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Thoughts on Japan - Japanese Social Relations Archive

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 09, 2009

Why Introduce Yourself?

I thought I would start this column on the topic of self-introductions (jiko shōkai 自己紹介), by seeing what the average Japanese, in the person of the contributors and editors of the Japanese version of Wikipedia, think about the topic. Well, the entry on self-introductions gives quite a lot of information about all the different types of jiko shōkai: at job interviews, before large crowds, at meetings, at wedding receptions, at parties, on the telephone, and when handing over your business card. It notes that the fundamental purpose of a self-introduction is ‘so that people who basically don’t know anything about you can get to know you’ (kihonteki ni jibun no koto o shiranai ningen ni jibun o shittemoraru tame 基本的に自分のことを知らない人間に自分を知ってもらうため) and continues, not surprisingly, that ‘people who have something amazing about them appear to want to express themselves with self-confidence, but for people who are aware that they are nothing special, self-introductions are torture’ (sugureta mono o motteiru hito wa jishin wo motte hirekishitagaru ga, nani mo motteinai to jikakusuru hito ni wa jiko shōkai wa tsurai 優れたものを持っている人は自信を持って披瀝したがるが何も持っていないと自覚する人には自己紹介は辛い).

You can also put the characters自己紹介 into any of the Japanese search engines and come up with a host of self-introduction-related websites, ranging from an automated introduction generator, to any number of people introducing themselves on their own web-pages. In addition, let’s not forget YouTube, where you can watch numerous non-Japanese practicing their Japanese self-introductions, or a variety of tarento タレント doing their own, no doubt put up by adoring fans. Below, Michishige Sayumi 道重さゆみ from pop-group Morning Musume モーニング娘, rattles through a jiko shōkai in about a minute, covering her birthday, blood-type, birthplace (with some background on the local delicacies and topography), when she first joined the group, her character (even if she comes across something very unpleasant, she’s fine after sleeping on it), and so forth.

That is a standard and, of course, professionally done ‘celebrity’ self-introduction, but if you live and work in Japan in a Japanese institution, I’m sure your familiar with this scene: someone new joins the office, and he or she is expected to stand before everyone and introduce themselves with a formal jiko shōkai, which, like the celebrity version, begins with their name, some information about where they are from, but then continues with their educational background, and concludes with a promise to work hard and a request for forbearance and assistance until they find their feet. These tend to ‘involv[e] the formulaic exchange of information including one’s name, company, and position, the jiko shokai is highly ritualized’ (Martin et al 2008: 42), but it is something ‘that a man had to learn as a first step to mastering the protocol of corporate life in the 1970s’ (Martin et al 2008: 35) – obviously, in the 2000s this goes for women, too.

You’ll see similar scenes when joining a class, or a club, or almost any type of organised activity, and I expect you’ve wondered, then, why the Japanese think this is so important – I know I did when I was first getting to know the Japanese way of doing things.

Well, there are a number of different factors operating here. First, there’s the Japanese love of formal rituals to punctuate social events – anyone who has worked at, or even attended, a Japanese educational institution will be more than familiar with the run of ceremonies that mark progress through the school year, and progress through a school from entry to graduation. There’s a belief that anything important is worth marking formally, and this is where the jiko shōkai comes in. Second, I’m sure you also know that the Japanese, in general, consider it extremely important to both put effort into maintaining relationships, and to ensuring that any relationships are conducted on the ‘correct’ social footing. Finally, one of the major factors governing relationships between people is whether they can consider themselves members of the same group, or if they are in separate ones. This is vitally important because whether someone you are talking to is ‘in-group’, that is part of your own group, or ‘out-group’ – not in your group – determines what sort of language you use when talking to him or her, and what terms you use to refer to other people, both within and outside of your group. You can even send messages about the extent to which you believe an addressee is part of your group through the language you use – often in quite subtle ways – of which I’ll talk about in another column.

The jiko shōkai serves as formal way of easing a person’s way into a new group – even one that may be relatively transitory – and gives the other group members information that they can use to position themselves vis á vis the newcomer in the network of intra-group relations. In Japan’s ‘educational qualification society’ (gakureki shakai 学歴社会), for example, information about where a person’s degree comes from can help assign status – you have only to think of the numerous TV dramas which feature someone from an elite university like Tokyo taking a job, or being assigned to a department, which would normally be considered beneath them, and the shock that this causes their new colleagues, or even superiors, to see how important this is. Similarly information about where someone comes from helps to determine whether there can be any other common ground – might people have attended the same festivals, or be familiar with the same local traditions, and so forth. The final requests for help and the promise do to one’s best, of course, serve as reassurance that the new person is going to do their best to fit in, follow the group’s interests and make the effort to maintain relations both within and outside of the group.

