When Respectful Japanese Isn’t Respectful

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Photo by Pink Noise

Yesterday I got a call from a shipping company. The company itself isn’t important, because this happens all the time. The general gist of the conversation is that (apparently) my husband had ordered a book on Amazon the week before and there was a problem with the shipping.

I didn’t quite understand the conversation because the man on the other side of the phone spoke in keigo (polite, formal Japanese).

Here’s the thing, I don’t have a problem with Japanese.

I have a problem with keigo.

keigo

Most of the Japanese I know I learned through my friends, family, and husband. Keigo never came up in conversation and, considering how long it takes me to learn a new phrase or grammar pattern, learning the honorific forms of words I already knew never ranked high on the ‘to do’ list.

In fact, the only problems I have with keigo are once-in-a-blue-moon, in situations like this.

A number of my foreign friends have similar problems. They only started learning (very rudimentary) keigo by year three or four of formally studying Japanese in a classroom and, because they rarely use keigo, they quickly forgot it.

In these situations, I explain that I never learned keigo and request they use ‘regular,’ direct Japanese.

I’ve only ever had one person switch to direct Japanese (when I was opening a bank account at JA Bank). Every other time there is a long, awkward silence followed by “I apologize, but I am not permitted to use direct Japanese to customers” and more keigo.

It’s ironic, really. Keigo is meant to show respect but, by making it mandatory in certain social situations, it actually hurts the people they are supposed to be showing “respect” to.

Does anyone else have problems with keigo?

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  • Nagarjuna Asam says:

    I have had that problem too. For a while, I thought kashikomarimashita means there is a problem. I would explain something again and then they’ll say “okkay” in English.

  • Ben says:

    Here’s the problem as I see it. There are some foreigners who studied Japanese academically – maybe they majored in Japanese before living here, and therefore learned all the proper stuff first. Then there are folks like me who were just attracted to the country/culture and moved here not for a love of the language, but still learned Japanese [imperfectly] along the way. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, everyone I’ve met who studies Japanese obsessively are either autistic weirdos or wannabe language elitists. As a caveat I’m sure there are some perfectly nice people whose goal it was to become a translator, or perhaps they are language prodigies.

    Casual Japanese is actually a really fun, playful, and [sometimes] awesomely irreverent language. The best conversations I have by far are with my close Japanese friends where we drop all the bullshit and just speak our minds; it’s the difference between treating each other like humans vs robots. Keigo feels like the equivalent of how customer service reps are trained to speak at call centers in America. Imagine if you had to converse with your coworkers or in-laws in that robotic customer-rep speak; it wouldn’t be fun would it? It’s even worse than simply not being fun though, Keigo puts a barrier between you and the person you are trying to communicate with because there’s a philosophy of respect for hierarchy behind it. It’s not just that though, keigo also seems like a mask Japanese people can use to hide their true selves/intentions… but I may be over analyzing things a bit. What it definitely does is shoves in unnecessary formalities, adding a lot of time to even the simplest of conversations. Japanese people already have a hard time communicating even with each other – which is why their business meetings are SO long, rarely productive and often full of silence and strange hissing sounds (anyone who has worked in a Japanese office knows the hiss)… Keigo isn’t the cause of this, but it is a symptom of the problem.

    I forget who said brevity is the soul of wit, but he sure as hell was NOT Japanese (I’m kidding it was Shakespear).

    Anyone who loves Keigo or finds joy studying/writing kanji etc. would probably accuse someone like me of not understanding Japanese culture (and they’d probably be wearing a yukata and geta whilst doing it). But the truth is I just don’t give a shit about that side of the culture – because in my opinion it’s that side of the culture that causes most of the stress everyone has to deal with in this country (particularly in the business world). Let me extend an olive branch; I don’t mind speaking politely to my in-laws out of respect for them, or using a bit of Keigo with someone I just met; we have similar behavior in America too after all. What I do mind is wasting valuable time at my job having to sift through verbal garbage just to find the nuggets of usable information. Efficiency is important in business, and Keigo throws a big’ol turd into the ceiling fan of productivity. Look, if you step out of the office and into [what I consider] the real Japan, there are a ton of really interesting people in this country. But from my experience they are NOT to be found in environments where Keigo is used.

    Furthermore, I don’t NEED Keigo, as Japanese isn’t my primary [or even secondary] selling point. I work in 3DCG, and that requires a lot of practice and constant skill-honing to stay sharp. Even if I wanted to raise my Japanese to native level other things would suffer including my career. And besides I have a lot of other hobbies and interests that take precedence over perfecting a language only used on 1 tiny island, even if that island is my home.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Elijah Zupancic says:

    I may have the minority viewpoint here, but as for Japanese language learning keigo is relatively simple. Especially, learning enough to comprehend. It is a memorization task very similar to Kanji and doesn’t involve learning new times of grammar. Rather, you learn how to swap out a few words and have to learn directionality in terms of speaking to a superior or inferior. There are countless more difficult aspects to Japanese than keigo. That said, I don’t want to diminish the struggles any of you have had with it, but I personally found it much more productive to think of it in these terms. That allowed me to just make a big effort one time and get past it.

