Japanese is a notoriously difficult language to learn, and Japanese business etiquette is not much different. However, it’s not only foreign learners who struggle with its complexity. As a recent thread on Twitter demonstrated , even native speakers sometimes get it wrong.
Understanding Japanese Honorifics
The Japanese language has three honorific forms: teineigo (丁寧語), sonkeigo (尊敬語), and kenjougo (謙譲語). Honorifics differentiate status, rank, and social proximity (where the closest are immediate family members, and furthest are customers and clients – more on that later).
Honorifics add respect in two ways. Sonkeigo elevates the other person. Kenjougo humbles yourself. Teineigo is Japan’s default polite speech. You use this with the general public.
However, in the business world, being polite doesn’t always cut it. When speaking to higher-ups, you have to jazz it up with an extra layer of respect. If teineigo is a delicious chocolate cake of politeness, then sonkeigo and kenjougo are the chocolate frosting and cherry on top.
History of Japanese Business Etiquette
Honorifics developed over time in conjunction with Japan’s class system. Sonkeigo was originally used when talking to or about the emperor. Kenjougo was a way to humble oneself before the gods and spirits.
Teineigo was born during the Edo Era. It was a way to address samurai with respect even if they were of a lower social position than you – and a way for samurai to address each other respectfully. From there, it spread to other human relationships – such as student/teacher – within the same social class.
Japanese Business Etiquette Today
This structure carried on into the business world, except now instead of samurai and emperors, it’s between coworkers and bosses. However, as noted above, even native speakers have trouble sorting out sometimes what terms to use when.
Recently, a Twitter user sparked a huge discussion thread around the common expression 了解しました (“I got it/roger”). Originally a military/police force expression, it conveys understanding when receiving instructions and answering requests.
While a polite expression indeed, Twitter user Kikorin issued a friendly warning not to use it towards your boss because it’s not polite enough.
The long answer? Though it is polite, that’s all it is. Polite. You can easily use it with people in the same or a lower position (coworkers and subordinates). However, it lacks those extra layers of respect that show the boss that you are acknowledging that he is indeed the boss. If you want to appeal to the boss, what you need is a bit of brown-nosing and self-depreciation. You need… ADVANCED POLITENESS!
Honorifics (Advanced Politeness)
When responding to your boss, you’ll want to use one of the following honorifics:
承知しました (Shouchi Shimashita)
Shouchi (承知) literally means “acknowledgement/compliance”. Though similar in meaning to “Ryoukai”, it contains the nuance of “acknowledging the other party’s circumstances and complying with their request”.
You can make this expression even more humble by replacing instead shimashita with itashimashita. Itasu is a more humble version of shimasu.
Kashikomarimasu literally translates to “being in awe/taking a humble attitude”. This expression carries the nuance of “although I am inexperienced and nowhere near your level, I will do my best to honor your wishes”.
You will usually hear this in customer service. Although customers and clients are certainly not bosses or superiors, there is a common concept within Japanese business that “the customer is god”.
Japanese Business Etiquette Evolves
Japanese business etiquette is constantly changing, and it doesn’t always take centuries. Even a few years can make a difference! In fact, a popular Japanese drama from 2013 recently grabbed peoples’ attention when it relaunched earlier this year. The main criticism was: “You can’t do those things in business anymore!”
Yoshimasa Kano, an expert in etiquette from a sociological perspective, states: “Etiquette is not universal. What people view as proper etiquette varies by generation and gender”. Though honorifics developed through Japan’s long history of strict “vertical relationships”, he believes “human relationships have become flat with the times”, which has blurred the lines of what proper etiquette is.
While interpersonal relationships and communication skills are important for business, with the expansion on the internet and online work, face-to-face training is becoming scarce. Many people have faced challenges adapting to the new Japanese business etiquette rules of remote work. The recent employment crisis thanks to COVID has made things even more challenging. As Miho Koike, a lecturer at the Japan Service Manners Association, points out, Japanese business etiquette has indeed entered a new era.