Politeness is an absolutely essential part of Japanese language and culture. It is always important to communicate with others using an appropriate level of politeness.
This presents two main challenges when trying to learn Japanese:
- Knowing when to use each politeness level
- Learning how to actually use them
Both of these can be quite difficult, even sometimes for native Japanese speakers.
In this article, we’re going to focus on challenge number one – knowing when to use each politeness level.
A separate article that goes into more detail about how to form sentences that fall into each politeness level is coming soon.
What forms of politeness exist in Japanese?
In simple terms, spoken Japanese has three main levels of politeness. We can call these:
The main difference between all of these is verb forms.
There are some other small differences here and there, but changing the form of the main verb in a sentence is usually all it takes to change a sentence to a different level of politeness. In most cases, the rest of the sentence will be the same.
I’ll write more about how to use the different levels soon. In the meantime, check out my Verb Tense Cheat Sheet for a summary of the main polite and informal verb forms.
What determines which level of politeness to use?
Before we get into the details, a general rule you can always come back to is this:
Your default starting point should always be the regular polite form.
If you use that, it’s hard to go wrong, especially when you are still learning Japanese and aren’t necessarily expected to get everything exactly right.
From there, we can decide if a particular person or situation calls for a different level of politeness.
There are two main criteria for determining which form of language to use in any given situation:
In some cases, just one of these is enough to know how polite to be, but sometimes we need to consider both factors.
Let’s look at each individually, then combine them to see how they work together.
Firstly, let’s answer the question: What exactly is “rank”?
“Rank” in this context refers primarily to seniority.
There are two main ways to determine rank or seniority:
- One’s rank or seniority within an organization
For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on age first.
If there are no other known factors that might determine if someone outranks somebody else, then age alone determines rank.
In that case, the language that people should use with each other looks like this:
That is, if we consider age as the only rank factor, and ignore familiarity for now, then:
- Younger people should be polite to their elders
- Elders can usually speak informally to those younger than them
- People of the same age can speak informally with each other
Now let’s consider one’s rank within an organization.
For these purposes, we are talking about an organization in the broadest possible sense. It could be any formal or informal group of people with a relationship, such as a company, institution, club, team, dance troupe, gang, or any other type of defined group. For this purpose, even society itself might be considered an “organization”.
Usually, any such organization will have some kind of hierarchy, and that hierarchy is what determines each individual’s rank as it applies to polite or informal language use.
A simple example would be a company or other business. The owner or board members would be the highest ranking members, followed by the highest level managers, lower level managers, and so on down the organization chart. For most organizations, each person’s rank is usually fairly obvious.
In addition to this, the year a person joined the organization is also often important. For example, a second-year employee typically outranks a first-year employee, even though their roles and standing within the company might be otherwise the same. It’s almost as though each person has an “age” within the organization that helps determine their seniority, though this is still secondary to actual rank.
As with age, lower-ranked members should communicate with those senior to them using polite language. Informal language should only be used with those of equal or lower rank.
Importantly, this usually takes precedence over age. That is:
Organizational rank > age rank
Here are a few examples of situations where this is relevant:
- A second-year student outranks a first-year student, even if the first-year student is older.
- A boss outranks their subordinates, even if the boss is younger.
- The Prime Minister outranks other members of government (and the general public, for that matter), regardless of age.
Organizational rank is usually easy to identify, so the key is to remember that this virtually always takes precedence over age.
The other important factor in determining the correct level of politeness when speaking Japanese is familiarity.
Put simply, a higher degree of familiarity can, in certain situations, reduce the degree of politeness needed compared to when accounting for rank alone.
In some cases, it’s easy to determine if someone can be considered “familiar”.
A simple example is family. Typically, the high degree of familiarity within a family makes rank completely irrelevant, so people usually talk to their parents, older siblings, uncles, aunts and grandparents using informal language, even though they are older.
Close friends are also familiar and will similarly use informal language. This is particularly true for friends who are the same age, school year, or joined an organization in the same year as one another.
However, the effect of familiarity goes beyond this, and since it is a spectrum with lots of grey area, and also naturally changes over time, it can sometimes be difficult to identify.
To overcome this, let’s try to create a clearer definition that accounts for the majority of situations.
Defining Familiarity – In-group vs out-group
One way we can think about familiarity is to ask the question:
Is this person “in-group” or “out-group”?
In this context, an in-group person is someone with whom you have some kind of formal connection.
(To be clear, this is my own self-developed criteria based on my experience living and working in Japan. Expect it to be somewhat imperfect, but hopefully useful as a guide.)
For example, are you part of the same company, school, club, team, or other organization? If so, then the other members of that organization can be considered “in-group”.
Even someone you have never met, such as an employee from another department, would be included in this. The point is that you have something that ties you together, which automatically makes them more familiar than someone with whom you have no such ties.
This is usually easy to determine, since it purely depends on a factual relationship. Most of the time, it aligns nicely with our definition of an organization referred to earlier for determining rank; that is, same organization = in-group.
