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Politeness levels in business Japanese

The Japanese are considered to be among the politest of peoples, and that is particularly true when it comes to business communication. Japan has precise and sophisticated hierarchical systems, complete with a special language of politeness, keigo (けいご, 敬語), which includes speech patterns, nonverbal cues and even where a person is seated at a table.

This post is by Rochelle Kopp, a Japanese business culture expert and cross-cultural communication specialist from Japan Intercultural Consulting.

Keigo speech patterns are determined by the relative status of the speaker, the listener and the persons spoken about. By contrast, American English is built on the values of fairness and social equality. It has no specific structural tools for communicating between hierarchical levels.

Keigo in Japanese business

Keigo is used much more often in Japanese business settings than it is in everyday life. It is not uncommon for companies to spend time teaching the nuances of keigo to new hires, who are freshly-graduated from university and who have had relatively keigo-free lives up to then. Even Japanese make mistakes in unfamiliar keigo, such as switching direction and addressing honorifics to themselves and using humble expressions for their customers. Or they invent their own convoluted and incorrect keigo expressions.

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Most companies have their own in-house training programs to teach their own preferred keigo expressions. Other companies send employees to one of several keigo programs which are springing up around the country.

Here are some common Japanese business phrases which you’ll find useful in a professional setting.

Formal greetings in Japanese

Greetings are an important part of the Japanese language and culture in general, and particularly so in business. One important business greeting is itsumo osewa ni natte orimasu (いつもおせわになっております, いつもお世話になっております) ”Thank you for your patronage”. It is also sometimes said by customers to suppliers, in the sense of “Thank you for your support,” or “Thank you for your work.”

Many companies use itsumo osewa ni natte orimasu in internal email correspondence. It is used both from subordinate to superior and vice versa. This expression is very useful to know and use, and is never out of place. The slangy osewasama desu (おせわさまです, お世話様です) sounds tacky and should be avoided.

Similarly, you cannot go wrong with yoroshiku onegai itashimasu (よろしくおねがいいたします,よろしくお願いいたします). From a subordinate to a superior it means “Thank you very much” or “I am looking forward to working with you.” From a superior to a subordinate it means “Thanks in advance for your cooperation.”

Communicating with customers

One important aspect of keigo is using humble terms to refer to yourself or your in-group. Thus, there are different terms for referring to your own company and for your customer’s company. Onsha (おんしゃ, 御社) is what you call their company when you talk to your customer. Heisha (へいしゃ, 弊社) is what you call you call your company when you talk to your customer.

Expressing a different opinion

In most cases, Americans are comfortable with stating different or negative opinions. They have no trouble saying “I don’t think that will work” or “I think it is a bad idea.” Japanese tend to be more circumspect, particularly when it comes to customers or people higher in the hierarchy.

Here is a list of expressions indicating a negative opinion, in order from most polite to least polite:

Chotto kentoshite kara de yoroshii deshooka (ちょっとけんとうしてからでよろしいでしょうか, ちょっと検討してからでよろしいでしょうか) “Would it be all right if we gave an opinion after we studied it a little more?”

Chotto muzukashii yo na ki ga shimasu (ちょっとむずかしいようなきがします, ちょっとむずかしいようなきがします) “We have the feeling that it would be difficult.” In this case, muzukashii “difficult” actually means “It is muri (むり) “impossible.”

Domo umaku ikanai to omoimasu (どうもうまくいかないとおもいます, どうもうまくいかないと思います) “We don’t think it will work out well.”
Zettai dame da (ぜったいだめだ) “It is absolutely no good.”
Sonna bakana! (そんなばかな, そんな馬鹿な) “How idiotic!”

Less care is taken when speaking to subordinates

When we think about keigo, we usually think of the polite speech directed to superiors. The flip side of the coin is communication to subordinates. Here is where Japanese get permission to speak with unvarnished directness. Depending on the culture of the organization, Japanese bosses can be rather harsh in their communication style.

Take for example the Japanese productivity expert who had been invited by a U.S. company to do gemba kaizen (げんばかいぜん, 現場改善) exercises for improving the operations on the factory floor. The sensei wasted no time telling the U.S. factory workers exactly what he thought of them and their ideas. Omae wa baka da yo, baka! (おまえはばかだよう、ばか!, お前は馬鹿だよう、馬鹿!) “You are an idiot, an idiot!”

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His speech was so direct that the interpreter knew that she could not interpret his exact words or there would be big trouble in the factory. But aren’t the Japanese more polite than Americans? In general, yes. Japanese have the ability to be very tactful. However, there are those like the sensei who feel that their higher rank gives them license to be very direct.

Japanese has many levels of politeness depending on the circumstances. There is a time for muzukashii and there is a time for baka. Learn the basics of keigo and then learn the communication styles within your organization.

To make sure you know how to communicate effectively in a Japanese organisation, check out this tool 👇

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