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Vocab refresh part 4: Japanese etiquette

What’s the difference between sonkeigo and teineigo? Who’s considered uchi and who’s soto? What on earth is manual keigo?

When you’re new to learning Japanese, or a foreign language in general, one of the surprising hurdles to overcome is the jargon… in your own language! So many technical terms are thrown around flippantly and rarely explained outright that it’s easy to get lost.

This series serves as a basic introduction to some terms that you’re bound to meet on your journey towards Japanese fluency. This isn’t an exhaustive vocabulary list but rather a primer on a few terms that you might find difficult to wrap your head around as a beginner.

We’ve started with Japanese writing, grammar and pronunciation, and this time we’ll look at Japanese etiquette.

  1. Japanese writing vocab refresh
  2. Japanese grammar vocab refresh
  3. Japanese pronunciation vocab refresh
  4. Japanese etiquette vocab refresh

Politeness levels in Japanese

In Japanese, words are chosen according to the relative status of the speaker, and the listener or the person being referred to.

Each type of speech has its own vocabulary and verb endings and while you don’t have to know how to use all of the different honorifics, you must at least learn to understand them as you will frequently meet them in day-to-day life, and need them to understand what you are told by shop clerks or in similar situations.

Keigo (敬語) is the general term for honorifics in the Japanese language, which can be further classified into three main categories: sonkeigo (尊敬語), respectful language; kenjōgo (謙譲語), humble language; and teineigo (丁寧語), polite language.

The former are the so called ‘referent honorifics’ and are used to show respect for the person being talked about. The last is an ‘addressee honorifics,’ used to show respect for the listener.


Sonkeigo are deferential expressions used to describe the listener or a person being referred to—generally classified as soto (outsider), or superior to the speaker—, things connected with that person, and his or her actions, in a way to show respect to that person.


Kenjōgo are humble expression in which the speaker humbles himself and belittles his actions to show respect to the listener or the person being referred to.


Teineigo are polite expression with which the speaker conveys politeness directly to the listener. In fact, you have met and learned most teineigo in the previous chapters.

For example, the formal copula です and verb ending ~masu, which you may have met are classified as teineigo. This language category is what you will use in most conversations, unless you are speaking to close friends or family members (classified as uchi, insider).

Manual keigo

When new employees, and especially young part-timers with little experience with honorifics join a convenience-store or a fast-food chain, they are often issued training manuals with nonstandard formulas for use when addressing a customer.

This controversial form of honorifics is called manual keigo (マニュアル敬語), or part-timer’s keigo (バイト敬語), and is opposed by language purists who believe that it is impolite, and detrimental to the usual keigo.

Some example differences between keigo and manual keigo are the abuse of the honorific prefixes お and ご, substitution of several distinct keigo expressions with a single one, and a simply incorrect use of expressions.

You can learn more about keigo in our Japanese textbook.

What terms do you struggle with?

I hope this brief glossary has shed a little light onto some potentially confusing topics.

Are there any other terms related to the Japanese language that either currently confuse you or have confused you in the past? Let us know in the comments!

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