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For an example of Politeness Levels in action, see the example below.The bottom line is that Politeness Levels are completely beyond your understanding, so don't even try. Just resign yourself to talking like a little girl for the rest of your life and hope to God that no one beats you up.
Japanese Teacher: Good morning, Harry.
Harry: Good Morning.
Japanese Classmates: (gasps of horror and shock)
Keigo is a Japanese speech register containing the language's more polite forms of address. It is used in formal and ceremonial circumstances, and in certain cases when those of lower social position are addressing those higher-up. For example, shop clerks generally address customers using keigo forms. (A few keigo phrases are used in daily conversation as well.)
In Anime, keigo speech may mark a character as, among other traits, refined, old-fashioned, or polite and mild-mannered. The Ojou, Yamato Nadeshiko, Meido, and Samurai characters are all likely keigo speakers. People from Kansai are also prone to using keigo in situations where Kanto speakers would deem it unnecessary, especially speakers from Kyoto.
This form of speech is sometimes rendered in various dubs as British English or European Spanish if it is the defining trait of a character; on the other hand, how best to translate it when it's just normal characters speaking formally is problematic in situations where speakers of other languages would not go out of their way to do so. This is especially maddening where a character subtly switches between forms of speech used towards a peer, which marks a change in their relationship. It is important to translate this nuance, but there is no clear solution without cheating and assuming your audience is familiar with at least a basic level of Japanese.
There are actually a variety of concepts related to levels of politeness, level of formality, respect, and humility. Keigo is just one aspect of these. This entry is of necessity an overview only.
Levels of politeness, formality, and respect (indication of the difference in status between speaker and subject) can be indicated by choice of syntax. Note that the two concepts are essentially independent; speech can be respectful but informal, or formal but condescending, or polite and respectful, or neither.
Politeness is most commonly indicated with the form of the end of a sentence. The plain form of a verb is used for casual speech, usually among close associates (friends, co-workers, etc.). The polite form is used in more formal social situations, but not, for example, in journalistic and academic writing, hence illustrating the difference between politeness and formality. Some words and grammar constructions have an even-higher level of politeness. Keigo is usually the first form of the Japanese language taught to foreigners, primarily to avoid offending native-speakers.
- Kore wa pen da. ("This is a pen", plain)
- Kore wa pen de aru. ("This is a pen", plain but formal -- typical of written style)
- Kore wa pen desu. ("This is a pen", polite)
- Kore wa pen de gozaimasu. ("This is a pen", very formal and polite)
- Iku. ("I will go", plain)
- Ikimasu. ("I will go", polite)
There are different types of keigo, including sonkeigo ("respectful language," forms which express deference towards the subject) and kenjougo ("humble language," sometimes called "samurai language," which express humility on the speaker's part, which is not necessarily indicative of the speaker's social status). Teineigo ("polite language") is a mix of both, a general polite style that doesn't necessarily involve deference or humility. (There are other variations as well but those are not important on this level.) These variations can appear either with different verb conjugations, or with substitute verbs. Continuing with the "iku" example from above:
- Iku / Ikimasu. (neutral)
- Ikareru / Ikaremasu. (deferential, non-standard but commonly used)
- Irassharu / Irasshaimasu. (deferential)
- Mairu / Mairimasu / Mairimasuru. (increasingly humble)
(A commonly-heard phrase coming from the irassharu replacement verb is irasshai or irasshaimase, used by shopkeepers to greet patrons. Another common example is itadaku, "to partake", which replaces taberu to eat, and is commonly heard in the form itadakimasu, before eating.)
Most verbs don't have replacement forms, and thus various conjugations are the only option. The following use the words for "to read" as an example. Plain form only shown, for clarity.
- Yomu. (neutral)
- Yomareru. (deferential)
- Oyomi ni naru/narimasu. (deferential)
- Oyomi ni nasaru. (even more deferential)
- Oyomi suru. (humble)
- Oyomi itasu/itashimasu. (even more humble)
A common example of the "even more deferential" form is used with the verb yasumu, to rest. In the imperative form, this becomes oyasumi nasai good night. A similar form exists for making adjectives honorific, which results in hayai, "early", becoming ohayou gozaimasu, literally "it is early," meaning "good morning". Note, however, that other than these few examples, the "even more" forms sound incredibly weird and stilted and are almost never used in real life. Even in Japanese there is such a thing as being "too polite."
