When Respectful Japanese Isn’t Respectful
By Grace Buchele Mineta
On January 20, 2015
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.
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?