Thursday, September 24, 2009

Should Gaijins Speak Keigo (Polite Japanese)?

Polite language is a funny concept for us gaijin. If I am a polite person I would, of course, naturally choose polite language over, well, impolite. But in terms of Japanese, polite language refers to the type of Japanese you speak to someone senior to you. We gaijin, however, aren't accustomed to these kinds of customs. So are we exempted from the duty of speaking differently to people who are older than us?

If our Japanese is too elementary, surely no one will expect us to use keigo. "Namae wa nan'tte iuno?" will obviously be fine instead of "O-namae wa nan'tte iun desuka?" when asking for someone's name. But if our conversational skills are adequate enough to carry out even semi-intelligent dialogues, should we immediately switch to polite form if the other person is senior to you?

The thing is, many times when we initiate conversation with Japanese people, they don't go keigo. Some friends of mine are very skilled at Japanese, but they seldom get responses in polite form. This poses some questions. Do the Japanese think that keigo is a lot harder to understand? Do they perceive gaijins as people outside the social hierarchy in Japan? Or do they feel better about themselves if they don't have to use keigo with older people?

Keigo can be very complex when compared to something as flexible as English. I don't wish to dig into business keigo that deals with kenjougo (謙譲語) and sonkeigo (尊敬語) and how you're expected to lower your status when dealing with a customer, et cetera—I'm just talking about basic keigo, like "desu" and "masu", something that you would use to your teacher.

My Japanese teacher told me that Westerners tend to be slower at putting keigo into practice. Koreans, on the other hand, often start using polite Japanese from the very beginning because they have similar social customs. In fact, all the Asian students in my class said "ohayou gozaimasu" whereas everyone else greeted the teacher with a casual "ohayou" every morning.

Now, I'd like to direct the original question in this post to you. What do you think, should gaijins use polite Japanese? And do you use keigo when speaking Japanese to your seniors?


Anonymous said...

i think gaijins should make the effort to use polite japanese. however maybe i think that because our japanese teacher will usually get upset with us if we dont address her properly...

Anonymous said...

I took three years of Japanese classes in highschool, and I was taught to use basic keigo from the beginning. I think this might be because my teacher was a native speaker herself. We learned the more casual forms later, and endings like ureshi wa and so on.

I think gaijin should try to learn basic keigo, I don't see it as being that difficult.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to be more specific about what you're referring to as Keigo. Keigo is the honorific form, desu and masu are considered polite yes, but would not generally be refered to as Keigo, considering that Keigo is a completely different form. Hence, most non-native Japanese speakers who are pursuing learning Japanese start with polite form, then are introduced to casual form, and then later on are introduced to Keigo. So I suppose it's a problem on two fronts, as we gaikokujin are not really necessarily even introduced to Keigo until a later time in our learning experience, so it's not necessarily our unwillingness or ineptitude to learn it so much as us not having had it introduced to us.

Eric said...

Good points.

One sad thing about not learning keigo is the fact that a gaijin friend of mine couldn't get a part-time job because the employer said he didn't like it that my friend couldn't speak keigo during the interview.

But concerning the term keigo, most of the Japanese people I know always say "keigo tsukawankutemo ee de" when people start using desu/masu :) The natives seem to only see two forms of Japanese—polite and casual. Polite starts with desu/masu and then extends to kenjougo and sonkeigo.

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