Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The expression of respect in the Japanese media: A first look

Manfred B. Sellner (University of Salzburg, Austria)



This paper explores the use of "honorific language" in reports on the Japanese imperial family in three Japanese internet newspapers. The analysis is conducted against the background of the sociolinguistic discussion on disorder, decay or problematic change in the Japanese language. It illustrates that the use of respect forms in these newspapers differs in spite of the norm-oriented inclination of an active segment of the Japanese society toward matters of language. It is proposed that the disregard for "authoritative guidance" by some media companies may be the linguistic answer to the changing perception of "authority" in Japanese culture.


The phenomenon known as "keigo" is a cover term in Japanese sociolinguistics that is often rendered as "honorifics", "honorific language", "linguistic politeness and formality", "polite language forms and style, but also as "linguistic etiquette" or just "polite language", and the more in English language publications. As such keigo is a topic that has received considerable scholarly attention in the Japanese kokugo -paradigm ("traditional Japanese grammar tradition"), as well as in the tradition of "politeness research" that originated in the aftermath of the publication of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) "universal" framework for the analysis of politeness phenomena.(1) These two approaches to the scholarly study "linguistic politeness" are independently boosted by the vivid interest of the Japanese lay(wo)man in the Japanese language in general and his/her concern for correct language (use) in particular.(2) As keigo is often regarded as a linguistic feature that is "unique to the Japanese language", that is difficult and complicated, but at the same time "necessary for Japanese culture", it is not surprising that keigo occupies a prominent place in native discourses on gengo seikatsu (lit.: "language life"). On top of this, the topic of keigo is often brought up against the background of "social norms" and the need to conform to them.(3) Violations and change of norms, or even departure from norms of the non-linguistic, but especially of the linguistic domain can thus result in harsh criticism and heated debate. This means that linguistic change, and especially change in keigo, is seen as an indication of language disorder, confusion, chaos and decay. In Japanese, this phenomenon is then a matter of midare ("disarray’).(4) Aiming to illustrate such an "unwanted phenomenon", this paper attempts to show that there is significant variation in the use of Japanese keigo in (internet)-newspapers in reports on the activities of the Imperial Family. This is more than surprising, as there exist "keigo-norms" spelled out in guidelines and models of keigo -use. Towards this aim, I shall first briefly depict the Japanese interest in "correct language" and will then illustrate it with examples from a so-called "how to do book" for "problematic Japanese". Then, I will bring up some relevant aspects of the guidelines issued by the National Council of Language for "keigo for the "democratic age" following WWII. Then I will present a brief sketch of the relevant kinds of keigo before examining the use of keigo in reports on the Emperor and his family in 3 internet-newspapers. This corpus analysis will show that there is indeed remarkable variation in keigo -usage "for" the emperor and his family to raise the question, if the use of keigo shall be added to the catalogue of those phenomena of the Japanese language that are listed as being in a state of confusion, and thus a matter of midare.(5) The proper use of keigo in everyday life is acknowledged to be a tricky, but at the same time as a defining element of the Japanese language.(6) Therefore "How-to-Books" on keigo and courses on the use of keigo for the interested public are thriving, as the want to be able "to speak and write Japanese correctly" is strong and continues unabated, because the linguistic control of keigo is a sign of education, culture, and "level of Japaneseness" of a member of the society.(7) It follows that there is a constant thirst for the explication of (linguistic) norms of "right" and "wrong". In case you are not sure of the validity of your judgement, or even cannot pass judgement on a certain aspect of Japanese, you will ask an expert for advice. It is thus not surprising that this "norm consciousness" on the part of many Japanese and their concomitant willingness to adhere to an idealized norm acts as an impetus for many Japanese to look for answers to the question of "what is correct?" and "what is not correct?" in the Japanese language. This situation creates a demand for answers that many publishing companies are quite willing to satisfy. They do this by inviting the linguistically interested public to come forth with questions "on linguistic matters" in exchange for an authoritative, competent and decisive answer on a particular language problem. The questions and the corresponding answers to these problems then get published and are so accessible to the interested public. The following examples taken from a so-called "how to book" for the Japanese language are typical of this genre in structure and style, and content:(8)

Dialogue (1)

Question: At a party the master of the ceremony said: "Please receive this memorial gift at the reception desk." (Japanese: "kinenhin-o (memorial present; object maker) uketsuke de (reception desk, locative marker) itadaite kudasai (receive/humble, please). Is this expression not strange?

Answer: Yes, this expression is wrong Japanese, because party guests are to be addressed respectfully. Thus uketsuke de o-uketori-kudasai would have been the appropriate utterance in this context. The master of ceremonies used a humble form (i.e. itadaite ) for the guests as addressee, but such a form is only appropriate in case he himself were to receive a present.(p. 56)

Dialogue (2)

Question: The other day I got an e-mail with the heading "o-renraku" Isn’t "go-renraku" the correct form? (Honorific: o, Sino-Japanese N: contact).

Answer: In principle, the rule that governs the use of honorific o - vs. the honorific go- is clear-cut. One uses the honorific prefix go- for Sino-Japanese words and o- for native Japanese words. We did a survey on this subject matter recently and found that there was indeed variation in the use of go- and o-, although most respondents still followed this in that they preferred go- in combination with the Sino-Japanese word renraku. Thus, we recommend that you use go-renraku. (pp. 80-86).