You do have to decide, of course, how much information about yourself you reveal, particularly if your background is in any way non-standard, as this anecdote taken from Maher (2005: 87) pithily shows:

I joined a men’s suit company. The first afternoon at the company we had self-introductions (jiko shokai). I was nearly shitting myself. Do I bring up the Ainu thing or not? I knew from past experience it was kind of risky.

The question then arises, of course, of what you do in these circumstances as a non-Japanese, as, almost certainly, you won’t be expected to fit in with the group in the same way that a Japanese person would, and your Japanese colleagues can’t use the information you can supply about yourself to position you in the group in the same way that they would a new Japanese colleague. You can, however, treat the event with the seriousness it deserves, as a symbol of an entry into new relations with a group of people and a display to them that you take that relationship seriously. As I mentioned before, the Japanese place a great deal of importance on establishing and maintaining relations – you only have to think of the effort that goes into sending New Year greetings, and midsummer gifts to know that – and an indication from you at the outset that you are willing to make an effort can reassure them that it is worth their reciprocating. So, the answer to the question, ‘Why introduce yourself?’ for both Japanese and non-Japanese alike, is ‘Because it gets a relationship off to the right start.’


Maher, John C. (2005) ‘Metroethnicity, language, and the principle of Cool’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 175/176: 83-102.
Martin, Fran; Jackson, Peter and Yue, Audrey (2008) AsiaPacificQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, University of Illinois Press.

Finally, in answer to Mr White’s question about why so many Japanese place names have ga in them, the answer is that in Early Middle Japanese – the language spoken in Japan in the Heian Period (794-1185) – and earlier, the time when many place names were made, ga did the same job of linking two nouns that no does in Modern Japanese, so Sekigahara 関ヶ原, for example, would be Sekinohara today, but both mean ‘Field at the Barrier’, or ‘Barrier Field’; Jiyūgaoka自由ヶ丘 is ‘Liberty Hill’, and so forth. The use of the katakana ke ケ to write the ga, just as it is used to write ka in some contexts (ikkagetsu 一ヶ月 ‘one month’), is believed to derive from a cursive writing of the kanji 个, which is one of the now no longer used characters which was once used to write ka. Hope that answers the question.

March 20, 2009

Let's Talk Letters!

This week I thought I’d introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese letters – something you may not be familiar with unless your Japanese language skills are already at quite a high level. Obviously, if you’re not intending to develop your knowledge of written Japanese much this isn’t a skill you are ever going to need to apply, but knowing about how the Japanese communicate with each other in writing can be illuminating about other aspects of their social behaviour, and can help you to understand them better, so it’s useful to know about, even if it’s something you’ll never have to do yourself.

I suppose the first thing I should say is that writing letters in Japanese is a complicated business, and I’m only going to have time to scratch the surface here. If this whets your appetite, then I recommend Writing Letters in Japanese which is a reasonable guide to the basic patterns and expressions, with examples of various different types of letters, with somewhat clumsy English translations, to give you an idea of how things are expressed.

With that said, let me try and explain what it is that I love about Japanese letter writing: I think it’s the fact that it’s still something of an art – in a way that letter-writing in English no longer is. While the modern age and information technology are bringing changes, there’s an etiquette and a structure to writing a Japanese letter that I find deeply satisfying, although I admit that some people find the exercise stultifying.

What you need to remember is that it’s not so long – probably about 25 years – since all, and I mean all, letters were handwritten: postcards, family messages, love letters, business ones – everything. This is obviously partly a simply practical response to the fact that Japanese typewriters were hugely cumbersome pieces of equipment, requiring extensive specialised training to use, and even then being relatively slow to operate. So, they were only used under special circumstances, as it was much easier to write something by hand. It was only with the word processing revolution that it became easier, and faster, to have a machine ‘write’ for you, but even so, that was still regarded as cold and impersonal, so it was much slower to be widely adopted than it was in the UK and US, for example.

