According to a NY Times story by Norimitsu Onishi, the age-old patterns of hierarchy in Japanese society and language are beginning to weaken:
Many Japanese companies, traditionally divided rigidly by age and seniority, have dropped the use of titles to create a more open — and, they hope, competitive — culture.
The long economic slump has forced companies to abandon seniority in favor of performance, upsetting the traditional order. This has led to confusion in the use of titles as well as honorific language, experts say.
The shift also mirrors profound changes in Japanese society, experts say. Equality-minded parents no longer emphasize honorific language to their children, and most schools no longer expect children to use honorific language to their teachers. As a result, young Japanese have a poor command of honorific language and do not feel compelled to use it.
“There’s confusion and embarrassment,” said Rika Oshima, the 43-year-old president of Speaking Essay, a school that instructs new employees on the use of honorific language. “Junior staffers aren’t strict about using respectful forms to their bosses, whereas bosses want their staffers to use respectful forms to them, but bosses cannot say that.”
What is clear is that the use of honorific language, called keigo, to elevate a person or humble oneself, has especially fallen out of use among young Japanese.
Japanese, perhaps more than any other language, has long taken account of social standing. While French speakers must decide between the familiar “tu” and the formal “vous” in addressing someone in the second person, in Japanese, there are many ways to say I or you, calibrated by age, circumstance, gender, social position and other factors. Verb endings, adjectives and entire words also shift according to the situation.
Mistakes have been deadly. In 1975, two workers, Kunihiro Fukuda, 30, and Tomohiko Okabe, 27, were having a drink in a Tokyo bar, according to magazine reports at the time. Although Mr. Okabe was younger, he had entered the company first and had taken to addressing his colleague in a manner usually reserved for someone younger, calling him Fukuda instead of Fukuda-san. Mr. Fukuda protested. But Mr. Okabe said, “What’s wrong if a senior guy calls his junior in this way?” Enraged, Mr. Fukuda grabbed his colleague by the neck and beat him to death, the magazines reported…
Fumio Inoue, a professor of linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said honorifics began with the nobility a millennium ago. At first, they were strictly based on social hierarchy, but after World War II and the democratization of Japanese society, they began to be used according to the level of intimacy between speakers.
For many older Japanese, the decline of the honorific form amounted to losing the deep beauty of their language and the coarsening of the social culture.
“In the past, Japanese children were taught well at home to elevate men and their elders,” said Mr. Kubota, the factory manager. “Here in Hiroshima, because we are in the country, some of the old ways remain. But in Tokyo, it’s chaos.”
Surprisingly, 65% of all the people that cooperated said they “are not using proper keigo.” Majority of the people answered that either kindergarten and elementary school or junior high school should teach keigo. 70% had trouble using kenjogo. The impression of people who cannot use proper keigo was “rude and impolite” at 28%, “not well educated” at 24%, and “do not mind” at 20%. More than half of the correspondents had negative feelings toward those who could not use keigo properly.
In the quiz on sonkeigo, 40% achieved to answer more than two answers correctly. On the next quiz, 70% had trouble mixing up kenjogo and sonkeigo, which is a mistake common to many Japanese people. Also, many people had trouble using teineigo or sonkeigo for their family members.
In this paper, I have presented how the mis-usage of keigo can embarrass the listener, damage a relationship, be wrongly interpreted, or embarrass the speaker him/herself. I have also pointed out how a large body of Japanese people can’t use this complex system of keigo properly, and therefore, most of them feel they want to improve it. Although there are various types of mistakes in using keigo, we all know that language change over a period of time, so making a definite conclusion about which usage is right or wrong is very difficult. Moreover, reaction and evaluation differ depending on who the listener is. Some people think that the mis-usage of keigo does not bother them, as long as they can feel that the speaker is talking and acting with respect.
And here‘s an interesting account of the history of the -masu verbal ending and its place in the system of honorifics.