These two examples give a good impression of the kind of questions asked by people looking for advice on their linguistic problems and the kind of answer they receive. We see that there are always definite answers to concrete questions. Both questions trigger answers on the use of keigo in that the speaker of dialogue #1 is said to have confused "humble keigo" with "addresse/honorific keigo" while the question of dialogue #2 touched on the problem of the "nativization" of "Sino-Japanese" words and their incorporation into the class of "native" or "Yamato words" to set off an answer on the correct honorific prefix. Thus, if you look for a linguistic norm and "correct Japanese" at the same time, you can get an answer that will not only "deepen your understanding of Japanese", but that will provide you with clear-cut advice "on the use of words and phrases" of the Japanese language in a "how to book".(9)

Norm conscious language users do not only want to get help for their "personal" language problems, but at times also ask for information on the norm of the media to have a model of usage for their personal "language life". Thus, the "Language Handbook of the Public Broadcasting Corporation NHK" (2004 15) also provides the professional journalist, the educator and the lay(wo)man with information on its keigo -policy for their broadcasts on the activities of the Imperial Family. The relevant part in the "Question and Answer Section" of the handbook reads as follows:

Dialogue (3)

Question: I would like to know something about the norms and standards of keigo in your broadcasts

The answer provided by the editors of the handbook is as follows:

Answer: The National Language Council presented its ideas on the use of "keigo" for "the new democratic area" in its guidelines "kore kara no keigo" (Engl.: "keigo from now on) in 1952. In these guidelines, the Council expressed its view that "keigo" originated in past ages and that it thus shows more troublesome points at present than necessary. The Council there proposes to avoid excess use of keigo ‘from now on" and shows ways to correct its inadequacies. The Council also wants keigo to be simple and clear-cut to the extent possible."

After this reminder of the guidelines codified by the National Language Council in 1952, the editors of the "NHK Language Handbook" state their interpretation of the relevant linguistic norm for referring to the Imperial Family more precisely when they suggest that the norm is "to use the ‘highest keigo’ within the limits and the domain of everyday language"(p.333).(10)

It must be pointed out that the National Language Council continues the passage that is quoted in the NHK-Handbook with a critique of past usage of keigo in that it suggests that "until now, ’ keigo ’-use has been based and developed mainly on the principle of vertical social relationships", but that "’keigo’ from now on must be a matter of mutual respect based on the fundamental qualities of each individual".(11) But as NHK sets its norm "in principle" to the "highest keigo level" when reporting about the Imperial family, we have been confronted with a principle of "linguistically expressed respect" that is not the result of "individual qualities" but due to the Emperor’s post WWII function as "the symbol of the State and the unity of the people".(12)

The Japanese media are an enterprise that is regulated by norms and agreements.(13) In particular, the language used in reporting is based and restricted by general, as well as company-internal "guidelines" are to aid the journalist at the writing desk in matters of orthography, style, content, and text-structure, although the (non)- use of certain words and phrases is also a special case in point, especially when they belong to the class of "discriminatory words" (Jap.: sabetsugo ) that must not be avoided in the media. In brief, NHK, the Japanese Public Broadcasting Corporation, is accepted as an authoritative source for many aspects of broadcasting, while the the kisha handobukku (Handbook for Journalists) of the Kyōdō-News Agency supplements this function especially for the print media in providing general guidance with concrete language examples, and a special chapter on kōshitsu yōgo ("Specialized language for Imperial Household").(14) This includes a list of eight general rules for use in reports on the Imperial Family. These rules are supplemented and illustrated with words and phrases for the working journalist.

In the "Handbook for Journalists", just like in the corresponding Q&A section in the NHK-Handbook cited above, the writer is advised right at the beginning in rule #1 that "in principle" keigo, but also honorary titles ( keishō ), such as tennō ("Emperor") and tennōheika ("His Majesty the Emperor"), kōgōheika ("Her Majesty the Empress"), kōtaigō ("the Empress Dowager"), kōtaishi ("Crown Prince"), etc., are to be used in 2 nd person address and 3 rd person reference (p.585) in referring to the Imperial Family. These guidelines thus lead us to the question of "what are other elements of ‘media- keigo ’?" and "what kind of keigo ?" in addition to those "honorary titles" that are reserved for members of the Imperial Family does the kisha handobukku suggest journalists to use? To bring some light into this matter, it is first necessary to sketch the most basic tenets of those keigo -phenomena that seem relevant for the subsequent illustration of the basic rules of "media- keigo -use" and the following corpus-analysis on the use of keigo "for" the Imperial Family

If we extend our linguistic framework from a narrowly defined grammar that only includes phonology, morphology, and syntax to matters of language use in context, we enter the domain of sociolinguistics and to question of "meaning in context". In this case, we also have to pay attention to facts like those illustrated in (1a) to (1c):


tanaka san ga

shinbunsha ni

nyūsha sareta.


newspaper company-locative

entering a company-do: passive, past


tanaka san ga

shinbunsha ni

nyūsha shita.

name:honorific-subject marker

newspaper company: locative

entering a company-do:



tanaka ga

shinbunsha ni

nyūsha shiyagatta.


newspaper company: locative

entering a company-do: derogative suffix, past

Utterances (1a) - (1c) report the fact that a certain "’Tanaka’ started working for a company that is minimally involved in the collection, compilation and dissemination of information". While a competent speaker of Japanese will immediately interpret these sentence to mean this, he/she will also immediately realise that these sentences differ in their expression of respect towards the person involved and his activity. Thus, sentence (1a) expresses "respect" for "Tanaka" due to the presence of the honorific -san follows in the mention of the person’s family name and the use of the passive form of the verb suru ("do", "make") in the noun-verb combination nyūsha (noun) + suru (verb), which results following regular morphological rules of Japanese in nyūsha (noun) + sareta (verb, passive, past) in the past. Sentence (1c), on the other hand, expresses the speaker’s or writer’s disrespect. This is expressed by the addition of the inflectional form - yagaru that to shi - (do). This form is then changed to shiyagatta, if the form is used in the past. The sentence of (1b) is neutral with regard to "social meanings" of the kind expressed in (1a) and (1c). In brief, we have to be aware of the fact that there are linguistic means, such as the presence or absence of elements that belong to the linguistic class of keigo in example sentence (1a) vs. (1b), that linguistically signal the speaker’s or writer’s stance on a certain subject matter, activity or condition. Thus, to summarise the foregoing point, we can say that keigo is a phenomenon that functions to express "social meaning through linguistic means".