Another reason for this was, as I said in my column on jiko shōkai, that the Japanese in general place great emphasis on maintaining relationships, and not writing a letter by hand was thought of as showing a lack of concern – you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to do it yourself. There are a number of ways in which you can demonstrate that you do care when writing a letter: for example, it’s vital to make no mistakes at all – if you do, you have to do the whole page again (many people write letters in pencil and then trace them), and it’s also imperative to send more than one page – even if you have to include a blank sheet with the letter. It’s a sign that you wish you could write more, and are not deliberately cutting the communication short.

It’s also the case that Japanese letters, as communicative acts from one person to another, contain a number of features intended to demonstrate that the writer is appropriately committed to the relationship. Thus, they always begin with both wishes for the addressee’s continuing good health, followed by a reassurance of the writer’s health, usually with an assertion that this due to the good offices of the addressee. Prior to this, however, you need to have two other elements: a formulaic opening salutation, always paired with a particular formulaic close – the equivalent of ‘Dear Sir’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ in English – and a remark about the season. There are any number of these – you can get lists of the appropriate ones for each month, or a word processor will generate one automatically – although a skilled letter-writer will adapt a standardised remark to their own context. This gives the impression that you have devoted more personal attention to the letter and is bound to create a better reaction in your recipient.

To give just a couple of examples, for this month, March, you could begin ‘fuyu no nagori no mada sariyaranu toki sōrō’ 冬の名残のまだ去りやらぬ時候 (‘At this time when the lingering traces of winter have yet to depart’), whereas in May you would start ‘wakaba no azayaka na kisetsu’ 若葉の鮮やかな季節 (‘In the season of fresh green leaves’), and in August ‘zansho kibishiki ori kara’ 残暑厳しき折から (‘As this is a time of severe and lingering heat’). The expressions relate more to the traditional, poetic, lunar year than they do to the calendrical, solar one – dating is, perhaps, something I can talk about in detail in another column – which is why they can sometimes seem a little out of step with the actual weather, such as referring to the summer heat being almost over in August, and it can seem particularly incongruous when writing a letter to Japan from the UK - mentioning the ‘fragrant breezes’ of June, when the rain is still lashing down – but it still provides an elegant beginning to the letter, and helps to establish a civilised tone.

After these opening remarks, you can then move on with what you actually want to write about. The language used in letters is formal and contains a number of archaic features (verb stems instead of te-forms, for example, so yuki 行き (‘go and…’), and not itte 行って, as it would be in conversation, or some other forms of writing), all of which help to maintain the polite tone. You also use a higher level of honorific language than you would in person, because you don’t have the option of using body language and tone of voice to be polite, but on the whole, modern epistolary Japanese is not that different from the language as it would be written in other formal contexts. A mere fifty, or sixty, years ago, however, the situation was quite different.

Letters used to be written in a special linguistic style called sōrōbun 候文, a term which translates loosely into English as ‘epistolary style’. I don’t have time to go into this in detail now – again maybe I can write another column about it, if there’s interest enough – but suffice it to say that it was substantially different, in almost every respect, from the modern spoken and written language. Just as an example, what do you make of this:

saru sangatsu muika zuke o motte gokōfuainarisōrō ‘bukanan’ in uisukii no gosōbazuke ichi dāsu ni tsuki yonjūni shiringu kae ni yori rokujū hako dake tōten kanjō nite gokaimotomekudasaretaku onegaimōshiagesōrō


This is a single sentence from a standard business letter, written in the late 1940s, but I suspect it’s a closed book to most of you, even if you do know quite a lot of Japanese. It’s representative of sōrōbun, though, in its use of the tenseless auxiliary verb sōrō 候 – we saw it earlier in one of the seasonal remarks, which is about the only context it’s still used today – alternatives for suru する (‘do’) – in this case ainarisōrō 相成候 – and using kanji alone, without any hiragana – 御買求下度願申上候 . Oh, if you want to know what it means, it’s:

We request you to purchase for our account 60 cases of “Buchanan” Brand Whisky at 42/- per dozen, as per your quotation of March 6th.

Luckily, no one has to learn to produce sōrōbun these days, although historians learn how to read it, but diplomats used to be taught how to speak it – imagine instead of being able to say dekimasen 出来ません (‘I can’t’), having to say itashikanesōrō 兼至候 – for use in formal meetings with their Japanese counterparts.

Getting back to modern letters, once you’ve finished the main body, it’s time to close. Here, again, the most important thing is to wish your addressee good health, and pass on your respects to their family, in a personal letter, or to apologise for taking up their time in a business one.

