Ask Japanese speakers on the street today if they know what keigo is, and the answer will be a resounding yes. A hundred years ago, the response is more likely to have been no, or at the very least, “What?” The word “keigo” was invented by Meiji scholars to describe something that presumably already existed but had never been named. Along with that naming came keigo ideology. In some sense keigo is a modern construct that serves an important ideological function. Its contemporary identity is a product of historical processes that begin in what I call the “Big Bang” of keigo ideology: kokugo seisaku ‘language policy’, which began with the Kokugo Chôsa Iinkai of 1902.
If keigo ideology did not exist before Meiji, how did it come to exist today? What was the cloud of raw materials out of which it formed? What stages has it passed through? How is its contemporary shape different from the primordial mass from which it emanated? And how did it happen that the primordial mass has passed from a timeless state of perfection to a state of decline?
If one presses modern Japanese speakers to talk a little more about keigo, they will probably indicate that it is an important component of what it means to function as an adult in society, that they wish they could use it more skillfully, or that they wish the younger generation could use it more skillfully–that keigo today is midarete iru ‘in a state of disarray’. They will talk about keigo in terms of the social fabric within which it functions. Their views are echoed and elaborated in a self-help, “how-to” genre. Keigo how-to takes its place alongside other kinds of Japanese how-to, and makes use of the same images, the same constructs, and the same view of the Japanese cultural landscape as do other kinds of how-to in Japan.