The Context of Japanese Honorifics

The closest approximate adaptation of Japanese keigo and polite/hierarchy speech, to me, was the military system in the US.

Adults, civilians, and middle/high school students are expected to speak in a certain way to their seniors and a certain way to their subordinates or juniors. Even if that divide is by a difference of one year in school, or if a student entered the club one year more than the others. Competence and experience is expected from the senior leaders, while obedience and loyalty is expected from the juniors in exchange for the senior staff taking care of the juniors, training them up, and protecting them.

Sound a bit familiar?

It’s not gender based either, since many societies have gender roles about which one takes the lead in certain situations. This was a pure hierarchy based only on seniority, power, or experience. Merely based upon how Japanese people speak to each other, I can infer what their relationship is, which one is the superior and which one is the subordinate.

Equal title access is only granted by permission. Using someone’s first name without honorifics or titles, is a recognition of a very close relationship in the ranking hierarchy, a personal equality that doesn’t need the rigid senior/junior scale.

I cannot help but think that a life time of this kind of social discipline has made the Japanese even weirder than the Westerners can imagine. It is, unnatural perhaps, to expect civilians to act like fresh Marines formed by military discipline except in special circumstances, yet they have made it work and seem natural. Although from their perspective, the American character of freedom and equality is to be preferred in order to pursue personal goals.

Japanese fast food and family restaurants also have an abnormally high level of discipline and courtesy in the staff. I keep thinking somebody is trying to make a parody, because it can’t be like that. It’s unnatural. In many ways, I’m like that email writer, being exposed to a different way of things in social greetings, and then reflecting on what I actually knew about cultural rules.

This comment was originally intended as a reply to the topic of military courtesy. Now reproduced as a post here since I thought anyone looking to understand Japanese language and why they are so stuck on certain forms and courtesies, would be able to make use of this analogy or relationship.

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