That’s the basic structure of a formal Japanese letter – a civilised form of communication, I’ll hope you agree. These days, of course, the taboo against writing by machine is disappearing, and younger people, of course, use printers and word processors, but there has also been a much greater investment in fonts and software which can mimic handwriting – I’m sure you know this from just wandering into any computer shop – than has been in the English-speaking countries, all as a way of mitigating the perceived coldness and unfriendliness of writing to someone by machine.

So, what do you do if you want to write to a Japanese person, and your language skills aren’t yet at the advanced level? Well, the most important thing is to show willing – for a beginner using the ‘correct’ forms is much less important than appearing to show concern for the person to whom you are writing. Just remember to make a simple remark about the weather (ima otenki ga atsuidesu ne 今お天気が暑いですね ‘It’s hot now, isn’t it?’), ask about your addressee’s health (ogenki desu ka お元気ですか ‘How are you?’), and pay your respects to their family (gokazoku ni yoroshiku o tsutaekudasai ご家族によろしくを伝えください ‘Please give my regards to your family’) and you are bound to make a positive impression.

Next week: why read the classics?

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.

February 19, 2010

Your Face or Mine (Part One)

Last week, I was talking about the use of honorifics in Japanese, and speculated a little about why speakers might use them. This week and next week, I’m going to continue in that vein, but from a more technical angle by considering how linguists have analysed and theorised about them, and see whether this has any practical lessons for someone who wants to learn, and speak, Japanese.

There are, of course, any number of different fields within linguistics where honorifics could be studied – syntax, semantics, historical, and so on – but the area which I’m going to talk about falls under the general heading of Pragmatics. This covers quite a wide range of theoretical areas, but what I am interested in here are the reasons why certain language forms are used in particular contexts, and how these phenomena can be described theoretically. (If you want to know more about Pragmatics in general, then there are any number of good introductory textbooks, with Huang (2006) being the most recent.)

In Pragmatics, then, honorifics are generally considered to fall under what is called Politeness Theory, which was first laid out by Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987) in an attempt to come up with a way to describe the theoretical basis for polite language usage cross-linguistically. Their theory – which they claimed was universally applicable – (1987, 57-76) was to posit that all human beings have both positive and negative ‘face’, with the former being essentially the desire to be liked and approved of by other people, and the latter the claim that individuals make for their personal prerogatives, such as the desire that their own actions and wishes should not be impeded. Any action which impinged upon one’s own, or another person’s face was described as a ‘face threatening act’ (FTA) and potentially required a politeness strategy to minimise its effect. Brown and Levinson posited five possible actions, depending upon how serious the speaker judges the FTA to be: (1) Use no politeness; (2) use positive politeness – stressing one’s community with the addressee, for example; (3) use negative politeness – minimising the level of the imposition, or degrading one’s own position vis á vis the addressee; (4) use other means, such as getting a third party to initiate the FTA; and (5) don’t do the FTA at all. They further posited that speakers determine how serious an individual FTA is by summing the social distance between speaker and hearer, the amount of power the hearer has over the speaker, and a culture-based ranking of impositions (asking for a reference from a superior is more serious in Japan, for example, where the writer is expected to put his or her personal status behind the junior, than it is in the UK, where the reference is a more objective evaluation of the person’s qualities). They represented this with the following equation:

W(eightiness of the FTA)= D(istance between Speaker-Hearer)+P(ower of Hearer over Speaker)+R(ank of Imposition)

Having laid out the basis of their theory, Brown and Levinson then proceeded to apply it to politeness phenomena in a variety of the world’s languages in an attempt to demonstrate its universality. Use of honorifics – in any language, not just Japanese – is categorised as a negative politeness strategy, as it is seen as giving deference by lowering the speaker’s position, and exalting the hearer.

Obviously, in the above I’ve simplified things quite a bit, but that’s the basis of universal politeness theory and its application to honorifics. Simple, isn’t it?

