If you are planning to work in Japan, then there are quite a few things you need to look out for. While punctuality and respect for rules may be an essential part of the Japanese work environment, communication skills play an especially important role in the Japanese workplace. Often times, a foreigner might fall victim to what the Japanese call “KY” (気持読めない), a term which implies that the person cannot read the atmosphere or nuances of the other’s words or actions. To counteract this, the understanding of formal Japanese (敬語, keigo) is often times a necessity for the foreigner to establish sound communication between his/her coworkers in any environment.
First off, what does Keigo consist of? Keigo is primarily divided into two parts: 尊敬語 (sonkeigo) and 謙譲語 (kenjougo). Roughly translated, these words mean “respectable language” and “humble language” respectively. Both forms are distinct from each other. Sonkeigo deals with matters concerning other people (it elevates their status in a way that makes them respectable) while Kenjougo deals with matters concerning yourself (it lowers your status in a way that makes you humble). Strictly speaking, you should never use sonkeigo to talk about yourself, nor should you use kenjougo to talk about others. Due to the dynamic nature of spoken communication, even native speakers get this wrong from time to time, so don’t be afraid to practice this and make mistakes.
According to the chart shown above, the left most corner is “teineigo”, which is what people normally use to strangers or coworkers without sounding too formal. This includes the “-masu” forms, and is usually the first forms people learn when learning Japanese for the first time.
In keigo, words are conjugated into different forms, as shown in the chart. In order to master conjugation of keigo, knowledge of the noun form of verbs is necessary. For example, the noun form of “はなす” is “はなし”. An easy way to remember this is the verb’s -masu form, minus the -masu itself. Category 3 verbs (-suru verbs) are not conjugated into noun forms in keigo. Keep in mind, however, that not all verbs are conjugated the exact same way, as you might have noticed from the chart. “行く” is not conjugated to “行き” in any of the forms, but instead “まいる、うかがう” in Kenjougo, and “いらっしゃる” in Sonkeigo.
Next is the addition of “お” and “ご” to the beginning of each word (called 美化語). Generally speaking, category 1 and 2 verbs start with “お” whereas -suru verbs mostly start with “ご”. You might have heard of “ご協力” and “おあずかりします”.
Finally is the addition of “なる” or “する” depending on the forms (なる for Kenjougo and する for Sonkeigo).
In the end, the basic conjugation is usually お/ご + 動詞 (verb) + する/なる
Keep in mind, however, that there are a lot of irregular forms in Keigo, some of which you may have already heard of that are common. For example, you might have heard of the phrases “ごらんください” or “ごぞんじますか” before.
How does one practice Keigo? For many Japanese people, it takes a lifetime to master Keigo, so this is already a daunting fact for foreigners. Keigo is best practiced verbally, but you can also learn a lot from listening. If you net yourself a part time job at any establishment that requires communication between you and customers, then you will usually learn basic Keigo words and phrases from the staff members. However, as implied earlier, the best practice for Keigo is usually through experience and constant learning. Soon enough, phone calls that you used to find undecipherable due to Keigo may seem like normal to you.