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From Honorifics to Honorific Communication: The Essence of Honorifics Useful for the New Business Year

Hiroshi Kabaya
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Three Basics of Honorifics

Many people want to use honorifics effectively. Honorifics are an integral part of language life in the Japanese society, and the ability to effectively use honorifics may be used to differentiate between a mature member of society and an inexperienced person who still acts like a student, or to judge how skillful a person is in using the Japanese language. As such, it is apparently valuable to learn honorifics.

On the other hand, many may feel that honorifics are complicated and difficult. Mastering honorifics is, however, not so difficult if they are simply regarded as words and phrases. Using honorifics does not require a complete understanding of their nature; grasping and understanding some important points would mitigate reluctance to use honorifics.

While honorifics have a variety of characteristics, you might first want to understand more about the three basics of honorifics: Honorifics to elevate the other party, such as irassharu (you come) and nasaru (you do); honorifics to be formal, such as mairu (I come) and itasu (I do); and honorifics to appreciate favor, such as itadaku (I receive) and kudasaru (you give). You might be tired of hearing about the types of honorifics, but the purpose is not to categorize them. Each honorific type is also found in commonly used idioms. For example, irasshaimase (welcome) contains an honorific to elevate the other party, ittemairimasu (I'm going) an honorific to be formal, and itadakimasu (let's eat) an honorific to appreciate favor. If you are aware of this fact, you will find that you are routinely using these three types of honorifics appropriately in the given situations.

Don't Blame Honorifics

Some argue about the pros and cons of honorifics, that they are traditional and beautiful Japanese expressions, or that they are simply out-of-date phrases based on the feudal sense of hierarchy. This is a matter of the values behind each side of the argument, which seems to make the issue more complicated.

Whether opinions are positive or negative on honorifics, however, it is not a matter of honorifics themselves as words and phrases, but rather it is a matter of people using them, or of communication taking place by using them. Without this point of view, arguing pros and cons of honorifics would be pointless. We should not blame the honorifics themselves.

Beyond Honorifics

It is important to learn honorifics as words and phrases, but that is not enough to use them effectively. In order to reveal the true nature of honorifics, we need to focus on the very communication in which honorifics are used. This means that we need to pay attention not only to the honorifics but also to the people who express themselves through honorifics and the people who understand those expressions. We should also have a perspective of what the communication with/without honorifics would look like. In other words, it is important to recognize the issue as one regarding honorific communication—more precisely, taigu-communication—beyond honorifics.

What Is Honorific Communication?

Honorific communication can be understood more easily through using the following framework: how people who express themselves and people who understand the expressions recognize the relationship between them, or between each of them and a third party (human relations); how they perceive the process, situation, and atmosphere associated with the expression (scene); what consciousness they have; what contents they communicate with each other; and in what format they communicate. This framework is based on a commonsense perception of when and where, who expresses and understands whose things, to whom, with what feelings, about what contents, and in what format.

Human relations include hierarchical orders such as whether the other party is on a higher, equal, or lower level, closeness with the other party, and positions/roles such as a boss and a subordinate, or a salesperson and a customer. Scenes are also linked to the sense of being formal or casual. Not only reading the scene, but also changing it, could be an important perspective. Consciousness, or feelings, is related to the sentiment of affection, attention, or omotenashi (hospitality), in addition to the fundamental sense of honorifics such as respect, humility, and formality. These factors are connected with contents and formats—to which honorifics as words and phrases belong—to establish communication.

It is your feeling of warmly welcoming a precious guest that leads to an expression irasshaimase that elevates the guest. Your intention to brace yourself for work or study makes you choose a formal expression of ittemairimasu. Your gratitude for a meal and for people who made it for you enables you to say itadakimasu from the heart.

However, it does not mean that you always have to choose such a format. You may also use yokoso oide kudasaimashita (thank you for joining me), yoku kitane (sweet of you to come), or anything else depending on human relations, scenes, or consciousness/feelings. It is this point that leads to the ability to effectively use honorifics.

Upon reflection within this framework, we can understand that the issue is far beyond honorifics and is linked to communication from a wider point of view. Instead of only sticking to honorifics as words and phrases, regarding them as honorific communication will enable us to redefine the issue as one that is not unique to the Japanese language but rather is common to all languages. Thinking about honorific communication might be tiresome, but it should be regarded as an important challenge in realizing the significance of people living in society.

Hiroshi Kabaya
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Graduated from First School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the doctoral program, Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Holds Ph.D. (Literature). Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education and Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics, Waseda University. Serves as Dean of Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics, and a member of Subdivision on Japanese Language, Council for Cultural Affairs, among other positions.
His publications include Honorific Expression [Keigo Hyogen] (Taishukan Shoten); Method for Honorific Expression Education [Keigo Hyogen Kyoiku no Hoho] (same); Honorific Expression Handbook [Keigo Hyogen Handobukku] (same); TAIGU Communication (same); Honorifics Master [Keigo Masuta] (same); Honorific Communication for Adults [Otona no Keigo Komyunikeshon] (Chikuma Shinsho); Honorific Communication [Keigo Komyunikeshon] (Asakura Publishing); Introduction to Study on Japanese Language Education [Nihongo Kyoikugaku Josetsu] (same); and Honorifics Usage Dictionary [Keigo Tsukaikata Jiten] (Shinnippon-Hoki Publishing). He is also an editorial supervisor for Master Honorifics through Fun Play [Tanoshiku Enjite Keigo no Tatsujin] (3 volumes, Mitsumura Educational); Children's Visual Dictionary for Manner and Honorifics [Kodomo Mana to Keigo E Jiten] (Sanseido Publishing), etc.