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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

February 12, 2010

Honour and Humility - Japanese Style

In my column about why the Japanese language can be difficult to learn, I mentioned that one of the challenging features is social deixis – the fact that you cannot say anything in Japanese without conveying what your impression is of the social relationship between you and your addressee, or between you and the person you are talking about. This week, and over the next couple of columns, too, I’m going to talk about this in a little more depth, by taking a look at the subject of honorifics.

For those of you who don’t know any Japanese, briefly, honorifics are linguistic means of expressing respect to the person you are talking to, or the person you are talking about. There are various forms: prefixes attached to nouns, a variety of verb inflections, and a number of substitute nouns and verbs for use in particular contexts. So, for example, one uses the verb meshiagaru (召し上がる), ‘eat (honourably)’, if a social superior is doing it, but itadaku (頂く), ‘eat (humbly)’, if you are doing it in a social superior’s presence, and so on. Put like that it sounds quite simple, if bizarre to English speakers, and strictly speaking, it is – one can learn the most common forms, expressions and grammatical rules quite quickly – and like everything in Japanese they are logical and don’t have exceptions, but the challenge comes in learning when and how to apply them, and relating that to yourself – your age, sex, job and so forth – in other words, the socio-pragmatic rules and conventions.

What combination of honorifics are appropriate when meeting one’s prospective parents-in-law for the first time? When speaking to one’s teacher? When meeting a business client? When talking to one’s boss at work? Should you use different expressions if you meet him outside the office? The possibilities are as varied as there are different social situations and encounters, and unless you are extremely familiar with Japanese social relationships, it’s difficult to sound natural, or to pick up on the signals that honorific usage sends.

For example, I recently received an email from a Japanese publisher, requesting corrections to the proofs of a book chapter I’ve written, and letting me know what the necessary schedule was for me to get the corrections back. Nothing surprising about that, but how did she conclude her mail? Well, the final sentence was: ‘kongo tomo go-shidō go-bentatsu no hodo, nanitozo yoroshiku o-negai-mōshiagemasu’ (今後ともご指導ご鞭撻の程、何卒宜しくお願い申し上げます), which translates literally as, ‘In every way we humbly and sincerely request your future honoured guidance and the honour of your lashes of encouragement’, although if you look the expression up in Kenkyūsha’s Japanese-English Dictionary, you’ll find the much less flowery, ‘Thank you in advance for your continued support’ given as a translation! In any case, this was about the politest expression I’ve ever received from a Japanese, so I showed it to one of my Japanese colleagues, who laughed, and said, ‘I haven’t seen anything like that for years. She wants you to know how important you are, and she must work for quite a traditional company.’ As a native Japanese speaker, my colleague was able to pick up on the message that was being sent, in a way that I couldn’t, but I was still flattered to be addressed in that way, and have reciprocated by being especially careful in my own responses which, in turn, has generated a warm response back.

Knowing that they are missing out, many foreign learners of Japanese tend to throw up their hands at the thought of honorifics, and try to avoid them wherever possible – and the Japanese, being polite – let them get away with it. It’s a mistake to do so, however, as it means you’re cutting yourself off from a major part of Japanese socio-linguistic interaction, and depriving yourself of a useful tool for easing relationships, making a good impression and even disambiguating your speech – of which more later.

As a Japanese teacher, I sometimes think that part of the problem learners have with honorifics is that they tend to be introduced some way into a course, after students have had a chance to internalise a fair number of conjugations, inflections and other pieces of grammatical information, which means that they tend to regard them as an special add-on to ‘normal’ Japanese, rather than as an integral part of it and simply an extension of the ‘polite’ and ‘plain’ styles of speech that everyone learns almost from the beginning. Perhaps if honorifics were taught earlier, students would find them easier to deal with (I seem to recall that the famous linguist Eleanor Jorden was in favour of this approach), but then again, maybe it would just put them off even more.

In any case, with teaching as it is, students’ reactions to honorifics generally fall into one of three types – not unlike the reactions they have to learning kanji characters: grudging acceptance, wholehearted enjoyment or, virulent dislike, with the first being the most common. Leaving the first two aside, people who dislike honorifics tend to believe that by using them they are somehow demeaning themselves, and that they are simply a manifestation of the inequalities in Japanese society, and so it’s a democratic duty to actively refuse to use them. Or, that it’s part of the Japanese conspiracy to make speaking their language needlessly complex, and difficult for foreigners to learn.

Obviously, the latter belief is simply paranoia brought on by dealing with a language which conceptualises the world in a very different way from what they are used to, but what about the former? Are honorifics a linguistic reflection of an unequal society? Is doing away with them a ‘good’ thing? Will they eventually disappear?

Well, the answer is far from easy to arrive at, partly because first we’d need to define what an unequal society was, and who it was unequal for. To avoid getting bogged down in that, I think I would prefer to say that in the Japanese case, honorific usage reflects a society where it’s important to show that you are considerate of other people – and of demonstrating that consideration verbally. I’ve talked previously about the Japanese love of rituals to mark important, and not so important, events, and using honorifics is a verbal confirmation to the person you are speaking to that you know how to relate to them and are taking things seriously.

As a foreign learner, unless you live in Japan long-term and relate to people largely in Japanese, it is true that you probably won’t use honorifics in an entirely natural way, but that is no reason not to try, because honorifics are not primarily about conveying information – propositional content, in technical terms – because you can do that using neutral verbs and expressions. Instead, they function as a demonstration of commitment and concern, and will convey the sense that you are trying hard to communicate properly, and are thus more trustworthy and reliable.

Next week, I’m going to get a bit more technical, and discuss the different ways linguists have analysed honorific usage, and what these theories can tell us.

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I'm very happy and thankful to see your explanation about why people use honorifics and hope it will clear up a lot of misunderstandings.
Incidentally, I was once listening to a radio program here in Japan in which a person was giving advice about using honorifics - to young (Japanese) people who were starting out in companies. She said that as long as you started and ended emails very formally and humbly, you didn't have to worry so much about it in between. Was I ever thankful for this advice!

Two comments:
1. I think honorifics should certainly be taught at a much earlier stage than they usually are. For any foreigner going to Japan, your first and main contact with the Japanese language will be as a customer - in a hotel, restaurant, train station, taxi etc. - and you will be addressed with honorifics, so you should at least be able to recognize and understand them. The first time I went to Japan as a beginner in Japanese, it took me quite a while to realize that "okyakusama" was me!
2. Japanese teachers and textbooks always imply that honorifics are somehow quintessentially Japanese and tell us important things about the structure of Japanese society. More Nihonjinron, I`m afraid. All languages, including English, have and use a variety of resources for showing respect, placing yourself below or above the person addressed or talked about etc. Compare "Give me that f***ing book!" and "Would you mind passing me that book, please?", or "Sorry, where`s the loo?" and "Excuse me, I wonder if you could tell me where I might find the lavatory?"

Referring to Tom's comment as to whether or not the system of honorifics reinforces an unequal society - it's probably a fruitless debate because every society has its inequalities and language use inevitably reflects this. However, I am reminded of an amusing anecdote from an English Japanese teacher at a British university.

Apparently, he was once hauled into the vice-chancellor's office and told he'd been accused of sexual harrassment by one of the Japanese Japanese teachers (sic.). Mystified, he inquired as to how or when. The problem was, it transpired, that he always addressed the teacher in Japanese, thus forcing her to reply in Japanese. As a woman, she was obliged to assume an inferior position vis-a-zis the male in the Japanese language... So, she concluded, his constantly addressing her in Japanese made her unequal and was a form of sexual harrassment.

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