There is also a suffix which can be added to verbs (-te form followed by yagaru) which is meaningless in and of itself, but which expresses extreme contempt for the one performing the action, and which is the social equivalent of dropping the F-bomb.
Also worth noting is de aru, the formal, slightly archaic version of da (used a lot by military personnel in speaking with their superiors, and in writing).
The honorific o- or go- (or less commonly, mi- or on-), tacked onto the front of a noun referring to a person, it can mean respect. When the noun is an object, it is known as a 'beautifying prefix', and adds a sense of class to the object described, and makes the speaker seem refined. There are a few nouns (ocha == tea, omizu == water, gohan == rice, et cetera) which are almost always referred to in this way. Certain nouns like 'sake' sound slightly vulgar without the o- prefix, and dropping the prefix is mostly restricted to men in casual settings. One of the features of a Kansai Regional Accent is adding o- to words that Kanto speakers wouldn't, such as o-soba == soba noodles and o-mame-chan == beans (with chan added for cuteness.) The o prefix was also used in women's names: a woman named Matsu would be "Matsu" for her family and "Omatsu" for everyone else (unless another honorific was used, then the "o" was dropped). This has faded out of usage after World War Two.
- Hyatt in Excel Saga, presenting an interesting contrast to Excel, who almost always speaks in a very informal register.
- Rurouni Kenshin has Kenshin speak in Keigo almost constantly, and refers to all women with the extremely respectful title "dono". The pronoun he uses for himself translates to an extremely humble "this one", and generally his entire speech pattern is commonly used by old men, but it's when he stops all of the above that it's time to start worrying.
- Mariasama ga Miteru, being set at a Catholic boarding school, is heavy with this.
- Hana Yori Dango
- Ah! My Goddess has Belldandy, befitting her personality, speak like this almost all the time.
- Keroro Gunsou
- Aoi and Miyabi from Ai Yori Aoshi. Also, Kaoru, when speaking with Aoi's parents.
- Basil from Katekyo Hitman Reborn!
- He's not the only one, Haru commonly uses keigo as well. So does Fran, but rather than polite his use is more among the lines of snarky. Then there are Mukuro, Kikyo and Daemon Spade, whose use appears to be of the villainous, creepy variety.
- In Haruhi Suzumiya, Itsuki Koizumi always uses keigo to convey his ultra-polite nature. Kyon reads this as Koizumi being a suck-up, and Koizumi himself admits he gets sick of being polite to his classmates all the time.
- Played for Laughs in Bleach; Mizuiro and Keigo are commonly seen together, and as of recently Mizuiro has been speaking to Keigo in a very formal and distant way, to which Keigo dramatically screams at him to stop using keigo...which the word is a homonym with his name.
- In the same series there's Urahara who uses very polite language with everyone, except his shop staff. Knowing him, though, it often comes off as snarky/sarcastic.
- In the Mahou Sensei Negima manga Negi usually uses Keigo with everyone other than very close old friends. This realization shocks the girls of his class when it is pointed out that he always uses Keigo with them but addresses Anya much more informally, leading those with crushes on him to worry that Anya might be his "favorite girl."
- Kaede uses "-dono" for many people (like her classmates...), but will refer to her teacher as "Negi-bouzu".
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann has Nia and her Keigo version of Kamina's catchphrase, usually translated as "ARE YOU AWARE OF EXACTLY WHO I AM!?"
- The extreme reverse, of course, is the original catchphrase, which demonstrates the '-te yagaru' form mentioned above.
- Gedächtnis from Fireball speaks in this fashion when conversing with Drossel. Of course, since he is a huge, crane-like robot it only adds to his weirdness.
- Mr. Yotsuya from Maison Ikkoku speaks in keigo, always wears either traditional or business clothes, but is the most impolite character in the series, breaking a hole in the wall between his room and Godai's room to steal things and bother him at awkward hours and drilled a hole between Godai's and Roppongi's wall to walk in and peep on her when he feels like it.
- Dio Brando from Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure is one of the most complete and total aversions of this trope. He sometimes uses an elaborately dismissive and condescending way of speaking that is roughly equivalent to giving commands to an insect, reflecting that he is a complete sociopath who sees himself as a god lording over ants.
- Syaoran in Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle is scolded by Sakura in the first episode when he uses keigo around her, calling her Sakura-hime, or simply Hime (Princess Sakura or Princess respectively); she wants him to just call her "Sakura" because they are close friends (therefore he doesn't need to use keigo around her). Although, throughout the series Syaoran speaks very polite Japanese.
