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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 26, 2010

Your Face or Mine? (Part Two)

Last week, I described how Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987) laid out a universal politeness theory, and how this had been criticised as being inapplicable to Japanese by a variety of linguists (Matsumoto 1988; Ide 1989), who prefer to analyse Japanese honorifics as being based upon ‘discernment’ or indication of social relationships. It might have seemed from this that the face-based account of honorific usage was discredited by this but – and this will come as no surprise to you if you think about how science works – other linguists have recently been criticising the discernment account, and relating how the theory of face could be adjusted to fit the linguistic facts of Japanese.

One of the most cogent of these criticisms comes from Fukuda and Asato (2004), who argue that Brown and Levinson’s theory works perfectly well for Japanese, as long as one important fact is taken into account:

When a person of higher status is involved, distance and power are given markedly high values, which in turn, elevates…the weightiness of the FTA. Thus, any act, whether intrinsically face-threatening or not (meaning, regardless of the value of imposition), will be counted as face-threatening.
(Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1997)

Thus, saying anything in the presence of a social superior can require the use of politeness strategies, and hence the use of honorifics. This does seem like a sensible adjustment to the theory, given the well-documented awareness that Japanese people display of status differences between individuals – even in contexts where a difference wouldn’t exist, or be considered to be important, most English-speaking countries. As an example of this, we only have to think of the fact that one of the most important relations Japanese can have is between senpai 先輩 (‘seniors’) and kōhai 後輩 (‘juniors’) – whether it’s at school, or in a club, or at a company. Those who enter an organisation later will accord respect to those who were there before them, who, in turn, will feel obligated to look after, or instruct, (or take advantage of) those younger than themselves. The relations can be extremely long-lasting, and require use of honorifics by the kōhai to the senpai – if you see two Japanese meet at a school reunion you can often spot who was in which position by listening to who is using honorifics and who isn’t.

Fukuda and Asato (2004) also provide five arguments for the applicability of their account, and against Ide and Matsumoto’s version.

First, correct honorific usage does have much to do with face-preservation, as if speakers fail to use honorifics when expected, they can sound presumptuous – threatening the addressee’s face – or, they can embarrass themselves, threatening their own (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1997). This is obviously a concern for non-Japanese trying to speak the language, as you want to avoid causing offence, although – particularly if you don’t look Japanese – you can get away with mistakes native speakers can’t. The most important thing is to try and avoid obvious mistakes – like using honorific expressions to refer to your own actions, and humble ones to refer to a superior’s – and try and develop your honorific fluency by observing how Japanese speakers talk to each other.

Although, that being said, it’s also best to avoid talking ‘down’ to your Japanese juniors (people younger than you, or who work for, or under you) too much, as it’s difficult to adopt the mannerisms of a Japanese senior without sounding offensive, unless your language skills are very high, and even then, they may not ‘fit’ with your Japanese personality.

Second, the fact that it sounds odd to use honorifics about social superiors if they have done something dishonourable (Sensei ga dōkyūsei o gōkan nasatta 先生が同級生を強姦なさった ‘My teacher raped(honorific) my classmate’ – sounds bizarre in the extreme), means that obligatory indication of the social relationship is not the only criterion for honorific usage (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1998). Third, superiors do use honorifics to juniors if they are asking them a favour. This usage cannot be to indicate the social ranking between them, as that is maintained (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1998). Fourth, in more formal situations, too, superiors will use honorifics to juniors, which again cannot be to indicate social ranking (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1999).

These arguments, in fact, contain useful lessons for the Japanese language learner – not about what honorifics to use, but when to use them: making requests and impositions, and in any formal situation, and to anyone who’s a superior – either in the sense of having some authority over you, or simply that they are older.

Finally, if saying anything in the presence of a superior is intrinsically face-threatening, then one of the most sensible options for juniors is Brown and Levinson’s (5) don’t do the FTA – in other words, keep quiet – and this accounts for the tendency of juniors in Japan not to say very much in the presence of their superiors. It is not the case, after all, that it is considered polite for them to talk as much as they want, even if they do use honorifics (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 2000).

All in all, then, it seems like the face-based account of honorifics might well have something to recommend it, doesn’t it? What you need to remember, though, is that no theory can entirely account for the complexities of human interactions or behaviour: just as it’s possible to find weaknesses in the ‘face’ account, it’s also possible to find weakness in the ‘discernment’ one, and even Fukuda and Asato’s revised version is unlikely to be the final word. It’s likely that someone else will come up with a new account in a few years which will provide a different approach, and there’s nothing wrong with this, because each new version provides different insights into the language and takes a step closer to the reality.

So, is that the final word on honorifics? Well, no, another interesting area, and one which Fukuda and Asato themselves acknowledge is that ‘sex, age, education, and regional origin of the speaker are related to the use of honorifics…Women, the well-educated, the aged, and urbanites like to speak a refined, elegant language and use elaborate honorifics to serve their own face wants, such as being perceived as having had a good upbringing, and being intelligent, decent or sophisticated persons’ (Fukuda and Asato.2004, 2000). This is moving more into the socio-linguistic analysis of honorifics, and is something I’ll talk about next week.


Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1978) ‘Universals in language usage: politeness phenomena’, 56-311 in Goody, E. (ed.) Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fukada, Atsushi and Asato, Noriko (2004), “Universal politeness theory: application to the use of Japanese honorifics” Journal of Pragmatics, 36 (11), 1991-2002.
Ide, Sachiko (1989) ‘Formal forms and discernment: two neglected aspects of universals of linguistic politeness’ Multilingua 8 (2/3), 223–248.
Matsumoto, Yoshiko (1988) ‘Reexamination of the universality of face: politeness phenomena in Japanese’ Journal of Pragmatics 12 (4), 403–426.

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Love it! Looking forward to the socio-linguistic analysis of honorifics next time.
Thank you.

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