  • natori_umi says:

    To be honest, I’ve had the opposite problem before. I know keigo, can use it mostly properly and do use it pretty frequently, especially in written conversation. Actually, I have more trouble using non-honorific speech than I have using teineigo or keigo. But from time to time, it will happen to me that I go somewhere (e.g. a hotel, a sales counter etc.) where you’d usually expect people to talk to you using keigo and they will use friendly speech, starting sentences with “ano ne” and so on. That sometimes makes me kind of mad, it makes me feel like I’m not worth as much because I’m a foreigner 😐

    As for your problem: I have the feeling the main problem isn’t actually the level of speech but that in these situations, a lot of “kango”, 2 or 3 kanji-words, are used instead of normal “Japanese” verbs, e.g. 配達 instead of 配る. These can be hard to catch, especially over the phone, so maybe you should just ask for more easy vocabulary? The keigo forms placed around it are probably much easier to understand that way.

  • Alastaire Haddock says:

    This is actually a recurring nightmare for me. Although I don’t plan on moving to Japan anytime soon, I did come across some keigo when I was studying more advanced Japanese. Frankly, it scared the crap out of me, and I’ve been dreading the situation you described ever since (I have anxiety). After worrying about this potential dilemma for an extended period of time, I came up with a “solution” that is kind of sadistic, but is just crazy enough to work: you could just shame them into speaking informal Japanese. Imply that it’s rude to refuse your simple request as a “valued customer” especially when there is the clear reason of miscommunication for said request, and if they continue to be difficult you’ll be forced to complain to their superior. It’s not the most original idea, but it may help.

    • John L says:

      Not to feed your anxiety, but you can’t shame Japanese people like that. They will probably say something like “it can’t be helped.” Japanese customers service IMO isn’t that great. Outside of flowery language you can expect the same service at most businesses in the U.S.

  • maulinator says:

    I have not had a problem with keigo when on the receiving end. If you speak regular Japanese and ask them to explain again, they usually get it and will make sure you understand. The problem is when you have to speak it towards someone else. There are sitautons where clearly speaking in the vernacular is not appropriate, the other party may be a client or someone quite senior. You would not speak to the President of the US using slang. Or speak to a judge in that way.
    I would say that if you decide to live in Japan, keigo is going to part of your life whether as a foreigner you want to dismiss it or not, at some point you will be disrespecting someone by not using keigo. Just bite the bullet and learn it. In order to survive in the US people learn to use the vernacular and other forms of speech and writing. One would not use slang when writing a formal essay in English. I would only consider someone who understood keigo to actually be a true bilingual in regards to being able to speak Japanese.

  • Love it ! Every time I read your articles it’s like reading about my own life in Tokyo 😉 I actually never thought about asking the person to use normal Japanese… I will definitely do it next time ! (and laugh at the awkward reaction I’ll probably get)

  • Andrew Robertson says:

    Keep in mind that the person on the other end of the phone will be in an office, possibly a call centre, and will certainly not want to be overheard talking to a customer in informal (i.e. ‘rude’) Japanese.

  • Matt Erik Katch says:

    When I first started learning Japanese there was a lot I couldn’t understand, naturally, but I got very good at focusing on what I could and building everything else out of context clues. While I can mostly understand most forms of keigo now, I still can’t use it very competently, and occasionally I find myself relying on that selective hearing again.

  • hoeksey78 says:

    This is off topic but could you message me for advice on trying to move to Japan. And what is the best route to take to find a job in japan from out of country (States)?

  • DenisLi says:

    Keigo is not really about being polite, it’s just a (culture, i.e. custom-based) style of addressing someone. I guess if they refuse to switch to teineigo or plain Japanese, it’s because they are being recorded (and because they’ve never encountered this situation before and, let’s be honest, the Japanese are not very good at dealing with new situations on the spot, but let’s leave this topic for now), so they are afraid they’d get into trouble at work. Then maybe you should try telling them that even though they have to use it, as keigo is a way to address a customer and show some respect (even if it’s not really true), it is even more shitsurei against you to refuse to speak comprehensibly, so they are being disrespectful to the customer by using keigo, if you can’t understand them. Maybe, just maybe, that might help.
    That is, if you can’t do something about it and just do learn keigo, it’s not that hard actually. 😉

  • matt says:

    My Japanese is decent. I studied in High School and College and I lived in Japan for almost 5 years. I can watch movies and TVs and understand with relatively little trouble. I will admit that it is very hard for me to speak Japanese using Keigo (which really just means knowing which ritualistic expression is appropriate at each moment), but it is not hard to understand it. If your Japanese is of at least a moderate fluency level then you would be able to understand it.

    • I only took two years of (very basic) Japanese in college. The rest I learned speaking with my husband (he talks to me in Japanese, I reply in English). Neither my husband nor my in-laws have ever used keigo with me (and I guess none of my Japanese friends use it either), so I actually don’t have any exposure to it – except when dealing with customer service.

      I can understand most expressions, but when it is strung together, I can’t follow the pattern.

  • Sharon91 says:

    hahaha! totally relatable. I once experienced the same thing as you, not understanding the keigo and asked them to use direct japanese but they seemed puzzled and tried to explain and repeat the same thing again and again until I got their point. Gotta admire their spirit though.