If your answer is ‘No!’, and you feel that describing honorifics as simple markers of deference used when initiating requests doesn’t quite fit with your understanding of them, you would not be alone. In fact, Brown and Levinson almost immediately came under attack from linguists who questioned the universality of ‘face’, and claimed that the theory was based upon an overly-Eurocentric concept of social relations between individuals, or even of the notion of the individual. One of the first to do this was Matsumoto (1988), who denies the applicability of the idea that individuals want to be unimpeded in their actions to a Japanese context. Instead, ‘acknowledgement and maintenance of the relative position of others, rather than preservation of an individual’s proper territory, governs all social interaction’ (1988, 405). The sources she cites in support of this, such as Nakane (1970) and Doi (1973) would probably now be considered as part of the nihonjinron (even Matsumoto acknowledges that Doi may be over-stating the point (1988: 407)), which weakens her overall argument, but there is no doubt that honorifics are used in Japanese in situations which do not involve a face-threatening act, such as Kyō wa doyōbi degozaimasu 今日は土曜日でございます (‘Today is Saturday’), where the copula verb degozaimasu (‘be (deferential)’) indicates a high level of politeness and formality, but the statement itself cannot possibly impinge on anyone’s prerogatives. Furthermore, in some contexts imposing upon a person is actually considered the polite thing to do. For example, a wife may say to her husband’s boss, Shujin o dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu 主人をどうぞよろしくお願いします (‘Please take care of my husband’). This is a request to the boss, and hence an imposition upon him, but is considered polite in Japan because it’s an acknowledgement that the superior has the power to perform the action requested (Matsumoto 1988, 410). Given these, and other, issues, Matsumoto (1988, 411) claims that Japanese honorifics are essentially ‘relation-acknowledging devices’, a description which comes closer to my own reference to them as markers of social deixis. She also rejects Brown and Levinson’s theory entirely, and prefers to see politeness as motivated by culturally-determined concepts of deference, which ‘in Japanese culture focuses on the ranking difference between the conversational participants…Conventional Japanese Deference would say ‘Leave it to someone higher’’(Matsumoto 1988, 424). Further criticisms, and an alternative theory, were proposed by Ide (1989), who argues that honorifics are governed by ‘discernment’ of the social position of the addressee, and this is based upon the speaker’s understanding of the social conventions governing interaction in Japanese culture. Again, this is broadly similar to Matsumoto’s description of honorifics as ‘relation-acknowledging devices’.

So, is the face-based account of Japanese politeness discredited? Not entirely, and I’ll tell you why, 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.
Doi, Takeo (1973) The anatomy of dependence. Tokyo: Kodansha.
Huang, Yan (2006) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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.
Nakane, Chie (1970) Japanese society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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.

March 05, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been talking about the motivations for Japanese speakers to use honorific language, and how those motivations have been theoretically explained by linguists interested in Pragmatics. This week, I’m going to move away from the theory and take a look at how honorifics have been considered by socio-linguists – people who are interested in language use as a social activity, and in the links between language and different social groups – groups based on age, sex, affiliation, region, class, and so forth.

In any language, speakers adjust what they say, and how they say it, depending upon the situation in which they find themselves, and what image they wish to project. Do they wish to assert solidarity with their addressees? Do they wish to emphasise superiority? Level of education? Identity? And so forth. All of this can be done, and is done, through language use: the accent, use of dialect, type of vocabulary, intonation, etc. Sometimes, it’s a conscious decision, and sometimes it’s done unconsciously. British readers in their forties may remember the 1980s Nat West commercial below:

It is, of course, a showcase for Adrian Edmonson’s clowning, but the fact that he endeavours to ‘Talk proper’ in order to get a bank account is evidence of the importance placed upon the right language for the right situation in British society – and the ending is evidence of how things were changing in the 1980s.

There’s been a great deal of work done on English speakers’ attitudes to, and use of, language – some of which seems to identify general cross-linguistic tendencies, and some which is country-specific. In England, for example, there’s a very close relationship between accent and social class, and listeners tend to assign people to classes depending upon what they sound like, and then have stereotyped expectations of how they will behave, and what sort of people they are. So, people with who speak RP – the standard middle class accent spoken by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady:

are: intelligent, unfriendly, trustworthy and, believe it or not, tall! Whereas people with accents from the larger metropoli (London, Birmingham, etc.) are friendly, devious and short, and people with rural accents are backward, uneducated, warm, and direct. As you can see, a lot of these are nonsense – accent has nothing to do with body size, for example – but the attitudes are pervasive. One of the most famous experiments a linguist did to test this was to have someone go into a cinema and shout, ‘Fire! Everybody leave via the emergency exits!’ during a performance, in an RP accent, and then at a different showing in a regional accent, and time how long it took the audience to leave. The audience were noticeably slower to get moving with the latter than with the former – evidence that an RP accent was regarded as more trustworthy and authoritative.