There are many schemes for the classification of different types of keigo, though most of them make use of, or include in some form, or other, the traditional categories of teineigo (‘polite language’), "kenjōgo" (‘humble/modest language’) and "sonkeigo" (‘honorific/respectful language’). These types of keigo are at times subsumed under the overarching category of taigu hyōgen ("expressions of consideration") and in this case supplemented contrasted with "volitional expressions", "verbs of giving and receiving" "address forms/ honorary titles, and suchlike. If the three traditional categories are subsumed under the heading of sozai hyōgen ("referential keigo -expressions") they are contrasted with taisha hyōgen ("addressee-related keigo -expressions"). In this case, sonkeigo and kenjōgo are regarded as "reference related phenomena" and contrasted with "addressee related forms".(15) Leaving classificatory elegance, clarity and complete coverage of all the forms, categories and functions involved in keigo aside, as they are far beyond the scope of this paper, let us just stress at this point that the great majority of the forms of the "vocabulary of keigo" are linguistic elements that are either suppletive in that they replace "neutral" words, or otherwise of a morphological nature in that verbs, nouns and adjectives are marked with affixes (prefixes, suffixes, inflectional forms) to express sociolinguistic notions such as respect, politeness, formality, humbleness, and the like.

As for the traditional teineigo or "polite language-paradigm" of keigo, this means that there is - to cite just some possibilities of this kind of keigo - a scale for the copula that starts out with the "neutral-form" da to "go up the scale" to the "polite" desu and the "formal" de aru and finally to the combination of "polite formal" de arimasu/de gozaimasu. As "teineigo" makes, as just illustrated, use of the copula variants da/ desu/ de aru and de arimasu/de gozaimasu, but also of the inflectional - masu form for verbs to indicate "formality" or "social distance" (f. ex. tabe-masu vs tabe-ru; to eat), teineigo -forms are sometimes referred to as desu/masu-keigo. It constitutes the typical sentence ending forms of "polite speech and writing". In addition to these morphological possibilities of teineigo, there are also suppletive variants of elements of other word categories, such as honjitsu ("today") as opposed to the colloquial kyō, or josei / onna no kata (woman) to replace the colloquial onna, ikaga ("how") to replace dō, donata ("who") to be exchanged dare, or lexicalized phrases, such as the greeting formula o-hayō-gozaimasu (lit.: it is early/idiomatic for English "Good morning!"). On top of such possibilities for the encoding of teineigo, adjectives, such as hayai can be prefixed with a "polite" o - in combination with the change of the stem to hayō. The resulting form is then and supplemented with the formal teineigo-form gozaimasu give o-hayō-gozaimasu. As the prefix o- allows the combination with nouns as well, high frequency lexemes like o-cha ("green tea"), o-tera ("buddhist temple") or o-namae ("your name"), the teineigo o- has practically merged with many lexemes.

Summarising we can record that Teineigo is regarded as the modern speech style that constitutes the rudimentary polite speech-level for most public contexts outside one’s immediate family or socially defined in-group. Teineigo- forms can and are often used in combination with sonkeigo- and kenjōgo- forms (see below), but can also be used on their own. As the "basic level of politeness" teineigo is also the typical speech-level introduced initially to the learner of Japanese as a Foreign Language.(16) Interestingly though, newspapers generally do not use desu-/masu forms for the sake of an "informal writing" style to show their "psychological closeness" to their readers. Teineigo will not concern us here any further.(17)

Kenjōgo is usually referred to as "humble language" in the English language literature on Japanese keigo. As for its linguistic expression, this means that there are special "humble verbs" and "nouns" as well as combinatory verb patterns to "lower" oneself or his/her in-group and thereby to elevate the addressee. Humble speech acts are performed against the background of the positively valued social trait of "individual or personal humbleness" in Japan. This means that kenjōgo can only be used if you are the agent of an utterance or speaking on behalf/of or referring to a member of your in-group. The typical situation often used to illustrate such a situation is one in which "a member of company X reports to a customer Y that a member of company X is not able to answer the telephone at the present moment". Also, references to your kin, such as to your father as chichi, but as otōsan (=sonkeigo) to your friend’s father are situations that normatively ask for kenjōgo. Other situations that also ask for "humble forms" are those in which the speaker expresses an action performed by himself/herself.

Table (2) illustrates some "humble/modest" verbal and nominal elements. As we see, "modesty" is expressed either with a suppletive linguistic item, or with the conjunctive form of the verb acting as a nominal element (e.g. yomu - yomi). This form is in turn supplemented with the prefix o- and then combined with the verbs suru or itasu meaning "to do" or "to make". Sino-Japanese nouns generally allow for the formation of a predicative pattern of the N+suru type. In kenjōgo, the modest variant of the N+suru pattern is supplemented with the prefix go- and combinded either with the verbs suru or itasu to complete the construction.

Neutral form

Humble form





to say, to tell, to speak



to do, to make



to ask



to go



to know



o-yomi suru/itasu

to read



go-hōkoku suru/itasu

to report

Table (2)

It follows from this principle, that company presidents, politicians, persons of high academic standards, and the like, will use humble forms when talking in public. Even the Emperor is no exception to the practice. Thus, according to the transcript of the speech given by the Emperor on the occasion of the Twenty-second Japan Prize presentation ceremony, the Emperor offered his congratulations to the Sir John Houghton and Akira Endo saying kokoro kara (lit.: form my heart) o-iwai-itashimasu (congratulate, humble). At the end of his congratulatory address he used the set phrase kotoba (words) to (connective) itashimasu (itasu (do) masu ( teineigo- form)).(18) This is a combination of a kenjōgo- and a teineigo- form to announce that the speaker is about to finish his/her speech. But, as illustrated in dialogue #4, the use of this kenjōgo- construction in combination with the innovating phrase - no hō to express modesty is not sanctioned by the language experts of "Problematic Japanese" ( Mondai-na Nihongo), as not following the traditional, prescriptive norm of "humble language constructions":

Dialogue (4)

Question: As of late, the expression "kōhi-no hō-o o-mochi-shimashita" ("I brought you the cup of coffee"/"This is your coffee") is used quite often by waiters and waitresses. Is it correct to do so?

