“I find it really hard to remember keigo.”

There are many websites that cover the basics of keigo and special vocabulary, but I find not many that give a clear rule on when to use which keigo in different situations, and very many people with questions and confusions. I myself have these same confusions and in my research came up with the following rules and situational examples.

If you need a recap on kenjougo (humble Japanese) and sonkeigo (respectful Japanese) you can do so here:
Keigo I – Sonkeigo
Keigo II – Kenjougo

When Should You Use Keigo?

Politeness Levels

First of all it’s important to know the levels of politeness, but as a general rule if the sentence is longer the more formal it is. Similar to English when you ask for things from “Can I have a cookie?” to “Could I please have a cookie?” to “Would you mind terribly if I had a cookie?”.

Here is a great chart from wikipedia that shows you the various different levels:


informal polite formal polite formal (keigo)
kore wa hon da.
kore wa hon desu.
kore wa hon de aru.
kore wa hon de gozaimasu.

When to Use Keigo 

Keigo is a matter of understanding “inside” (うち) and “outside” (そと) relationships.

As I mentioned in the last posts kenjougo (humble) is used when you’re talking to someone higher than yourself but you’re talking about yourself. Sonkeigo (respectful) is when you’re talking to someone higher than you but about them.

So what happens when you’re talking to someone higher than yourself but about their child? A child would technically be lower ranking. Or if you were talking to a customer about people in your own company? This is where you have to realise who is “inside” the group and who is “outside” it.

When talking about people “inside” your group you would use kenjougo (humble), and for those “outside” you would use sonkeigo (respectful).

So when you talk about your bosses child you would use sonkeigo. Although a child is ‘lower ranking’ than you, they are within your bosses group and outside your own. When you talk to a customer about people in your company you would use kenjougo even if those people are higher ranked than you in your company. This is because your company is part of your group, and your customer is outside. You would humble your own company and respect the customer.

For example:

I am talking to my boss/teacher about myself and what I did at the weekend (kenjougo)

I then ask my boss/teacher about their weekend (sonkeigo)

I tell my boss/teacher about something my classmate/co-worker did (kenjougo – because although we are the same status they are part of “my group”)

I ask my boss/teacher how their child is (sonkeigo – because although a child is lower status than me, they are part of my superior’s family and therefore “inside their group”)

I am a receptionist on telling a customer that the president is not here (kenjougo)

I am a customer asking the receptionist to ask him to ring me back (kenjougo – because I am requesting they doing something for me)

Using Keigo soto uchi

There are many situations where this would merge together and often you have to go with your instinct. If you first arrived at a company you would humble yourself when you introduce yourself, and use keigo when speaking to people you’re meeting for the first time. As you got used to the job and the people you would use the causual sonkeigo (passive form) discussed in the first post so that you’re being formal with your colleagues but not so formal that you’re distancing yourself from them.

If you go to a school in Japan you would use keigo when talking to your teachers, and sonkeigo when you’re talking about them to other people, even students.

When I was at a meeting in Japan I notice the Japanese co-workers talked to each other in casual sonkeigo, and used kenjougo and sonkeigo with their bosses.


I think this is what makes keigo tricky and many Japanese people can’t even use it correctly all the time! I do get annoyed when people say that foreigners don’t need to worry about learning keigo but if you want to learn how to use it correctly then why not!? Sometimes if you get stuck you should ask a native Japanese person who might have a better idea than you.

Lang-8.com is great for this as you can practice and ask questions and native people will correct them. Especially good if you’re preparing for a presentation or speaking exam.

If you’re in Japan working or studying it’s also helpful to watch other, how they act and talk in certain situations (try and make some notes because you might forget what they’ve done/said later on). Otherwise, you could watch some anime where certain characters would use keigo normally, or certain situations where people would use keigo.

It’s a matter of practice, watching and learning.