2002年12月13日 金曜日

Power of Keigo

by Justin Hall


The words for "broken" and "awkward position" in Japanese sound quite similar to my still-untrained ear. Fitting, since my computer is broken and I'm in an awkward position.

After eighteen months of excellent working together closely, typically travelling with a slender laptop slung over my back in a small bag, a narrow crack in the plastic around the screen turned into a major hole at the hinge that separate the monitor from the keyboard, and kept my laptop from closing. I'd already sealed the hole with duct-tape, but further repairs of this sort threatened only to postpone and not prevent total disintegration of the structural integrity of my computing chassis.

I paid extra for an IBM because I like their design and keyboards and their computers seem robust. And somehow I ended up with a three year warranty. Since I haven't dropped my computer in a number of weeks, and I haven't stepped on it in years, I figured my regular (if quite rigorous) use of my Thinkpad had resulted in some hardware injury, just the type of thing that should be covered by something like a "warranty."

Cross-Cultural Convincing

This was difficult to explain to a shifting mix of polite, English-speaking lady phone operators, their silent unseen managers who communicate only when I'm on hold, and the gruff male Japanese-only support technicians. In essence, the decision rested with people speaking rapidly and firmly in a language I didn't understand, and could not at all appreciate my personal entreaties and beseeching soliloquies on consumer rights.

In a moment of desperation I asked Jane to help me, to translate. She wisely suggested I ask someone at the front desk of the Correspondents' Club. I was lucky to find my old friend working there, a quite proper young lady with elegant bearing and lighthearted demeanor, a friend I could ask to take up my cause. I had forgotten, she is proficient in the use of "keigo" - as she spoke to the man on the phone I could just hear thick politesse smoothed over like pigment-rich pink paint from a sable brush, covering my broken plastic screen with kind tidings and respect for all parties. I didn't understand much of what she said except that it was extremely elegantly stated, a bit like what all the announcements say in the subway stops, begging your pardon for your long wait of two minutes for the next train which is humbly coming. But her speech was in context and on my behalf and as I saw her cross-out the "40,000" yen figure I had been quoted for my repair bill, I nearly cried to see her working her skill and talent on my behalf. She gave me the thumbs up and after she hung up she smiled as said, "You owe me, Mister Hall."

I did hear her use the phrase "Hall-sama" - that's like calling me the "Right Reverend Doctor Hall, Esquire PhD" or something, something too reverent. I mean I'm a pimply dilettante with a modified mohawk who doesn't know how to properly handle his tools. I asked my friend at the club, "How did you convince him to fix my computer for free?" She replied, with her wry but wide smile, and unsettlingly earnest tones, "I explained that you are a kind, intelligent, hard-working journalist who needs his computer."

Jane later pointed out that in the United States, I might have resorted to escalation or strict reading of policy or something more litigious-like in resolving the case (if I couldn't win by personally connecting with, or winning over, the tech-support person). But this small [insignificant] battle for consumer rights was won by nuance, personal vouching, having another person, a Japanese-versed friend use polite language to elevate me (over the phone!) to the status of someone worth helping out and forgiving this charge. In the midst of my profuse thanks, my friend at the club advised me that if Mr. IBM technician calls my mobile phone, I should be nice and thankful to him because this is a special case. A special case indeed.

Magic Language?

Brought on by magic language! Incantations! Words with power! As a writer and communicator, this appeals to me. I want to learn some. I've started using a slight bit of fancy language when asking for directions: "[thing] wa, gozonji desu ka?" which I remember from the Ikkyu shrine in Kyoto; there the proprietess asked me something, "gozonji desu ka?" and I didn't understand, finally she reduced her distanced politeness to a common way of saying "do you know?" in Japanese and I realized I had missed out on some extensive elevated language; artful play perhaps.

My friends in Japan laugh when I use these pretty words, because they are incongruous coming from my otherwise messy mouth. These words probably come readily to me since I hear them so much, on the train, on-hold on the phone, in service situations. I don't have regular interactions with Japanese peers in Japanese as often as I hear "please revered guest, bear this interminable two minute wait." My understanding of Japanese isn't good enough to discern all the varying levels of politesse, but I can tell that these people aren't speaking casually, or plainly.

language uniform

Keigo is a legacy of class stratification, a holdover from a time when people were born into specific roles and places in Japanese society. A clear marker of your place in that system was your spoken language, and the way people addressed you. For work, many people in Japan not only have to put on clothing uniforms, but clear and distinct language uniforms as well.

Maybe I should feel sad that these folks are keeping me at a linguistic distance, fixing me in place as a visitor to their department store. But these days I'm still just tickled to be spoken to so politely, and astonished at the potency such specific forms of human address hold here in Japan.

Keigo is a language that explicitly confers social power. I guess it was nice when some of that social power was used on my behalf. Still, it does sound pretty, to take so much longer to say simple things; I wonder if some of the beauty and reverence of keigo can be kept if fixed social roles and hierarchies in Japan break down.

Some Keigo Links
- The old man and the tree
- Do You Know How to Use "Keigo"?

Posted by Justin Hall at 2002年12月13日 17:30


it seems that, in the 'States, formal language is almost the wrong way to go to get things done - when i talk to a customer service rep on the phone, i try to make the personal connection, to turn on the charm, in the hope that i will be that one guy who wasn't a jerk to that rep today, and they will thank me by providing extra-special service. for the most part it works, or at least sets a contrast for later (repeated) calls that might be more confrontational. the personal, informal connection treats the service provider like a human being, which in cold-call American culture can often be forgotten. it would be an interesting experiment to try and use hyper-formalism instead - would it prove un-nerving, or just sound silly?

2- Gen


Great article!

I'm learning a bit of keigo myself as I'm going to need it next year. I've been told that keigo isn't learned even by the Japanese themselves until the end of college and then more seriously once they begin their training at work. So it's definitely not a natural part of the language in the sense that it is not colloquial.

I have pretty strong feelings about keigo in general, but I do understand it's importance in Japanese culture. My main issue with it is that it further enforces stereotypes associated with age over talent/experience/etc.

I have a bunch more thoughts on this that are unstructured so I'll just leave it at that for now. Keigo is important in Japan, so it's good to know. I'm not comfortable with the ideals behind it, but that's more my issue than anyone else's :)

3- Gen

I'm learning a bit more about keigo. Please correct me if I'm mistaken but-

There are 3 different aspects to keigo:
1) sonkeigo: respectful speech (used for superiors)
2) kenjougo: humble speech (used for the self)
3) teineigo: polite speech (used for politeness on behalf of whoever's listening)

More stuff on keigo <a href="http://ilc2.doshisha.ac.jp/users/kkitao/class/meta/1999s/wakamatsu.htm">here </a>and <a href="http://www.tokujo.ac.jp/Tanaka/WWW97/Hello6/fumiko.html">here</a>

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