Answer: (summarized): It is quite common to use the phrase N-no hō (in the direction of N, on the part of N, in the area of N) in contexts like o-karada-no hō-wa junchō desuka (honorific; N: body; genitive marker; in the direction/ on the part of/ in the area of; topic marker, N: normal condition; copula, question marker) ["How is your health"] as a restrained, thoughtful, indirect, but idiomatic way to ask about the interlocutor’s health [direct question: o-karada-wa junchō desuka)]. But, nowadays, phrases like "N-no hō" are used in many "family restaurants", though they seem inappropriate in contexts, in which only an order of coffee, or the like is involved, so that we advice not to use it in cases like this. (26-28).

While kenjōgo is part and parcel of Japanese keigo, it is seldom observed in internet articles on the Imperial Family, because they will not often speak of their activities in public. In addition, as we want to concentrate here on the language used by writers of texts on the Imperial Family, we restrict our attention on kenjōgo to the remarks given in the previous paragraphs.

Sonkeigo, the type of keig to show respect to "socially superior individuals" functions to elevate the agent of an action or an attribute/property associated/belonging to the agent who is either an addressee or a referent. As table (3) illustrates, sonkeigo -forms can be formed from the word categories noun, adjective and verb. As the examples in table (3) further show, the basic morphological strategy here is to add the prefixes o- and go - to nouns and o- to adjectives. As for the category of verb, sonkeigo requires the addition of the prefix o- and the addition of - ni naru to the conjunctive form of the verb. On top of this so-called "ni naru -strategy", there is also the possibility to use the passive form of the verb "to express respect". As the relevant example in table (3) illustrates, a verb like iwau (to congratulate, to celebrate) will morphologically change to iwawareru when transformed into the passive. In addition, to these morphological possibilities, there are also many suppletive forms especially for the verb, and the noun category.(19) Some of these linguistic possibilities are illustrated in table (3):

Word Category

Native Word


Sino-Japanese Loanword


neutral form

sonkeigo -form

neutral form

sonkeigo -form


















o-iwai ni naru

to celebrate, to congratulate


Verb (supp­letive)


meshi agaru

to drink,
to eat



to speak, say, tell


goran ni naru

to see


o-kaki ni naru


to write



to do, to make



to be, to come, to go

Table (3)

One of the difficulties with most of the keigo -paradigm is the fact, that many structures that function as keigo also perform other grammatical functions in Japanese. A case in point is the phrase - ni narimasu.(20) Its use with a noun was also the subject of a question to the editors of "mondai-na nihongo". Not surprisingly, the editors advise against the use of -ni narimsu in the context described in the following paragraph.(21)

Question: Are expressions of waiters or waitresses in restaurants using ni narimasu, as in kochira-wa wafūsetto ni narimasu (here-topic; Japanese-style meal, ni narimasu /"Here is your Japanese-style meal") correct?

Answer: We find that such an expression with ni narimasu at the end of the utterance is unnatural, if the phrase ni narimasu ("will become") is to express a change in the condition of a person, a thing or a situation referred to, as it will not express the meaning of "here/this is your ‘Japanese-style’ meal" in a respectful way, but that "there will be a change to your Japanese-style meal". Interestingly, there is yet an other use of ni narimasu that is most likely to be the model of the phrase in question. In utterances like kono ko-wa (this child, topic marker) sansai-ni narimasu (3 years old; has become) "This child is already three years old") we also express indirectly that you probably did not expect the child to be already three years of age. This indirectly expressed "contrary to your expectation"-meaning is probably extended in utterances of this type in meal serving situations. This usage of -ni narimasu thus is intended to express a certain amount of modesty or humility, as the waiter wants to express with such a phrase that the order he is serving might not live up to your expectations, or not have the standard, that you might have expected the meal to have. We are of the opinion, that such a use of -ni narimasu is not really necessary. (p. 30-33)

The sonkeigo -form iwawareru of table (3) also illustrates this "multi-functionality" of a morphological structure. While this form is morphologically the result of the addition of passive verb inflection to the stem iwa -, the verbal passive form is at the same time used as a keigo -form. In other words, respect for a person can also be expressed with passive verbal morphology and it is this construction and not the - ni naru construction that the kisha handobukku recommends in its guidelines of language use in connection with reports on the Imperial Family. In comparing these possibilities, the Kyodo News Agency Handbook for Journalists mentions the ni naru construction, and illustrate it with the examples o-kaki-ni naru (honorific prefix, conjunctive form: N-writing; ‘ni naru’ respect form) and o-tsuki-ni naru (honorific prefix, conjunctive form: N-arrival; ‘ni naru’ respect form), go-shusseki-ni naru (honorific prefix, N: attendance; ‘ni naru’ respect form), go-ran-ni naru (honorific prefix; N: seeing, viewing; ‘ni naru’ respect form) but suggests to express sonkeigo with passive verbal morphology "whenever possible" (p. 585). Their examples in this context are kakareru (V: kaku, passive morphology), shusseki sareru (N: participation, attendance; suru, passive morphology) and okareru (V: okuru, passive morphology) to mean "to write" and "to attend, to participate", and to "give as a present", respectively. (p. 585). Thus, the recommendation is to either use passive morphology for independent verbs and for noun-verb constructions. As is apparent on the basis of shusseki sareru, the possibility of a form like go-shusseki sareru is not recommended. This is due to yet an other keigo -guideline of the kasha-handobukku that discourages the use of "double keigo marking".

