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The Death of Keigo (honorifics in Japanese)?


Omnipotence personified
15 Mar 2003
From the New York Times:

Japanese Workers Told From on High: Drop the Formality

Japanese Get Word From on High: Drop the Formality - The New York Times Front page on 10/30/03.

"Many Japanese companies, traditionally divided rigidly by age and seniority, have dropped the use of titles to create a more open — and, they hope, competitive — culture."

"In 2001, 59 percent of companies with more than 3,000 employees had adopted such a policy, compared with 34 percent in 1995, according to the Institute of Labor Administration of Japan."

"The shift also mirrors profound changes in Japanese society, experts say. Equality-minded parents no longer emphasize honorific language to their children, and most schools no longer expect children to use honorific language to their teachers. As a result, young Japanese have a poor command of honorific language and do not feel compelled to use it."

"...the decline of honorific language symbolized Japan's shift away from an older generation concerned with its place in companies or society, to a younger one focused on personal satisfaction.

"At company seminars, I (Hideki Matama) often get questions whether weekends are off, or whether women have maternity leave," he said.

"One time, when I asked one boy about his dreams, he said, `Good marriage, good home and children.' Can you believe that?"

That last bit is my favorite! It is about time people started spending, and being given, more time with their families. But that is not the point of my thread...

I think it is sad that younger people don't/can't use keigo anymore. Japanese will loose something if this takes hold. I do think it is important to show respect in how you address someone. I feel it is fully possible to do so with languages that lack as big keigo system (for example English perhaps) but it takes a lot of practice in social situations and skills of rhetorical give and take to be able to do so. Since Japanese has no real tradition of such non-keigo polite uses, I think it will be very hard to create one.

Truth be told, it does feel rude to me not to use keigo when needed and is a bit put-offish when respectful speech is not given to you by others. Perhaps that is just because I have been taught that way and spend my time in the countryside (where keigo seems to be more strongly rooted as the article states).

Any thoughts?
That reminds me that the equivalent of "keigo" in French ("vous") is far from disappearing. Students, even primary school pupils, must still use it when addressing their teachers. It's extremely unusual not to use "keigo" with one's superior. In some families, children-in-laws still address their parents-in-law by "vous", even after knowing them for 20 years. The only slight change perciptible in 50 years is that young people (20's, sometimes 30's) who don't know each other now use "tu" instead of "vous".

In contrast, Italians don't use the "voi" (=French "vous") anymore. It is only heard in historical movies. People have shifted some time ago to the less formal "Lei" (which means "she") for the polite form, but contrarily to French-speakers, they usually use the informal "tu" with people they don't know and aren't their superiors (for example, the staff in a shop).

Germans are about as formal as French people, but other Europeans (Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch...) are like Italians or even less formal.

Nowadays, I think that the Japanese are more like the Italians. The main difference is that in European languages, once one chooses to address somebody by the polite or informal form, they don't change afterwards (or just once from polite to informal, if told to do so).
Japanese are more situational. They would use keigo with their boss at work, but maybe drop it when they go for a drink after that. They can even change politeness level inside the same conversation, jungling between "suru", "shimasu" or "itashimasu" forms. That's impossible in European languages. Likewise, if a French shop assistant uses "vous" to their customers, customers will reply "vous" as well, never "tu". But between young people, they might both use "tu". In Japan, shop assistants must use "keigo" as a rule from their company, even if customers rarely reply in keigo at all. I guess that if they had the choice, people working in combinis wouldn't always use keigo, especially with people about their age or younger.

So this article is interesting, as it shows how Japanese are bound by (company) rules, rather than free to decide in function of their personal feelings like Europeans. I have never heard of a European company forcing all its staff to use their equivalent of "keigo". Nobody would ever respect such a rule, as it's all about how intimate you are with someone, and that doesn't change whether you are at work, at home or in the street.
Yes. French and German will always keep using vous & Sie accordingly. But that's most likely because they're used to using it as a plural too. Vous & Sie are used as a form of politeness but also for adressing 3rd person plural. I can't think of any more languages at the moment that still ferquantly use forms of politeness...
In Dutch people used to use 'u' but that's also not being used anymore by younger people.

The fact is that leanguages are constantly evolving and beomeing more simplistic.

/EDIT: I think it's a shame tough that it's fading away. It's one of those many small things that makes Japanese so different & diverse from all other languages.
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