To be clear, in this context, you can absolutely be part of multiple organizations at the same time.
An out-group person is basically anyone else. Random people you see on the street are all out-group of course, but so are, for example, customers, suppliers, competitors, or partner organizations.
Perhaps an even simpler (and cruder) question to help identify this is, “is this person one of us, or one of them”.
Once we have an answer to this, we can combine this with rank to determine what level of politeness we should use.
Combining familiarity and rank
We can summarize our two factors independently like this:
- In-group -> less polite
- Out-group -> more polite
- Other person is higher rank -> more polite
- Other person is equal or lower rank -> less polite
Now, if we combine these and add a few extra details, a simplified overview of the type of language to use looks something like this:
Rank / Familiarity
VIPs and other very high-ranking people (eg. company CEO)
Depending on degree and setting
Polite or super-polite
Family and very close friends
To be on the safe side
Where rank disparity is clear / large (eg. adult talking to a child)
Simplifying it further
The above table, while hopefully helpful, is not necessarily going to help you when you really need it, unless you have it memorized.
Another way to approach it is to start with ”polite” as the default, then to ask this question:
If polite is the default, when is it safe to be informal, and when is it necessary to be super-polite?
If we look to the table above, the answers are as follows:
Safe to be informal: family, close friends, in-group people of equal or lower rank, children.
Best to be super-polite: In-group VIPs, most out-group members, particularly those of higher rank and in business settings.
Visually, it looks something like this:
A few other considerations
How it works in practice
Typically, when you first meet someone, it will often be clear if someone is in-group or out-group, and whether or not they out-rank you. This means that, from very early on, you will “decide” upon an appropriate level of politeness for that person.
In most cases, you will then speak the same way to that person forever. It’s usually that simple.
The main exception to this would be if you become very familiar with the other person. For example, two people who ultimately become a couple may start off using different language due to differing rank, but their relationship would obviously evolve to a point where they both use informal language with one another.
In many other cases, however, old habits sometimes stick, so even fairly close friends may continue to use different degrees of politeness with each other regardless of how close they become.
Setting can affect how polite you should be
The setting within which you are speaking with someone can also impact how you speak to them.
For example, if you are close friends with a colleague of the same rank, and then that colleague gets a promotion, making them your boss, how you speak with them might change depending on the setting. In private or one-on-one, you would probably fall back to the informal language you’ve always used together. In a work meeting with others present, however, it might be seen by others as rude to not use polite language when talking with that very same person.
As with anything to do with relationships, there is no end to the complexities that can arise, so even Japanese people will sometimes find themselves unsure of what to do.
Written vs Spoken Japanese
Written Japanese is generally different from spoken Japanese, except in what is probably the most relevant context for most people: email and text messaging.
There are certain formalities that are typically followed when writing an email, particularly in business settings, but generally you can follow this extremely simple rule:
When writing to someone, use the same level of politeness as you would when speaking to them.
In other words, write like you speak.
That’s a massive oversimplification, but it works in most situations. Texting a close friend? Be informal, obviously. Emailing a progress update to your entire department, including the big bosses – be polite or, ideally, super-polite.
Other forms of the written word, such as novels, news articles, research papers, marketing, etc. all have their own customs that go way beyond the scope of this article. Besides, chances are that if you are writing such material, you don’t need my help 😉
Play it safe, but don’t stress about using super-polite language
It is always acceptable to be more polite than necessary, so if you’re not sure, err on the side of being more polite.
Also, super-polite language is hard to master. Even many Japanese people are not confident using it, mainly because it doesn’t really become necessary until one reaches adulthood, which is, by definition, after most formal education has ended. For this reason, most companies, for example, will offer training in using super-polite language for graduate employees.
This means that, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, you will almost always be excused if you use polite language, even if super-polite would be ideal.
- Use the polite form as your starting point
- Rank and familiarity are the key factors that affect how you should talk to people
- Rank comes in two main forms – rank within an organization or group, and more generally, age
- A higher degree of familiarity can reduce the degree of politeness needed
- A simplified way to work out familiarity is to classify people as either “in-group” or “out-group”
- Be more polite to those who outrank you or who are older than you
- It is usually okay to be less polite with those of a lower rank or age than yourself, particularly for in-group members
- If possible, try to use the super-polite form for particularly high-ranking people
A final note – It’s not as scary as it sounds
It might seem very overwhelming, and you may worry that you will accidentally offend someone because your language skills are imperfect and you use the “wrong” form of politeness.
To that I say: Please don’t stress!
As a non-native Japanese speaker, particularly while you are still learning and this is obvious to those with whom who speak, you will almost always be forgiven.
Various forms of privilege can impact this, so it may depend greatly on who you are or who you are talking to, but generally, Japanese people are usually either impressed, honored, or just relieved that you’re speaking their language. Getting politeness “right” is just one more way to show your commitment to the language.