When we now look at the reports on the activities of the members of the Imperial Familiy by the Yomiuri Shinbun, we find that this recommendation is taken as the standard of reference on the activities of the emperor and his entourage. The following examples taken from the internet edition of this newspaper give ample evidence of this practice. As examples (2Y) - (4Y) unambiguously demonstrate, the activity performed by the Imperial Majesties or by the Emperor alone is reported with the passive form of the verb suru, (i. e., sareru ), in a Sino-Japanese noun+suru- type predicate. In addition, the Imperial Couple, or the Emperor himself are referred to by their Imperial
titles: (22)

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-9


tennō, kōgō ryōheika-wa


Futaba hoikuen-o

shisatsu sareta.

Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress- -topic marker


name-day nursery-object marker

visit-do (passive, past)

Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress visited the Futaba day nursery

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-9





gengaku sareta.

Their Majesties-topic marker


playing with a spinning top-object marker

watching-do (passive, past)

"Their Majesties watched (the children) playing with spinning tops"

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-27





shusseki sareta.

His Majesty, the Emperor


GORI-research meeting-locative marker

attendance-do (passive, past)

"His Majesty, the Emperor attended the GORI-research meeting"

As the following examples illustrate, the use of the passive is not restricted to Sino-Japanese noun-verb-constructions. In examples (5Y) and (6Y) the main verbs kakeru and negirau are used in the passive. It might be of interest in this context, that the context of (5Y) is an excerpt are from a report on the occasion of a farewell party at the Imperial Palace for the Japanese soccer team leaving for the 2006 Soccer World Championships in Germany.

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-16




gekirei-no kotoba-o


His Majesty, the Emperor


encouraging words-

-object marker

express/say (passive, past)

His Majesty, the Emperor wished (the team) well/good look (in their matches).

On a different occasion, the medal winning participants of the 2006 Olympic Games had the honour of an invitation to a tea party at the Imperial Palace. The Yomiuri Shinbun reports on this occasion that the Emperor and the Empress expressed their thanks to the medallists for their efforts in The Games using the verb negirau in its corresponding passive form. This example is given in (6Y). Other members of the Imperial Family, among them the Crown Prince, were also present and "chatted" with the athletes at this tea party. This "activity" is also encoded in the passive and illustrated here in passage (7Y):

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-12


tennō, kōgōryōheika-wa




Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress- topic marker


athletes-plural-object marker

thank a person for his efforts

(passive, past)

His Majesty, the Emperor thanks the athletes for their efforts (in the Games)





senshu-ra-to 40pun amari


Crown Prince-

-honorific-topic marker


athletes-plural-with; 40-minutes-about

chatting-do (passive, past)

The Crown prince chatted with the athletes for about 40 minutes.

As is seen in example (7Y) the Crown Prince (Jap.: kōtaishi ) is not only referred to by his imperial status as kōtaishi, but as kōtaishi - sama. Honorific titles, such as - kun (for young children), - san (customary honorific title for adults), - sama (most respectful honorific title), but also titles that refer to a person’s profession, or company affiliation, such as sensei (for teachers, doctors, politicians), shachō (for company presidents), hitachi -san (person working for the Hitachi-Company) belong to this group of respectful titles. Honorific titles are usually used in combination with the family name of a person (f. ex., Tanaka- san ), whereas "professional titles" can either be used with in combination with the family name in a reference context (f. ex., Tanaka- sensei ), but also in isolation when addressing or calling a person by his/her title (f. ex., sensei !). In addition, there is also the possibility to form combinations of the "Tanaka- shachō-san" or "Tanaka- shachō-sama" -type, in which the two types of honorifics are combined. The expression kōtaishi-sama is also evidenced by this type of construction.(23) In brief, honorific keigo -titles of the type discussed above are fundamental to the world of Japanese keigo. Their use is subject to sociolinguistic rules in such a way, so that there is in principle no name or form of address in public and in private possible without the addition of a honorific/professional title though possible non-use can be observed in referring or addressing convicted criminals, in situations of social conflict, or derogatory contexts.(24) Consequently, as the Imperial Family deserves "highest keigo" according to the guidelines codified by the Kyodo News Agency and the NHK Language Handbook, honorific titles of the most respectful kind are appropriate for referring to the Imperial Family. Thus, the child (i.e. princess), as well as the grand child of the Emperor and Empress will consequently be referred to as o-ko-sama (honorific prefix, child, honorific title) in the internet edition of the Yomiuri Shinbun.(25) Similarly, Princess Nori is referred to by her full title of "nori-no miya sayako-sama" before her recent wedding, but as Kuroda (family name) Sayako-san (first name, honorific) after her marriage to the commoner Kuroda Yoshiki.(26) Following this principle of linguistic etiquette, the Yomiuri Shinbun is just logically consistent when using the particular caption cited here in (8Y) under a photograph of the Crown Prince at a recent press conference. The corresponding text of (9Y) is just a stylistic variation of the preceding caption:

Date of internet edition: 2006-2-23





press conference-particle


crown prince-honorific title

Crown Prince answering (questions) at the press conference.






crown prince-honorific title-topic marker


press conference-do (passive, past)

The Crown Prince gave a press conference.