- There's a Korean character in Mai The Psychic Girl who always speaks in a very polite register, presumably because that's the only way he learned Japanese.
- It could be because, except in Seoul, Korean men are usually more formal than women. Korean has two polite forms, formal polite (verbs end in -(eu)bnida) and informal polite (verbs end in -(eo)yo). The formal polite in Japanese is exactly like the regular polite, except it says de arimasu instead of desu?it's the norm in the military, for instance.
- In Moyashimon, Tadayasu is able to distinguish between Japanese and European yogurt bacteria because the Japanese ones have topknots and speak in samurai-style keigo.
- Koyori from Sola, including this little gem during a game of BS:
Koyori: Koyori is very sorry for doing this, but please let Koyori call you on those cards.
(The Third Person Person aspect was added in the subtitles.)
- Aoi from Working tends to speak in very polite forms, which actually underlines her rather off-beat persona.
- In Lucky Star, as if to demonstrate that even native Japanese speakers get confused by it all sometimes, the Hiiragi family is sitting around watching a program in which someone asks a question, then waits a few seconds before revealing the answer. The person on the program asks what the modest form of iku (to go) is. Matsuri immediately says it's ukagau ("To visit" Close, but not quite), and the rest of the family gets swept up in this incorrect answer. As shown in the description section of this article, the answer is mairu. This triggers their memory that, yes, they knew that.
- Samurai Catgirl Himari Noihara of Omamori Himari always speaks formally, resulting in her speech appearing as Olde English when translated.
- Tiger and Bunny's Barnaby always uses this form of speech (even during his frequent arguments with Kotetsu in the earlier episodes), which is indicative of his aloof Kuudere personality. Despite warming up to Kotetsu considerably in the second half of the series, he doesn't stop using keigo when conversing with him.
- Mawaru Penguindrum's Masako Natsume is a mix of Ojou and Action Girl with very Keigo-ish speech patterns. Not only she uses the traditional watakushi for herself, but she also refers to a young child not older than 12 as " Mario-san". Specially odd considering that Mario is all but stated to be her younger brother.
- Oddly used in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Hitomi, the local Ojou, refers to her friends as "-san" and is very softspoken, but doesn't reach the extent of using Keigo. The only time she does this? When she's Brainwashed and Crazy.
- Gym Ghingnham in Turn a Gundam speaks in a strangely formal manner even when being an epic Large Ham. He is, however, supposed to be Moonrace nobility.
- Probably any good samurai film.
- This aspect of the language is what made famous real-life physicist and all-around interesting guy Richard Feynman give up on learning Japanese, as he writes in Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman!. He disliked that, for example, "I solved the problem" and "You solved the problem" require entirely different verbs for "solve" to register different levels of politeness, even though both people are doing precisely the same thing.
- After WWII a group of American sailors was assigned to sail the I-402 Submersible Aircraft Carrier back to Hawai'i. They had some problems establishing communications:
When I got to know the Japanese officers better, I found out that part of my problem was that our interpreter instructors had been taught by elderly Japanese-American ladies who spoke only old fashioned, honorific Japanese. Instead of barking orders in proper quarterdeck style I'd been most respectfully and politely requesting. The puzzled Japanese must have thought we were a boarding party from Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. Voyage of the HIJMS I-400
- Sayuri in Kanon speaks informally to girls, but will only use keigo with guys. It's for the same reason that she's a Third Person Person which is her guilt over not being a kind older sister to her brother like she wanted to. She only ever played (and presumably spoke casually) with him once, when he was dying.
- A common occurrence Sengoku Basara, being set in the Feudal Era. In particular Yukimura, who uses almost painfully humble and polite speech with everyone, including his enemies. This is probably the result of a strict upbringing by his master Shingen. In contrast Yukimura's rival Masamune is the complete opposite, speaking English and being generally rude to everybody.
- Yukimura can take his quirk to ridiculous levels, such as unfailingly speaking keigo even when he's burning to death.
"*groan* Atsuu gozaru!!"
- Uzuki from Rune Factory Frontier speaks like this.
- Fou-lu in Breath of Fire IV speaks in very formalised, somewhat archaic-sounding, keigo all the time; justified as he is literally a God-Emperor who has awakened from a 600-year torpor and thus speaks in a formal, archaic dialect. Localised in English as Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe with a goodly dash of the Royal We.