In Japan, of course, which lacks a class-system along English lines, accent is much less important as a social marker – even dialect use doesn’t convey as much information about background and education. As Fukuda and Asato (2004, 2000) say, however, ‘use [of] elaborate honorifics’ by people from particular groups is one of the things which serves as a badge of identity.

One of the best examples of this is given by Miller (1967, 289-90) in his description of the difference between women’s and men’s Japanese speech. The following exchange he describes as (for the time) ‘fairly elegant, but otherwise quite run-of-the-mill women’s speech’:

ma, go-rippa na o-niwa degozāmasu wa nē. shibafu ga hirobiro to shite ite, kekkō degozāmasu wa nē.

My, what a splendid garden you have here-the lawn is so nice and big, it's certainly wonderful, isn't it!

iie, nan desu ka, chitto mo teire ga yukitodokimasen mono degozaimasu kara, mō, nakanaka itsumo kirei ni shite oku wake ni wa mairimasen no degozāmasu yo.

Oh no, not at all, we don't take care of it at all any more, so it simply doesn't always look as nice as we would like it to.

ā, sai degozaimashō nē. kore dake o-hiroin degozāmasu kara, hitotōri o-teire asobasu no ni datte taihen degozaimasho nē. demo mā, sore de mo, itsumo yoku o-teire ga yukitodoite irasshaimasu wa. itsumo hontō ni o-kirei de kekkō degozāmasu wa.

Oh no, I don't think so at all -but since it's such a big garden, of course it must be quite a tremendous task to take care of it all by yourself; but even so, you certainly do manage to
make it look nice all the time: it certainly is nice and pretty any time one sees it.

iie, chitto mo sonna koto gozāmasen wa.

No. I'm afraid not, not at all...

All of the boldfaced elements in the above exchange are honorific, in one way or another, and the conversation is less about the content – which is relatively trivial – than about the two women affirming their relationship and common background, and the elaborate honorifics are a significant part of that. Miller goes on to remark humorously that the same exchange between two men would consist of Ii niwa da nā いい庭だなあ (‘Nice garden’) and ‘a sub-linguistic grunt, as a sign of acknowledgement or of polite denial’ (1967, 290), which contains no honorifics at all. This is not to say that male speakers don’t use honorifics – they do, of course – but that they use them less for asserting solidarity with friends and acquaintances than women do.

Given the pronunciation of the deferential copula degozaimasu as degozāmasu, the ladies are from the Yamanote area of Tokyo – then and now a wealthy district – and when I was last discussing this extract with some Japanese (about twenty years ago now) my informants said the language was a bit old-fashioned, but they wouldn’t be too surprised to hear it on the streets there, if the two women were quite elderly. I wonder what people would say today?

Next week, I’ll continue on the social side of honorifics, and consider some of the reasons why usage changes over time.

Fukada, Atsushi and Asato, Noriko (2004), “Universal politeness theory: application to the use of Japanese honorifics” Journal of Pragmatics, 36 (11), 1991-2002.
Martin, Samuel E. (1964) “Speech levels in Japan and Korea”, 407-414 in Dell Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society. New York: Harper & Row.
Miller, Roy Andrew (1967) The Japanese Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

April 28, 2010

You will talk proper!

In my last column, I talked a little about the social aspect of Japanese honorific speech, and how speakers from certain social groups use it as a linguistic means of projecting an image of themselves to other people. In this they are no different from English speakers, who either consciously or unconsciously adopt different accents: the case of British violinist Nigel Kennedy, who famously adopted a ‘Mockney’ accent in order to appeal to a constituency who wouldn’t normally like classical music, springs to mind. I’ve also outlined how the normal rules (respect from inferiors to superiors) can be suspended in situations where the superior is seeking a favour, or of heightened levels of formality, and how this counts against the argument that honorific usage is solely based upon the obligatory indication of social status. Finally, I’ve mentioned that it’s been suggested that one reason why older speakers often seem to feel that younger ones can’t use honorifics properly is because the latter’s perception of how social relationships should be determined is different from that of their elders, which results in different honorific usage.

This week, I’m going to draw all of these themes together and look briefly at the historical development of the honorific system – from both a grammatical and social perspective – with a view to seeing how the language has ended up with the system it now has. This will be a little linguistics-heavy to start with, but bear with me, as I hope it will be interesting. I’ll start by looking at previous versions of honorifics.