In the preceding paragraphs, I demonstrated some aspects of the possibilities of Japanese keigo. This was done against the background of the norm-conscious character of Japanese language use that disapproves of change in this, as well as other domains of language, to the effect that it is regarded as language breakdown, disorder, deterioration, decay, or as midare in Japanese.(27) As for the sociolinguistic encoding of "respect", I have tried to show with examples from the internet edition of the Yomiuri Shinbun, what kind of sonkei-go (respect language) this newspaper used in its reports on the Imperial Family. We have seen that the dominant Yomiuri-strategy has been to follow two rules that are consistent with the guidelines cited. First, there are the traditional honorific titles that are reserved for the members of the Imperial Family. This "naming strategy" for the "agents" then is supplemented with the use of the passive mood in the predicate of the sentence. This constitutes what I would like to call the "passive strategy". These two strategies comply with the guidelines of the Kyodo News Agency, as well as with general sociolinguistic thinking which stipulates that keigo is not only appropriate, but "in order" in situations of clear vertical social relationships. But contrary to this way of sociolinguistic thinking and on closer examination of a larger corpus of reports on the Imperial Family, I will show in the following sections that keigo -use is "in disarray", if we are of the opinion that the "passive strategy" in combination with the "naming strategy" constitutes the lower limit of keigo -use in media reports on the Imperial Family.

As already illustrated with data from the internet edition of the Yomiuri Shinbun, the two major strategies used in reports on the activities of the Imperial Family are what I have called the "naming strategy" (= use of honorific titles indicating the social position in the Imperial Family) together with the "passive strategy" (= use of passive mood to express respect linguistically). In the following I will show that the Mainichi Shinbun and the Asahi Shinbun restrict their use of keigo to the use of "official titles" in their respective internet-editions. This means that they will encode to the "agent of the action" or the "patient of a condition" using phrases like tennō, kōgōrōheika ("Their Majesties, the Emperor and the Empress"), Tennōheika ("The Emperor"), kōgō-sama (Her Majesty, the Empress) or kōtaishi - sama (The Crown-Prince), and the like, but will at the same time use the active verb form in favour of the "honorary verbal passive". This linguistic practise can be illustrated in reports on a reception given in honour of the participants of the 2006 Olympics in (10A) and (11A) and the Para-Olympics in (12A). As we can see, the verbs in question are the active verb forms kaketa and negiratta:

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-12




koe-o kaketa-to iu

His Majesty the Emperor


voice-object marker; speak-past; quotative particle, say-present

His Majesty the Emperor is quoted to have said that ...



kōtaishi-sama-ya kōzoku-gata-mo


senshu-tachi-o negiratta

The Crown Prince-honorific-plural marker; and-members of the Imperial Family-also

attendance-do (conjunctive form)

athletes-plural marker-object marker; to thank for efforts-past

The Crown Prince and members of the imperial Family also attended (the reception) and thanked the athletes for their efforts.

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-29



senshu-to kandan-shi

rō-o negiratta

Their Majesties


efforts/service-object marker, thank-past

Their Majesties had a pleasant chat with the athletes and thanked them for their efforts

The examples given above illustrate the strategy to use an active verb form to encode the activities performed by Imperial Family. As the text passage in (13M) and (14M) also show, the equivalent passage in the Mainichi Shinbun reporting on the reception given for medallists at the Imperial Court follows exactly the same strategy. The noun verb combination at issue here is kandan shita, whereas the the verb in question is negiratta, again. In sum we can conclude, there is no keigo in the predicate of the passages of the text:

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-29




kandan shita

His Majesty the Emperor


chat, do-past

His Majesty the Emperor chatted pleasantly with the athletes.




sugoku ganbatte yokatta ne-to

negiratta-to iu

The Emperor

very-give one’s best-good-past-particle-conjunction

make effort-past; quotative particle-say-present

The Emperor is quoted to have said "It was surely worth giving your very best" and then thanked (the athletes) for her efforts.

Similarly, upon the visit of Their Majesties to a nursery and to a school in Mai 2006, both internet editions of The Mainichi and the Asahi describe the activities of the Imperial Couple without respect forms in the predicate. They use forms like shisatsu shita ("to inspect, past"), mitemawatta ("walk around/make a round of, past") and kikyō shita (returning to Tokyo, past). As for Arbor Day, the Mainichi report of the planting of a tree by the Imperial Couple using. The newspaper does this using the same "keigo-strategy":

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-8



hoikujo-nado-o shisatsu-shite


Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress

day nursery-and such like-inspection-do (conjunctive)

make a round-past

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress inspected and walked round the day nursery and its related facilitates.

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-22




shisatsu shita.

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress


inspection, do-past

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress inspected the school.

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-22




shisatsu shita.

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress


inspection, do-past

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress inspected the school.




kikyō shita



return to Tokyo, do-past

Thereafter, (Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress) returned to Tokyo on the Shinkansen.

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-21


Tennō, kōgōryōheika-wa


shusseki shita

Their Majesties the Emperor and the Empress

Arbor Day Festival-locative marker

attendance, do-past

Their Majesties, the Emperor and the Empress attended the Arbor Day Festival.



Kōgō-sama-to tomoni,



Her Majesty, the Empress-together

tree-object marker


(His Majesty, the Emperor), planted a tree together with Her Majesty, the Empress.

As the following examples further show, the linguistic strategies used in reports on the official appearances of the Imperial Couple show little variation in style and grammar. Thus we find the same style also in situations, in which only one member of the Imperial Couple is involved. Thus, the appearance of the Empress at the Annual Convention of the Japanese Red Cross, the absence of the Crown Prince due to some illness, or even the short notice on the Empress concerning her health follow the same schema of text structure, phraseology and grammar, and expression of "respect":


Date of internet edition: 2006-5-25


Meiyosōsai-no Kōgō-sama-wa


shusseki shita

president-genitive, Her Majesty, the Empress-topic marker



Her Majesty, the Empress, Honorary President (of the Japanese Red Cross), attended (the Annual Convention of the Japanese Red Cross)

Date of internet edition: 2006-5-25


nihon sekijūjisha-no meiyosōsai-o tsutometeiru kōgō-sama-wa


shusseki shita.

