Unlike most European languages, Japanese has 3 main formalized levels of formality when it comes to language. That means learners have a lot of options for how polite to be—and how formal and informal people will be to you! Politeness in Japanese also impacts more than just pronouns. Here's how politeness and formality work in Japanese!
The different levels of politeness in Japanese
There are three "levels" of politeness in Japanese: casual, polite, and very polite. Who you use each style with depends on a combination of age and social standing for both yourself and the person you're talking to (or talking about). Here are the basics for the 3 levels of politeness:
Casual speech is used between family and close friends or if people agree to switch to casual speech (and in your head, when talking to yourself!). It can also be used when older people or people with higher status speak to younger people or someone with lower social standing. (In this case, the older/higher status person has the choice between casual or polite speech.)
- Who uses it: A teacher uses casual speech with their students, and siblings use casual speech with each other.
- How it sounds: In casual speech, you'll use contractions, slang, and plain verb endings (like -u or -ru instead of -masu).
Polite speech is generally used between people who are not very close, like colleagues or acquaintances. It's also used by younger people to talk to older people or those in authority. Often, strangers of the same age or social standing start off with the polite register and might shift to casual speech once they're more comfortable with each other. Normally one person explicitly says it's ok to switch to casual or asks the other person if it’s okay to switch.
- Who uses it: An employee uses polite speech to talk to their manager, and a student uses polite speech to talk to a teacher. (Note: The older person or one in an authority position can use either polite or casual speech in response!)
- How it sounds: In polite speech, you'll use です (desu) and ます (masu) endings and their respective conjugations attached to nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
Very polite speech
Very polite speech is used in business contexts, the service industry, and other formal environments.
- Who uses it: A restaurant server talking to a customer.
- How it sounds: In very polite speech you'll use special verb endings like -gozaimasu, -orimasu, and itadakimasu (which means that very polite speech has really long verbs!). There are also some special words used in very polite speech, including nouns that begin with politeness-enhancing prefixes お (o-) or ご (go-).
Ways of addressing people in Japanese
As you can see, the level of politeness you use with someone affects verb endings, sentence particles, and even sometimes which word you use! There are also different ways of addressing someone depending on your relationship to them:
Japanese honorifics are special endings attached to names to show respect or indicate the nature of the person's relationship. Honorifics can be added to a last name, first name, or full name. The most common are:
- さん (-san). This is the most common honorific, and it's safe and polite to use with most people. It has a similar feel to "Mr." and "Mrs." in English, but it's also often used in everyday situations—even classmates might use it with each other in casual speech!
- 様/さま (-sama). This is a respectful honorific used with clients, customers, esteemed guests, or anyone else you're showing special respect towards. (It can also be used sarcastically!)
- ちゃん (-chan). This is an affectionate and casual honorific often used for girls and women. Someone who’s very close to a boy or man might use -chan for him, too!
- くん (-kun). This casual honorific is often used with male names to show closeness or between a mentor and mentee (regardless of gender).
Names and titles
In general you'll always use an honorific or title to refer to someone, instead of using their first name alone. Using first names is pretty rare outside of family or very close friends and romantic partners! (In fact, it's a common cliché in romance fiction to have a moment where a couple begins calling each other by their first names 💘)
One way to address someone directly is to use a title instead of their name, and these can also be attached to the end of a name as an honorific! Here are 2 common titles:
- 先輩 (senpai). This title is for peers and is very common in school and work environments for people who have been there longer than you (like students in a higher grade or someone with more work experience who isn't your boss). It can also be used outside of school and work contexts, like if someone has been battling monsters longer than you have!
- 先生 (sensei). This title is for teachers, doctors, and artistic professions, like manga artists!
Most people use names or titles instead of a second person pronoun for talking directly to someone. (In English, our second person pronoun is "you.") Generally, second person pronouns can be interpreted as rude, and if it's very clear who you are talking to, you don't need to use any pronoun at all! But Japanese also has different pronouns you can use in certain scenarios, and they give a glimpse into the relationships at play:
- あなた (anata). While a common translation for the English “you,” it’s much less common to use because you are basically referring to someone without using their name or title—which can be almost as rude as going “Hey, you!” in English. There may be specific situations where it’s more okay to use, but that’s a story for another time! (Interested in learning more? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
- お前/オマエ (omae). This is a word you might use to speak directly to a close friend (like saying "dude"), but it sounds rude when said to strangers, people older than you, or people in authority. Think of how in English we can say "buddy" in a condescending way to someone we're not close to! You’ll often see this “rudeness” used in film, television, or real life arguments.
- 君 (kimi). This pronoun is a gentler way to say "you," and it can be used in polite speech. However, it can sound condescending if it's said by someone who isn't older or an authority figure. Kimi is often used to mean “you” in the titles of fiction or songs, like in the anime film *Your Name* 君の名は( Kimi no Na wa).
- ⚠️⚔️⚠️ てめえ (temee) and 貴様/キサマ (kisama). These are rude pronouns only for use with your arch nemesis in a sword battle!
Where to find politeness examples in anime
Watching anime is a great way to practice Japanese because the relationships between characters are so important to storylines—so you'll find lots of examples of different levels of formality! Here are just a few:
- Spy x Family. In this anime, a spy (Loid), an assassin (Yor), and a psychic (Anya) disguise themselves as a family, so how they talk to each other in public is very different from their private conversations! Loid speaks casually in public with Yor to pretend they’re married but keeps some distance in private by using polite language. Yor takes politeness to the extreme by speaking politely not only to her fake daughter Anya (who is much younger than Yor), but even to her own younger brother and when she talks in monologues.
- Bocchi the Rock. There are lots of politeness dynamics to look for in the main rock band in Bocchi the Rock! Hitori and Kita are schoolmates the same age, and so Kita uses casual language towards Hitori to be friendly—but Hitori still uses polite language to keep some distance because she is extremely socially anxious and would be uncomfortable speaking casually. Nijika and Ryou are already close friends and are older than both Hitori and Kita, so Nijika and Ryou use casual language with everyone.
- Kaguya-sama: Love is War. In this anime, Kaguya is the vice president of the student council at a fancy private school and always addresses the student council president, Miyuki, with the title 会長 (kaichou), meaning "President." She generally uses polite language even with friends who are younger than her, giving an air of cold distance or elegance.
Show some respect—with the right level of politeness!
Learners can use the different kinds of formality in Japanese as a way to learn more about Japanese culture and relationships between people, and watching Japanese TV and movies is a fun way to see the politeness levels in action!