The earliest type of Japanese for which we have a significant amount of information about the honorific system is the language spoken during the Heian period (794-1185). Linguists refer to this as either Late Old Japanese, or Early Middle Japanese, but less technically it’s just ‘Classical Japanese’ – the language in which most of the pre-modern works of literature were composed. In Japanese schools it’s called kogo 古語 ‘old language’, and every Japanese learns the rudiments of it as part of their education.

The language was that variety of Japanese spoken and written by the court aristocracy in Heian-kyō 平安京 (Kyoto 京都) during the Heian period (794-1185). Roughly speaking, it’s grammatically more different from modern Japanese than Chaucer’s is from modern English, but not as different as Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon is from the modern language. It was, of course, restricted to a tiny proportion of the population – approximately one tenth of one percent, that being the rough numbers of the court aristocracy – and reflects their society and concerns.

The nobility lived in a world where rank and status was all important, and determined partly by family back ground, but also by one’s official rank in the imperial government. This isn’t the place to go into that in detail, but briefly there was an officially sanctioned system of ranks, promotion in which brought a man increased status and income – benefits which would also reflect upon his family. The system was clear and well-understood, with the Emperor at the apex, followed by the Empress and Crown Prince, then other members of the imperial family, higher nobility, mid-ranking nobility and so on downwards. The top five non-imperial ranks were the most important, and people below that level were looked down upon by their betters and thought of as not fit to associate with. People outside the rank structure were barely thought of as being the same species.

Given this preoccupation with rank and status, then, it’s not surprising that EMJ should have a well-developed system of honorifics. Formally, of course, it’s very different from the modern system, with the verbs and inflections which indicate respect or deference being entirely different from those in the modern language, and it being possible to combine respectful and deferential forms in the one expression in ways which it is no longer possible to do, but more interesting is the evidence which suggests that the level of honorifics used to address and refer to another person was determined almost entirely by their court rank. So, if one was addressing a Major Councillor (dainagon 大納言) say, one would use one level of honorifics, but if one was talking to a Minister (otodo 大臣) a higher level was required. Talking to or about the Emperor mandated the highest possible level, with a range of terms and forms used only for actions by or in relation to him.

What this means is that the Heian honorific system is much closer to the ‘discernment’ model of honorific usage. Japanese linguists call this zettai 絶対 (‘absolute’) in that honorific speech was determined by the addressee or referent’s position on an absolute, and externally determined, scale of social status. This is contrasted with the modern system, which is characterised as sōtai 相対 (‘relative’), meaning that the speaker’s perception of the relationship is more important. (In fact, even the ‘absolute’ Heian system was not absolute – if it were Emperors would never use honorifics at all – because seniors did use honorifics to juniors, particularly if a debt or obligation was involved.)

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the system was more absolute than the modern one, and speakers were aware, and critical, of people who used the wrong level of honorifics about people of lower status – Sei Shōnagon complains about it in her Pillow Book. It’s also accurate to say that, leaving aside the formal changes which have been extreme, the major development in Japanese honorifics over the past thousand years has been a progressive increase in the relativisation of the system – particularly once we enter the modern period and a person’s social position became less a product of absolute external criteria. To a certain extent, that is what makes honorific usage more difficult – for both Japanese and foreign speakers – nowadays: it’s no longer enough to simply know what someone is, and use the right honorifics for that position, you have to form your own judgement about the relationship and speak accordingly.

How, though, do Japanese speakers decide which forms to use? Well, in business contexts companies often train new employees in the correct forms to use to clients and customers, but people in everyday life have to rely upon their own instincts, and they are often unsure about them, particularly if they are going to have to speak in a situation, or to someone, outside of their usual patterns of interaction. As an extreme example of this, one of my colleagues related to me an anecdote about what happened when the current Emperor paid a visit to Oxford when he was Crown Prince back in the 1960s. The university wasn’t quite sure what to do about the visit, and so invited a large number of Japanese to a reception to meet His Highness – people who would never have met a member of the imperial family in Japan under normal circumstances. My colleague described his astonishment when most of these people, when introduced to the Prince, chose to speak to him in English rather than Japanese, and when he asked one of them about it afterwards was told, ‘Well, I wasn’t sure what honorifics to use to someone like him, so it was just easier to speak in English.’