Japanese Red Cross-genitive-Honorary President-object-function-Her Majesty the Empress-topic marker

Convention of the Red Cross


Her Majesty, the Empress, who functions as a Honorary President of the Japanese Red Cross attended the Convention (of the Red Cross)




taichō-o kōryō-o shi

kesseki shita

The Crown Prince-topic marker

physical condition-consideration-object-do (conjunctive form)

absence do-past

The Crown Prince, in consideration of his health, was unable to attend (the Convention)

Date of internet edition: 2006-6-2


kōgō-sama-ni kaze-nado-no shōjō-ga ari

2~3nichi kyūyōsuru-to

happyō shita

Her Majesty the Empress-dative; cold-and the like-genitive; symptoms

2~3 days-rest-do-conjunction


It is reported that Her Majesty shows symptoms of a cold, or the like, and will (therefore) take 2~3 days of rest.

Summarising the implication of these text passages against the background of sociolinguistic "norms" and "language decay" ( midare ), we have to conclude on examination of the predicate of the passages in The Asahi and The Mainichi, that there is no use of "the highest keigo" in these texts. In addition, there are no linguistic repercussions in the text passages of the Asahi and the Mainichi that are close in grammar and meaning to those often mentioned "subtle nuances of politeness and respect" and "complex grammar" that authors on keigo like to cite in their illustrations of keigo.(28) Thus, the Yomiuri, the Asahi and the Mainichi can be given credit for following the minimal norm of keigo in giving the "imperial titles" when reporting on the official appearances of members of the Imperial Family. Yet, this feature is just a special application of the general sociolinguistic rule that asks for the use of name+title or title/function of a person in contexts of reference and address.(29) In addition, the encoding of respect in the predicate is consistently practiced only by the Yomiuri Shinbun in accordance with the guidelines of the Handbook for Journalists or the NHK Language Handbook. We therefore can conclude that we are experiencing variation that is inconsistent with prevailing norms. In other words, we are faced with yet an other case of midare, if we accept the socially normative and linguistically prescriptive construct of ideas motivating the concept of midare in the first place and of keigo-midare in particular. If we do not accept this line of thinking, we have to ask ourselves, if the linguistic practice illustrated here, is the outcome of the consequent application of the guideline that keigo in a democratic age must be "a matter of mutual respect based on the fundamental qualities of each individual". Sociolinguistic parameters such as status ("social rank"), group membership, age, gender, and the like, can be seen to be in a state in flux and disregard of "established" norms and thus a matter of midare.



In this paper, I investigated the use of respect forms in the internet editions of three major Japanese daily newspapers, The Yomiuri, The Asahi and the Mainichi. In particular, I analyzed the use of sonkeigo in connection with reports on the members of the Imperial Family against the background of the debate on the idea that certain aspects of language are in disorder (Jap.: midare ). It was shown that the particular use of respect forms "for" the Imperial Family in these three newspapers not only different to a considerable extent, but that it did not always follow the norms codified by "authoritative" sources. It was concluded that "keigo -use in the media" can thus be regarded as an instance of midare ("language disarray") if the particular language use illustrated here is placed in a behavioural model that sees general change in behaviour, and especially change in linguistic behaviour as an element of decay. On the other hand, if there is a change in the attitude and perception towards persons traditionally regarded to be in higher social positions in a society of vertical structure, the encoding of "respect" will also change, unless there are (sociolinguistic) sanctions of a grave nature that will disallow this in the 21 st century.

© Manfred B. Sellner (University of Salzburg, Austria)


(1) For an overview of this aspect on keigo see Fukuda & Asato (2004) and articles cited there.

(2) Cf. Coulmas (1992:306) remark on this sociolinguistic phenomenon: "Correct language use is a matter of keen interest in Japan".

(3) According to an opinion poll conducted by NHK, Japan’s Public Broadcast Corporation, in 1996, close to 50% of the respondents in their 20s agree to the opinion that keigo is something that is ‘complicated’ and ‘confusing’ (Jap.: "wazurawashii"). At the same time, 90% of them claim to ‘pay attention’ (Jap.: ‘ki-o tsukau’) to their speech when talking to their superiors" (NHK Kotoba-no Handobukku 2004 15: 367. The editors of the NHK "handobukku" also cite a 1987 language survey, in which more than 90% of the respondents between 16-29 years of age said "’keigo’ is necessary for the Japanese" ("nihonjin-ni hitsuyō"). The editors use these results to answer the question "Will ‘keigo’ disappear in the future?" in the negative.

As for the claim of the "uniqueness" of Japanese "keigo", see, for example, the relevant sections in Miller (1967), but also DeWolf’s (1985) review of Miller’s book.

(4) Carroll (2001:80) quotes Mizutani (1993:4) on this notion to point out that its proponents "have an idea of language based on a traditional historical viewpoint" and that ‘midare’ "implies a subjective value judgement, where the emphasis is on movement away from one’s own standard or yardstick of how things should be"

(5) Carroll (2001) notes that "midare" is a term used in language surveys and that it can also be found in the protocols of the National Language Council, so that one can assume that it is a term not only of general usage, but also a technical term of Japanese Sociolinguistics. See Carroll 2001:80 ff. for details.

(6) Cf. Wetzel (2004:6) on this point:"Usage - the how, when, where, and why of keigo - is a source of constant comment among the Japanese, eliciting all manner of criticism and consternation, but rarely indifference."

(7) See Wetzel (2004), chapters 4 and 5 on this point. Support for Wetzel’s account and the claims made in this article is also given by the popularity of NHK series "nihongo naruhodo juku" ("Tutor lessons in Japanese") and "nattoku nihongo" ("Agreeable Japanese"). Both series were broadcasted on the global JSTV satellite network in 2005 and 2006.

