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How and When to Use Keigo in Japanese

written by: Thomas P. Walton • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/5/2012

Discover the differences in the use of the Japanese language as it is applied to formal occasions. Build a general understanding of how this language reflects the humbleness of both the speaker and the group the speaker belongs to.

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    How Social Classes Are Generally Distinguished

    The Japanese language divides its speakers into different social classes, regardless of the political structure of the country. In other words, the democratic society of Japan still uses the language of social classes, or polite speech, known as Keigo. This distinction of social status is obvious to anyone listening in on a conversation between a teacher and a student. The student will address the teacher with respect, whereas the teacher will use less formal speech.

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    How Keigo is Critical in Japanese Business and Society

    One of the most critical situations for using Keigo properly in Japanese society is in the hiring process. Companies make sure to hire appropriate candidates, meaning those who would not have any problem speaking Keigo at their job. The ability to properly negotiate with clients/ customers, and to communicate with superiors, is very critical for the company’s operation. There are books and training available for those who are going to apply for jobs. Businesses commonly address the customer as a very special guest or celebrity. The customer’s satisfaction and feeling is the top priority in all businesses. In order to use Keigo for business or any other conversation in the Japanese language, the student of the Japanese language needs to understand the way Keigo divides people into groups.

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    Group Types in Keigo

    The division of people into two kinds of groups is referred to as Uchi and soto. The in-group is known as uchi, while the out-group is referred to as soto. In business, uchi is the group refers to the company’s employees. Soto is the group that generally refers to the customers/ clients. Even if the speaker in the uchi group (company) mentions the president of the company to the customer, the speaker will speak humbly to the customer (soto) regardless of the president’s high status. In essence, the uchi group is humble, and shows respect toward the soto group.

    In family, all of one’s family members are regarded as being in the uchi group. Anyone outside of the family is regarded as being in the soto group. Normally, one speaks humbly to one’s parents in Japan. However, if the speaker is referring to his or her parents to an outsider, the speaker will speak very humbly of their family. Humbling one’s own family members in one’s manner of speaking is not intended to disregard one’s family. The lowering of one’s status is an act of consideration for how the listener feels. Boasting or bragging is considered a taboo in the Japanese language. The competitive drive and winner spirit of American society can make it difficult for the western student of Japanese to adapt to the use of Keigo in business.