Introduction to the Keigo Language in Japanese

Author Anna Baffa Volpe for article 'Introduction to the Keigo Language in Japanese'

Anna Baffa Volpe

11 min reading time

Today we introduce one of the aspects that most characterize the Japanese language: the Keigo Language ((けい)()).

We are going to learn similarities and differences between Sonkeigo, Kenjōgo, Teineigo.

It is one of the most fascinating aspects of the language, as it leads us to explore the world of social relationships, the relationships between Japanese people and the language that is used in various situations.

Meaning of Keigo

Keigo represents the honorific or polite language. It includes all those expressions that denote respect, esteem and even deference on the part of the speaker towards the interlocutor or towards third parties.

It is also used through expressions of humility, where somehow one lowers one's status and enhances that of others.

The word consists of the 2 kanji:

  • (けい) indicates respect, reverence, esteem
  • () refers to language, speech

Interpersonal relationships in Japan

To discuss Keigo it is important to remember 2 concepts that often when discussing this topic, as basic elements of interpersonal relationships in Japan:

(うち)(そと), uchi and soto
  • (うち) means inside and encompasses the circle of people with whom you have confidence and intimacy: family members, relatives, friends
  • (そと) means outside and includes all people outside uchi: acquaintances, strangers with whom a formal language is used
The Keigo Language offers expressions of courtesy and respect towards each other and at the same time creates and denotes distance

Superior and Inferior

Another important aspect concerns the Japanese distinction between superior and inferior.

In some contexts this difference is natural. Let's think of elder or younger brothers or sisters, for which there are very distinct terms, or elderly people.

(ねん)(れい) indicates age, as the first element that creates a distinction between "superior" and "inferior"

The corporate hierarchy, the roles are all important elements to understand which language and expressions are more appropriate.

(じょう)()(かん)(けい) are the hierarchical relationships
  • We use honorific and courtesy forms towards the President of the company and towards the superiors
  • With respect to our colleagues we can use a non-keigo language characterized by the verb in plain form and by a colloquial style

We are now going to see the 3 main groups into which the Keigo language is generally divided:

  • Sonkeigo
  • Kenjōgo
  • Teineigo

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Sonkeigo: Honorific language

Expressions that fall under the honorific language (Sonkeigo) are used when the speaker wants to express respect towards the interlocutor, but also toward a person who is not present.

  • (そん)(けい) means respect, reverence, esteem
  • () language, word

I respect the teacher.

(せん)(ぱい)(こう)(はい) Senpai and Kōhai, the older student and the younger one, the mentor, the teacher and the pupil

Honorific Prefixes and Suffixes

We find in the Sonkeigo the use of honorary suffixes, they are:

  • さん san is also used in courtesy language: (やま)()さん, the Mr. Yamada
  • sama expresses a higher degree of respect and courtesy than さん and is also used next to the recipient's name in a letter:
  • (しゃ)(ちょう)(さま), Mr. President
  • ()(なか)()(ろう)(さま), Mr. Tanaka Tarō

The honorific prefixes are also in common use, of which we recall:

  • o + noun: お()さん, His son
  • go + noun: ご(りょう)(しん) Your parents

Sonkeigo and passive voice

The use of the passive form of the verb is found with the Sonkeigo language.

Learning and using the passive voice offers us an opportunity to emphasize courtesy and respect towards our interlocutor thus going beyond the masu form, which in itself is already an excellent way of expressing oneself in a formal and courteous way.

2 examples with the form in masu and the honorific passive form


Do you drink a tea?


Would you like some tea?

Verbs that change form in Sonkeigo

Many verbs of daily use change form in a context where the use of Sonkeigo is appropriate:

  • ()べる and ()む become ()()がる
  • ()く or いる and ()る become いらっしゃる
  • ()う becomes おっしゃる
  • する becomes なさる

Sonkeigo and verb なる

Here is another very useful use of this form which involves the use of the base in "i" for Godan verbs combined with the particle に and the verb なる to become.

Honorific prefix お+Verbal base+になる
  • ()く becomes お()きになる
  • ()む becomes お()みになる

For these forms, the polite form in masu is generally preferred.

There are various ways to ask the same question.

