Knowing How to Use vs. Knowing About Keigo

Information presented in the how-to industry confirms that the formal grammar of keigo [‘polite language’] itself is not the central issue for Japanese speakers. Of much greater interest are situations associated with keigo or that call for particular language. In the classes I took at the hanashikata-kyōshitsu [‘how-to-speak classroom’] formal instruction was kept to a minimum. Even when it was included, its function seemed to be as much to lend credibility to the enterprise as to teach. When our formal knowledge was tested in the hanashikata-kyōshitsu, the results frequently brought me up short. As we sat through numerous keigo quizzes, I noticed that a friend, a woman in her thirties, was consistently befuddled when asked to provide, for example, the honorific (sonkeigo) form of iu [‘say’] (ossharu); the humble kenjōgo form for iku ‘go’ (mairu); or the error in Okyaku-sama no onamae wa nan to mōsararemasu ka? ‘What do you say your name is?’ (Mōsararemasu is incorrect because it is an honorific inflection [-araremasu] attached to a humble verb [mōs-u].)

These were tasks that I, as a language student and a linguist, found eminently reasonable and even comforting. But for most of those around me, including my friend, appeared to find such tasks frustrating and artificial. They exhibited consternation at the analysis of language. But at the same time, I never heard my friend err in any of her conversations with our instructors. She may have lacked the confidence in or been suspicious of what educational psychologists term her “declarative” knowledge of Japanese, but she was far from inept in her “procedural” know-how. She just used common sense—and apparently took comfort in the instructor’s excursus on the importance of correct keigo. What she lacked, in my estimation, was confidence in her own ability to apply her common sense to heretofore unknown situations. So to the extent that the hanashikata-kyōshitsu class expanded its participants’ horizons, it served an educational purpose. But from the relational perspective, the proffered advice of how-to does not serve actually to instruct consumers in using language. Rather, it lays out familiar (to the insider) contexts that serve as frames for keigo usage that speakers may not have seen or heard before.

This is surely one way in which native speakers differ from non-natives, as I had demonstrated to me again and again. One aspect of the hanashikata-kyōshitsu that I found instructive was the constellation of contexts and other phenomena that came together in the course of a class—naturally for the Japanese participants, in edifying fashion for me. One example of this was the six-week class called shikaisha yōsei senka ‘training for emcees’. A shikaisha in Japan is the person who chairs the PTA meeting, operates as master of ceremonies at weddings, or in general runs the social event. We were given specific training for weddings and business meetings, but we also did a unit on running outings for work associates. In our case, because it was May, and spring was upon us, we elected to role-play a get-together at a park to engage in hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). I learned that for such get-togethers there are secondary roles that had to be filled, for which the shikaisha was ultimately responsible: the person who made the reservation, the “treasurer” who collected each participant’s contribution, the person who acted as uketsuke ‘receptionist’ for the event. There was also an agreed-upon progression for the event itself, where each person was given a chance to speak in front of the group. Each of us was expected to practice and gain control of the language forms associated with our role. My colleagues were already inculcated in the roles, as well as in the secondary basic communicative practices (who did what when). Keigo emerged as just one aspect of the whole package of what it meant to be a shikaisha.

Such conflation of language and the real world is not unique to Japan.

SOURCE: Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present, by Patricia J. Wetzel (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 99-100

If only foreign languages were taught in Japan in the same way as keigo, that is, as an instrument of social interaction rather than as a body of facts to be memorized and tested on.

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