(8) The examples are from Kitahara (2004 13). Mondai-na nihongo ("Problematic Japanese"). Tokyo: Taishukan. The first printing of this booklet containing 100 such question-answer pairs appeared Dec. 10 th, 2004 and the 13 th printing March 5 th, 2005. If we are to trust the information on the cover, the company thus sold 60.000 copies of the booklet within 3 months. This sales figure gives credit to my claim that "norm consciousness" is indeed a widespread phenomenon in the Japanese society. The URL for posing questions on any aspect of the modern Japanese ("meikyonihongo nandemo nihongobako") is:
I would like to point out that the texts have been edited and supplied with information that a Japanese readers would not need to understand the texts of dialogue #1 and #2.

(9) Cf. the text on the book cover that reads in Japanese "nihongo-no rikai-ga fukameru!" and "kotoba no tsukaikata-ga wakaru"

(10) Cf. the original wording: "futsū no kotoba no han’inai de saijōkyū no keigo".

(11) The original Japanese version of this passage, as well as the who text of kore kara-no keigo is reprinted in Wetzel (2004:123-128).

(12) In the context of the question of imperial succession, the editors of the English language edition of the Asahi Shinbun, one of the major newspapers in Japan, remind their readers of the fact that the emperor derives his position from "the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power" and that the emperor is "the symbol of the State and the unity of the people". (May 5 th, 2006). This passage is quoted just for reference and information for readers who are not familiar with the political and social status of the emperor in Japan.

(13) On the subject of "agreements", the interested reader is refered to Shinose (1992) and Loosli (1998).

(14) As for a complete list of the vocabulary of kōshitsu yōgo, the interested reader is referred to the homepage of the Imperial Houshold Agency:

(15) There is also the scheme of "subject honorifics" vs "non-subject honorifics" or "object honorifics" vs "hearer honorifics". For an exemplification of these categories, see Kuno (1987) Sells & Ida (1991) and Matsumoto (1997).

(16) See for example the popular text book "Japanese for today": The title of chapter #1 is kore-wa sakura desu (demonstrative: topic marker/this; noun/cherry blossom; copula: polite/be) ("This is a cherry-blossom").

(17) The caveat "generally" is added here deliberately, as, for example, the childrens’ page of the Yomiuri Shinbun uses desu/masu-forms throughout.. See the relevant sections in Loosli (1998) for details of the style of Japanese newspapers.

(18) These passages are taken from the Japanese language homepage of The Science and Technology Foundation of Japan. The URL is as follows

(19) As for "respect nouns" and "respect vocabulary" to be used in connection with the Imperial Family, see the list on the homepage of the Imperial Household Agency ( html).

(20) The form ni narimasu is the result of the combination of ni naru and the teineigo-suffix -masu. This form is mostly used to express the meaning of English "become", as in watashi-wa ("I", topic) kyōshi (teacher) ni narimasu ("I shall become a teacher")

(21) Interestingly, the answer does not consider the possibility that -ni narimasu might have been generalized to combine not only with verbs (see above), but also with nouns.

(22) In the following, a capital "Y" refers to an example from the internet edition of the Yomiuri Shinbun ("The Yomiuri"), a capital "A" to the Asahi Shinbun ("The Asahi") and a capital "M" to the Mainichi Shinbun ("The Mainichi"). While these three newspapers constitute "the big three" general dailies in Japan, their political stance differs in that The Yomiuri is said to belong to the more conservative side of the media spectrum in Japan, the Mainichi is somewhere in the middle of the road and The Asahi the most liberal of the three paper in the corpus.

(23) It must be pointed out, that the honorific -sama is customarily used together with the addressee’s name on letters or in greeting formulas to a group of people (e.g., minna-sama, konnichi-wa, "welcome everybody"). This means that sama is a honorific that is also used with "commoners". Compare in this context Wenger’s (1983:16:275) remark to the effect that criminals are used with last name without respect marker.

(24) See the situation reported by Coulmas (19kk, 20kk) that led to a person’s death for "illegitimately" addressing a fellow worker by -kun.

(25) Yomiuri Shinbun, Internet edition, Children’s Page, 2006-2-18.

(26) Yomiuri Shinbun, Internet edition, Children’s Page, 2005-11-29.

(27) Cf. Carrol (201:80 ff)

(28) See, for example Coulmas (1980) (1992), and Ide (1989).

(29) Note that, as already pointed out previously, title-honorifics belong to the rudimentary politeness level in Japanese. Thus, it is not surprising that even dogs and children alike are called with the same honorific. Compare in this respect Sakura-chan (personal name, honorific -chan) vs. Wan-chan ("Wan" is the onomatopoetic encoding of a dog’s barking. It is often used as a common noun for ‘dog’, as well). Also, as Wenger (1983:16:275) point out, the honorific -san "is the most widely occurring respect term" and that "it would appear to be the unmarked form. All other forms indicate some added component of meaning".


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Sells, Peter & Masayo Iida. 1991. Subject and object honorification in Japanese. In: Proceedings of the 17 th Annual Meeting of the Berkely Linguistic Society (edited by Laurel A. Sutton et. al). 312-323. Berkely: Berkely Linguistics Society.

Shinosuke, Naoki. 1992. Yashige-na hōdōkyōtei-o kowasu masukomi-ni "hōdōseishin" nado aru mono ka [Is there a "spirit of journalism" in media that have dubious treaties?] In: Bungeishunju (ed.) Nihon-no ronten. Tokyo: Bungeishunju.

Wenger, James. 1983. Variation and Change in Japanese Honorific Forms. In: Papers in Linguistics 16:1-2: 267-370.

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Manfred B. Sellner (University of Salzburg, Austria): The expression of respect in the Japanese media: A first look. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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