Here is an example in various forms:

  • ()かけるの? plain form colloquial
  • ()かけますか。 polite form in masu
  • ()かけられますか。 form sonkeigo in passive
  • ()かけになりますか。 form sonkeigo use of になる
  • ()かけになられますか。 form sonkeigo use of になられる, the verb なる in its passive form

Pleasantries and Sonkeigo

In many greeting formulas we find the Sonkeigo language:

  • いらっしゃいませ: welcome greeting in a room or shop towards the customer who enters it; いらっしゃい is its less formal version
  • (やす)みさない: (I wish you) a good rest, good night
  • (せい)()になります is a widely used expression in the language and depending on the situation it means thank you, I am grateful, I entrust to her
Sonkeigo language values ​​the action of the other.

Kenjōgo: Language of humility

In the case of Kenjōgo language , the speaker expresses respect and courtesy towards his interlocutor, using forms that denote and emphasize the sense of humility in the first person and highlight the importance of the other person.

The speaker refers to things or events concerning himself or his circle uchi, of members of his own family.

  • (けん)(じょう) is a word that means humility, modesty
  • () is the word, the language

Verbs that change form in Kenjōgo

As with Sonkeigo, the language of humility Kenjōgo also presents some verbs in a new form:

  • ()くand ()る become (まい)mairu
  • いる becomes おる oru
  • ()う is found as (もう)mōsu or (もう)()げる mōshiageru
  • する becomes (いた)itasu
  • ()う is found as お()にかかる o me ni kakaru
  • (おも)う and ()る become (ぞん)ずる zonzuru
  • ()く in the meaning of ask, becomes (うかが)utagau

It was a pleasure to meet you.

There are also other verbs that change shape in the Kenjōgo language. We listed here just some of the most used.

Kenjōgo and the verb する

The form consists of the base in “i” for the verbi Godan combined with the verb する to do which is usually found in the polite form in masu.

Prefix お+Verbal base+する
  • ()く becomes お()きします
  • ()う becomes お()いします

Causative form and Kenjōgo

The causative form is used to express an action that you make another person perform:


The teacher made the students clean the classroom.

This useful form is also found in the Kenjōgo language, in particular in its te form combined with the verb (いただ)to receive.

The nuance in the translation is she allows me to do something.

For example, when we are talking on the phone and we find ourselves booking a flight or accommodation, the operator may say:


We made the reservation as for your request Mr.Yamada.

Literally We took the liberty of making the reservation.... We note in this sentence:

  • The honorific suffix さま referring to the person
  • The honorific prefix ご referring to a noun reservation, his reservation
  • The causative form with honorific value

Pleasantries and Kenjōgo

Many commonly used expressions contain the forms of Kenjōgo.

When I introduce myself I usually say:


Nice to meet you, it's Anna.

In response to thank you ありがとうございます you hear いいえ、どういたしまして, you're welcome, please.

(よろ)しくお(ねが)(いた)します is also used a lot at the end of a written communication: best regards, yours sincerely, and the form (いた)します is used instead of します.

The Kenjōgo language focuses attention on the sense of humility of the one who speaks towards the other.

Teineigo: Courtesy language

We arrive at the third form of the expressions of courtesy and respect towards the other person: the (てい)(ねい)() (Teineigo), a word formed by:

  • (てい)(ねい) courtesy, politeness used a lot as an adjective (てい)(ねい)kind, thoughtful , careful
  • () language, word
This third form includes the auxiliaries です and ます.

This type of language is generally used between people of the same social level, between peers and even between people who don't know each other well.

The Teineigo language represents a more frank and informal way of communicating with each other.

Here are 3 examples that summarize the 3 languages:

  • ()ちになります the other person waits: use of Sonkeigo, value the other
  • ()ちします I wait: use of Kenjōgo, I put myself in the first person in a humble way towards the other
  • ()ちます: I wait, a polite and lighter, more informal expression than the first two

The correct use of the Keigo language in its nuances is the result of knowledge, practice and confidence with the Japanese language.

It is sometimes complex for the Japanese themselves. The advice for those starting the study of the language is to use the masu form, which is always discreet and courteous in any context, and to learn to recognize the Keigo forms by assimilating them gradually.

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