  • GeneralObvious says:

    I’ve never once had this experience. I would just start out my conversations by saying that my Japanese is not good, but that I will try my best. The customer service people have always made an effort to speak in language I could understand. They will usually speak much slower and rephrase the sentences I have problems with, often multiple times, until it becomes clear. I’ve even had customer service people go so far as to insert English words into their Japanese sentences.

  • AndrewPetrykowski says:

    Had this exact same scenario happen more than once (save for the husband part…)
    The whole thing seems so silly considering the shame Japanese take upon themselves for not being able to communicate properly with foreigners during casual encounters…

  • Anthony Joh says:

    This is a good point and something that I’ve seen discussed a little here in Japan. Japanese omotenashi works well when there is vary little deviation from the service being offered. But when you do try to do something different there is a complete breakdown of their system.

  • Nadsumatal says:

    Ha haa! Funny thing happened to me.

    I went to an elementary school for a “talk to a foreigner” day. Since you can’t expect 7-year-olds to be fluent in English, I had to use my poor Japanese. At some point one boy asked me a question I didn’t understand. His classmate scolded him: “Don’t use keigo!” and translated for me to simple Japanese.

    Kids get it. They’re only just developing their polite form skills, so they understand it must be tough for someone who’s been in Japan shorter than them.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      There are 7 year-old kids in your schools that are speaking keigo?? I don’t think keigo is even taught to first and second graders, with the exception of teineigo (i.e. -masu forms).

      • Nadsumatal says:

        Kids aren’t raised in a void. They can hear adults talk to each other. Seven-year-olds have more knowledge and skill than is passed to them from parents and teachers.

        Also, his question wasn’t anything complicated like delivering a package, but about my age or something.

    • That’s so cute! Kids totally get it. Hahaha.

  • Mochamad Zaky says:

    Then I suggest you to watch anime with setting: aruji-shitsuji, kingdom life, or military life 😀
    Anime is preferable than dorama because it has more dialogue. I learned japanese a lot from anime too, including keigo. Of course I had class-based keigo lesson previously.

  • I think it is something that comes with having to learn more Japanese to understand Keigo as well. Many times they cannot use plain English because if they do they could loose their job. They have to do what they are told, so it is something that anyone who wants to live in Japan will have to learn Keigo as many companies expect them to use only this speaking. Which sucks but thats all you can do. Also will be a benefit to anyone living there.

  • LunaticNeko says:

    My credit card issuer avoids miscommunication altogether by speaking English. I could communicate when them in Japanese, but when one or both parties are unsure about their level of speech (i.e. they saw me a foreigner and were not sure if keigo will cause misunderstanding) something must be done to allow communication to continue.

    While it’s a little embarrassing for me (Living in their country, eating their food, and using their money (I earn part of my living from a national university), I’m supposed to be able to talk to them) I still love to think that the teller got extra points from her supervisor for using English. Well, in case the call was recorded or her supervisor was right there, that is.

  • Viki Yuno says:

    I’m the same so usually I ask about English speaker staff or a telephone line I can speak in English. My Keigo is no good!

  • Jesse says:

    I’ve never really had much of a problem. Maybe because my Japanese is not “that good”. When I recently opened a new bank account the staff were really nice and didn’t even bother using keigo.
    The lady who helped me used very simple and easy to understand Japanese. She seemed to feel a bit awkward about explaining the “I will not do yakuza activities with this bank account” promise, but we laughed it off.
    Maybe people are more chilled in Okinawa?

    • Perhaps. I might also have a problem because I’m almost conversationally fluent and (apparently) have great pronunciation when I speak Japanese, so it gives off the illusion I understand more than I really do.

  • Adrian Buckles says:

    Is this something I as an American interested in Japanese business etiquette, should learn?

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Yes. To properly do business here you need to learn all the ins and outs of how they communicate. It’s not vital but not learning it can limit your opportunities.

  • Scott says:

    Keigo really isn’t optional in Japanese. I find it easier to understand but more difficult to employ. That being said, it is probably difficult to access ‘keigo lessons’ for the average expat so I feel your pain. Good post – I never thought about the irony of the situation, but you are right.

  • Samyak Shamkuwar says:

    I think keigo is a very integral part of Japanese learning, for I rmbr reading a post how Chinese is so much more direct. Considering I’ll be working in Japan starting next year, I already use copious “Itasu, Mairu, mousu and zonji desu”, it only earns me extra brownie points!

  • Lindsey says:

    My keigo isn’t great, but I worked with Japanese customers and colleagues so I suppose I got more chance to use it. pain in the bum though, I sympathise!

    • It’s weird, though, because when I was working with a Japanese company, I never had problems with keigo. I just explained early on that I never learned it, so I just communicated with my boss and coworkers in direct Japanese.

      These days the ONLY time I use it is when dealing with companies as a customer.

  • Sara Greeds says:

    Me. I went to and Adventist church when I was in Japan… but since speaking to God and about God is so respectful… I ended up not understanding anything about the preaching. I still don’t understand a word of keigo…

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