Business Japanese

How Keigo (Polite Speech) Works in Conversation


Last time, you learned the basic idea and the conjugation rule of the honorific form, the humble form, and the polite form, e.g. く can be いらっしゃる or うかがう/まいる. In this lesson, we would like to focus on how to use the three forms in practice.

Explanation for How to Politely Speak Japanese

Table of Contents
How to Choose the Proper Form
The Concept of Japanese Social Community
Discussions about Double Keigo Among Native Speakers

There are three situations when you need to use Keigo; the first is when you talk with people who are of higher status. The second is when you talk with people who you are not familiar with. The third is when you make a speech in a formal situation. Keigo is very frequently used in the Japanese society.

How to Choose the Proper Form

As we explained in the previous lesson, we recommend you consider the polite form as a kind of tone. In general, you always use the polite form when you try to use Keigo. Therefore, what matters is the usage of the honorific form and the humble form.

Use the Honorific Form When Subjects Are Not You

The teacher has come.
As for breakfast, have [you] had [it]?
Tanaka-san will say [something].
Inoue-san has already gone home.

The function of the honorific form is to show your respects to particular people. Thus, you cannot use this for your own actions. When the subject is someone whom you respect, the honorific form is the proper one to use. Regarding the politeness, the sentence pattern: お…なる (and the exceptions) is more polite than the alternative form (passive form).

Use the Humble Form When Subjects Are You

[わたしは] しょくさきに(べた=>)いただきました
[I] ate a meal before you.
[わたしは] 5時ごじまでに(連絡れんらくする=>)連絡れんらくします
[I] will contact [you] by 5:00pm.
[わたしは] (つ=>)ちしていました
[I] was waiting [for you].
昨日さくじつ、[わたしは] いえに(いた=>)おりました
[I] was at home yesterday.

The function of the humble form is to show your respect to recipients of your actions. Therefore, subjects should always be you, though it is often omitted. Be careful; there are some exceptions. You can express extra modesty by using the humble form without a recipient as the forth example shows.

Formal Words

This is not directly involved with the three forms, but very important. In English, you can use the words “so” and “therefore” in the same way. However, the formality is different. In Japanese, there are also such words. In the following table, the right ones are more formal than the left ones.

です => でございます ですか? => でしょうか?
ある => ございます どう => いかが
さん => さま 1人ひとり => 1名いちめい
私(わたし) => 私(わたくし) 明日(あした) => 明日(あす)
昨日(きのう) => 昨日(さくじつ) このまえ => 先日せんじつ
さっき => さきほど あとで => のちほど
こん => このたび 本当ほんとうに => まこと

In general, words which have Chinese origin are more formal than words with Japanese origin. The above table just shows some examples and there are a lot of other words. Please pay attention to the formality words have while proceeding with your learning.

The Concept of Japanese Social Community

Chart Showing Social Distance

The above chart is the one that we have used in a previous lesson about receiving and giving: あげる and くれる. The concept of a Japanese social community is deeply involved with Keigo, too. Let’s check some examples.

Mr. A: おかあさんはいらっしゃいますか?
Is your mother here?
You: はははただいま外出がいしゅつしております。
She is away from here.

In the conversation, Mr. A tried to show his respects to your mother and thus he used the honorific form いらっしゃる. By contrast, you remove お and さん from お母さんbecause you and your mother belong to the same community. When you are talking with people who are outside of your community, you don’t have to use Keigo to people inside of your community. Here is an exception. Although the humble form must be used for your own actions, おる often appears for actions taken by other people.

You: おかあさん、おはよう(ございます)。

When you talk to your mother, you should use お and さん with 母. Likewise with あげる and くれる, the wording will matter if circles you belong to is involved with the interaction. Between you and your mother, there is one circle that only you belong to. This concept is applicable for other social communities such as work places and schools.


The following is a conversation in a restaurant. Remember that customers are always in higher status than vendors. That is to say, people from vendors should use the honorific and the humble form to customers while customers don’t have to do so.

A: いらっしゃいませ。何名様なんめいさまでしょうか
[A set phrase to say welcome.] How many people, sir?
B: 3人さんにんです。喫煙席きつえんえきはありますか?
Three people. Are there smoking seats?
A: はい、喫煙席きつえんえきはあちらでございます
Yes, smoking seats are over there.
B: ありがとう。お寿司すしみっつください。
Thank you. [We] will have sushi for three people, please.
A: かしこまりました。少々しょうしょうちください。
Certainly, please wait for a little while.

The plain expression for 何名様でしょうか and でございます are 何人ですか and です respectively. By using the formal counterparts, you can more effectively express your politeness. There is another technique. By placing a moderate number or amount, your speech will sound politer. 少々 is a set phrase and generally used with 待つ.

A: おたせしました。お寿司すしでございます。
[Sorry for that I] made [you] wait. Here is the sushi.
B: ありがとう。これどうぞ。
Thank you. This (*tip) is for you.
A: せっかくですが、チップはいただいておりませんので
[I’m] sorry, but [we] don’t receive tips…

In our culture, indirect expressions are often preferred especially when there is some possibility that you will upset others such as when making negative requests, sensitive suggestions and arguments. With the above example, Mr. A declined the offer for the tip which may upset the customer. Thus, he put the phrase: せっかくですが before the main topic. This really increases the politeness and, the conclusion is omitted (*after ので). It should have been something like ”結構けっこうです: no thanks.” However, Japanese people don’t like such direct declining. By omitting the conclusion, you can make your speech softer and politer.

Discussions about Double Keigo Among Native Speakers

Languages are evolving every day as people use it. Since Keigo is not easy for even native speakers to master the proper usages, there are cases where people continuously use some words in a wrong way, and it has become a common expression. Here, we would like to pick up one major discussion called “Double Keigo.”

=> Wrong
The teacher taught mathematics.

As of today, we can say that the above one is wrong because you have applied the two honorific forms at the same time. 教える can be either お教えになる or 教えられる. However, what you have done is that you have applied the alternative form (ら)れる for the なる of お教えになる. A lot of native speakers use this, but grammatically wrong.

=> ?
[I] will guide you.

Here is a case of the humble form. Again, you first conjugate 案内する into the humble form: ご案内する and then further conjugate the する of ご案内する into the humble form: ご案内いたします. This is certainly the double Keigo. Indeed, we have accepted that “ご Verb いたす” is correct today.

Plain Single Double
べる・ がる がりになる
案内あんないする 案内あんないする 案内あんないいたします
く・ うかが うかがいします

The above three words are accepted as the correct words today and the number of the words accepted may increase as time passes. For example, some of us say おられる. The origin is いる. You have applied the humble form for it and it become おる. Then, you have further applied the honorific (alternative) form: (ら)れる for おる. Grammatically, the honorific and the humble form cannot be together. However, it has gradually become a common word.


  1. You use the honorific form when subjects are not you.
  2. You use the humble form when subjects are you.
  3. Pay attention to the concept of a Japanese social community.
  4. Double Keigo is not recommended, but has gradually become common.

We have covered major topics in Keigo. Actually, there still remains several points that learners should know, which are basically set phrases used in commercial establishments. Thus, it may be better that you learn them as you live in Japan. When it comes to working in Japan, you can acquire sufficient business Japanese skills through this lesson. If you can properly use the honorific form and the humble form, every Japanese person will regard you as a highly educated person. Next, you will learn a related topic: Japanese literary style.

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