I have to say that I, myself, probably wouldn’t be sure of the correct etiquette for addressing the Prince of Wales should I ever get to meet him, but I don’t think that I would choose to speak in French to avoid the issue! Nevertheless, it demonstrates the lack of security people may have about their honorifics, and the lengths they may go to in order to avoid embarrassing themselves with mistakes. It’s this concern over doing things right which accounts for the large number of ‘How to’ books on honorifics available from any Japanese bookshop (putting the search term ‘correct honorific usage’ (keigo no tadashii tsukaikata 敬語の正しい使い方) in to Amazon Japan’s search engine immediately produced a list of fifty titles). What criteria, though, do the authors of books like these use to provide their readers with information?

Well, one valuable source is, in fact, the Japanese government! Believe it or not, there’s a long tradition of these bodies making prescriptive pronouncements on matters of linguistic usage in Japan, and receiving support from government organs to do so. The most obvious area where the government interferes is, of course, the writing system, by determining which kanji should be learnt during compulsory education and used in public life, but honorifics haven’t escaped attention either. This is some time ago, but in 1957 the Ministry of Education issued a document entitled Kore kara no keigo これからの敬語, ‘Honorifics from now on’ which contained a series of detailed ‘recommendations’ about how the Japanese people should speak to each other in the future.

The document is not particularly lengthy, but it does make interesting reading, as evidence of a belief that it is possible to change linguistic behaviour by fiat (Miller 1967, 284). I don’t have space here to go into all the ‘advice’ the document provides – you can read a summary in Miller (1967, 285-287) if you are interested – but briefly there is instruction about which pronouns should, or shouldn’t be used (watashi 私and anata あなた only, with boku 僕 allowed only for men prior to entering adult society); which suffixes (-san, -sama) should be used after people’s names; appropriate contexts for the honorific prefixes o- and go-; and a prohibition of extended honorific verb forms (where, for example, the ordinary honorific form of the verb yomu 読む ‘read’, o-yomi ni naru お読みになる ‘read(honorific)’, is made even more respectful by the addition of a further honorific inflection: o-yomi ni nareru お読みになれる). Anyone who knows anything about the Japanese language will know that none of these prescriptions has been effective – a wide variety of other pronouns and suffixes is still used, as are extended honorific verb forms – which just serves to demonstrate the persistence of honorific speech as a part of the language and its intrinsic connection to Japanese social relations and organisation and the uselessness of governmental bodies attempting to control how people speak.

There is, however, one set recommendations in Kore kara no keigo which have been effective: the advice provided on what type of honorific vocabulary should be used in referring to the Emperor – not when speaking to him face-to-face, of course, but in writing. The concern then, only a few years after Japan’s defeat, was to eliminate honorific usage which overly exalted the throne, as had been the case during and before the war. Essentially, the recommendations were that ‘ordinary’ levels of honorifics should henceforth be applied to the emperor, and specialised honorific vocabulary should be avoided. These have largely been followed, and so the imperial body is now simply o-karada お体 ‘body(honorific)’ and not gyokutai 玉体 ‘jewelled form’, and his face is simply o-kao お顔 ‘face(honorific)’ and not ryūgan 竜顔 ‘dragon’s visage’, although I remember the headline in the Asahi newspaper when Emperor Shōwa died in 1989 as being Tennō heika go-hōgyo 天皇陛下御崩御 ‘His Majesty the Emperor - Dead’, using an honorific word for ‘dead’ which can only be applied to the imperial person, although the television newscasters used the more common o-nakunari ni narimashita お亡くなりになりました ‘passed away(honorific)’.

The fact, however, that Kore kara no keigo enjoyed even this level of success, and was largely welcomed by the Japanese as a helpful contribution also demonstrates the difference in attitude to official ‘advice’ on language between the Japanese and the British, say: can you imagine the public reaction if the British prime minister held a press conference and announced that the government was abolishing the use of ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ before people’s names when addressing each other? I have absolutely no doubt that the response would be a resounding ‘Get lost!’ and it would be seen as a ridiculous infringement on personal relations.

In conclusion, then, despite the generational changes in usage, there’s no evidence to suggest that honorifics will disappear from Japanese any time soon, and they will continue to both delight and frustrate foreign learners of the language for many years to come. All that you can do is do your best to learn them, use them, understand and accept them – look upon them not as a barrier to communication, but an additional resource, a way of both smoothing relations and shielding yourself in talking to and with the Japanese. And if you get frustrated, just think of all those self-help books for the Japanese themselves, and realise that there are a great many native speakers in the same boat!


Miller, Roy Andrew (1967), The Japanese Language, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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