞きする (okikisuru)
To enter: 入る (hairu) → お入りする (ohairisuru)
To meet: 会う (au) → お会いする (oaisuru)

I shall not go into the passive humble form since I have yet to even cover regular passive form… Oh well, maybe another day. :P

丁寧語 (Polite form)

Look at me! I speak like a little girl!


Ok this is not so true. But the fact is that using the polite form when you are not supposed to makes you sound like a little girl.

The polite form is easier to understand than honorific and humble forms. You use it to be polite to the person you are speaking to, that’s about it. Social status doesn’t really matter here. You can use honorific and humble forms whether or not you are using polite form.

Polite form makes you sound more formal. You generally use it when speaking to strangers or people who are not emotionally close to you. If you are a girl, you can use it all the time and not sound weird. But I think younger people generally prefer to speak in normal form when they are among peers.

Polite form is basically -masu form. That’s about all there is to it. I covered it in my chapter on verbs under the heading “Part II: “-masu” Form“.

But just to illustrate the difference again, here are some examples:

食べる (taberu) → 食べます (tabemasu)
行く (iku) → 行きます (ikimasu)
来る (kimasu) → 来ます (kimasu)

The same also apply to their honorific forms:

召し上がる (meshiagaru) → 召し上がります (meshiagarimasu)
いらっしゃる (irassharu) → いらっしゃいます (irasshaimasu)
おいでになる (oide ni naru) → おいでになります (oide ni narimasu)

And their humble form:

頂く (itadaku) → 頂きます (itadakimasu)
伺う (ukagau) → 伺います (ukagaimasu
参る (mairu) → 参ります (mairimasu)

As you can see, polite form is really independent of humble form and honorific form. And much simpler too.

When to use Keigo


So how do you know when you should use which type of keigo? Well first you have to know who you are speaking to. If the person is a stranger or if you are unfamiliar with him/her, use polite form. If the person is higher level than you, use honorific form when describing his/her actions or when making a direct request and use humble form for yourself and your peers.

For example, if you are a waiter/waitress speaking with your customer, you speak in polite form and use honorific form to refer to his/her actions. You use humble form to refer to your own actions, the actions of your co-workers and the restaurant you represent.

Even when speaking with your friends, it is sometimes necessary to use honorific and humble forms because it also depends on the topic of the conversation. If you are telling your friends about a present which you received from your boss, then it is necessary to use honorific form for the parts that are describing your boss’ actions, even though you are not speaking in polite form with your friends.



Knowing how to correctly apply keigo is one of the most important things that determine your fluency in Japanese. Although it is getting less and less popular among Japanese teenagers to use keigo, it is still an important part of Japanese and will continue to be.

Also, keigo sounds pretty darn cool if you can spew it out fast enough like they do in anime. :P Really, I don’t know what is wrong with Japanese kids these days…

In this chapter, we talked about:

  1. Types of keigo
  2. Honorific form
  3. Humble form
  4. Polite form

Have fun~

I still haven’t decided on the topic for the next chapter. Maybe more on verbs or maybe something else.

P.S. I did promise that this chapter would be Lacus-sama… but I realized that I have very few usable pictures of her! Now if anyone could send me their collection that would be great… XD

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