Basics of honorifics


In Japanese, honorifics (敬語, keigo) play a vital role in daily communication, reflecting the speaker’s respect towards the listener.

These linguistic forms are essential for anyone looking to navigate Japanese society with cultural sensitivity.

This guide explores the basics of honorifics, helping beginners understand and apply these politeness levels in their conversations.

Understanding the Three Main Categories of Honorifics

1. Sonkeigo (尊敬語) – Respectful Language

Sonkeigo is used to elevate the status of the person you’re speaking about, showing respect and reverence.

It’s often applied in professional settings or when addressing or referring to someone of higher status.

Verb Prefixes:

Adding “お” (o-) or “ご” (go-) to verbs and nouns.

For example, “会う” (au – to meet) becomes “お会いする” (o-ai suru).

  • Special Sonkeigo Verbs:

Practical Scenario:

When speaking to or about a company executive’s actions in a meeting, sonkeigo is employed to show respect.

For instance, “部長がご覧になった報告書” (Bucho ga goran ni natta houkokusho) – “The report that the manager looked at (respectfully).”

2. Kenjougo (謙譲語) – Humble Language

Kenjougo lowers the speaker’s or their in-group’s status relative to the listener, emphasizing humility.

  • Humble Verb Forms:

Changing verbs to show humility regarding one’s actions or the actions of someone within the speaker’s in-group.

Practical Scenario:

When a staff member explains their actions to a customer, kenjougo underscores the staff’s humility.

For example, “明日、商品をお届けに参ります” (Ashita, shouhin wo otodoke ni mairimasu) – “Tomorrow, I will humbly deliver the goods.”

3. Teineigo (丁寧語) – Polite Language

Teineigo, marked by the です/ます form, is the foundational level of politeness, suitable for a wide range of daily interactions.

Desu/Masu Form Usage:

Converting verbs into their masu form and attaching “desu” to nouns and adjectives for politeness.

  • Polite Language Forms

Practical Scenario:

In casual conversations, especially with someone you’re not very familiar with, teineigo ensures communication remains polite and respectful.

Asking about someone’s well-being, “お元気ですか?” (O-genki desu ka?) – “Are you well?”

The context of your conversation dictates the level of honorific language you should use.

While teineigo is generally safe for casual interactions, understanding when to employ sonkeigo or kenjougo can significantly impact your social interactions.

In actual conversation, there are few situations where you need to pay that much attention to honorific and humble language, except in business situations.

It is not easy even for Japanese to use honorific and humble language correctly, so if you are a foreigner, a little mistake is not a problem.

If you need to behave politely, it is important to learn to use the polite form first.

Common mistakes and Tips

  • Mixing up levels of politeness can confuse or offend, so it’s crucial to maintain consistency in your speech level throughout a conversation.

  • Overusing sonkeigo or kenjougo can sometimes create an unwanted distance or imply a hierarchy that doesn’t exist, so use these forms judiciously.


Mastering the use of honorifics is a journey that enriches your understanding of Japanese language and culture.

By applying the basics of sonkeigo, kenjougo, and teineigo appropriately, you can communicate with respect and sensitivity, fostering positive relationships in various social contexts.

Remember, practice and attentive listening are key to becoming proficient in navigating the nuanced landscape of Japanese honorifics.