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.”

Of course, all this may be journalistic exaggeration of a passing trend, but if it’s real it’s a significant development.
Here’s an essay that analyzes people’s ability to use keigo properly:

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.


  1. As a student in Japan last year I was mortified when I mixed up sonkeigo and kenjogo when speaking to my advisor. It was somewhat comforting, as I looked in the bookstore at the multitude of books on the subject written for native speakers of Japanese, to realize that I was not alone in this.

  2. “Japanese, perhaps more than any other language, has long taken account of social standing.”
    I always thought Korean had just as much a sense of social standing as Japanese, if not more….? For verb endings, I know they have an elaborate system of speech levels.

  3. My heart would sink whenever it was time for a lesson on keigo. If it’s difficult for so many Japanese people, it’s a nightmare for foreigners who are trying to learn keigo in the classroom — in the absence of almost all the requisite social cues.
    If keigo is falling out of use among young Japanese in general, it seems logical to assume that young Japanese women are less likely to use onna kotoba, traditional “women’s language”.

  4. I used to know a Japanese-born woman who married a GI during the 50’s and spent the rest of her life in the US. She had made friends with an American woman in the neighborhood and the two quickly became very close. After they had known each other awhile, the woman I knew (in her fifties) found out that the young-looking woman she was talking to was actually 20 years older than she was. My friend was utterly mortified — she’s been assuming equality. I’m sure that her friend didn’t even notice.

  5. dungbeattle says

    Communication vs education vs transfusion of ideas vs reality : The balance of power vs practical inventive Knowledge: change in priviledges based on real earnings for society: This can be seen in the changes in so many societies[cultures] thru the use and change in language : For Example dropping of Greek and Latin in the UK schools has change the tone of the mass communication of the media print and visual. Also changed the Higher education results. Better / worse(r)? Economics is the Motor of change? just a thought from under the poop:

  6. Interestingly, I’ve met several Japanese who have remarked to me that older Taiwanese (including many Taiwanese Aborigines), speak “better Japanese” than they themselves do. What they mean, of course, is that Taiwanese use honorifics all the time. Because of the Colonial relations under which Taiwanese lived, it was better to err on the side of formality than informality. What this means is that many people often “hypercorrected” and used overly formal speech when speaking to their own family members – which would be akward and embarassing to a Japanese.
    I don’t fully understand how Japanese honorifics work, having never studied the langauge, but this makese sense to me.
    Another thing I heard is that the reason that Javanese is so much more difficult to learn than Bahasa Indonesia is because of all the honorifics it requires.

  7. As a native Japanese I compare the Japanese honorifics and the underlying age hierarchy to the infamous caste system of India. While nostalgia may be good to some, this archaic system must go.
    If you care about the Japanese culture and people, you are welcome to help us change.

  8. I agree that Japan would probably be better off without those things, but I don’t really see how foreigners can do anything about it. It’s up to Japanese to start rejecting them. But I wish you well in your struggle for progress!

  9. Sometimes, I think the foreigner students would probablly know better about the keigo than Native Japanese speakers, because it has been taught in the class…

  10. Shiroitaka says

    To tell you the truth, from my use of them and my sense of how there are used, I love them. I haven’t been taught formally though but would love it if I could be. I believe that people should do whatever they believe is right or better in the interest of one’s society and culture but, I know many cases where people can be easily embarrassed, offended, and maybe even horrified. That is simply a reaction of which might happen when talking to a person in normal human relations, it’s that simple. Honorifics are words. Words are used to help one describe to others feelings, thoughts, and ideas that never would have been able to be shared otherwise. Honorifics are the same way. Honorifics are simply words, at least in this day and age, to describe how one truely feels for another, feels in the prescence of another, show respect for another, and so on. Of course with normal humans, we make mistakes, but then again these aren’t facts they are beliefs. If someone is “mortified” by how they think you see them in the usage of honorifics, simply explain why you feel the need to use that honorific and ask them if they wished to called something else or nothing at all. Also with words such as these there is a wide expanse to the definitions and meanings to which people take these words. They are something ingeniously made to be used beautifully and brilliantlly. If the Japanese truely wish to be rid of such words then that is their prerogative, not mine. But I do know this much. I, will continue to use them at my own discretion. Thank you all for your time.

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