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Geisha Culture and Arts for Use at

Amatsu Okiya in Second Life


Japanese Honorifics Learning Objectives

The purpose of a lesson in Japanese Honorifics is to teach you, through polite communication, the principles of showing honor and respect to others. We bear the banner of bringing honorable culture to SL through our role play in the Amatsu Okiya.

In this lesson we will define and describe the principles of Japanese honorific speech (keigo). We will learn about the basic types of keigo and how it is used to express politeness and respect.

Japanese Honorifics - Definition

Japanese honorifics means speech that shows respect. There are many honorifics and their use is considered to be mandatory in certain social situations in Japan. Therefore basic lessons in this topic make sense for us to use in the okiya. Although some of you may wish to memorize words and phrases, it is not an expectation that you do so. The important thing to take away from this lesson is that through our speech (chat) we show honor and respect.  

Japanese Honorifics - KEIGO

Keigo, means respectful language. There are three main categories.

Sonkeigo is respectful language used when talking about superiors and customers. It is not used to talk about oneself. It is characterized by lengthy polite expressions.

Using a passive form of verbiage may also be used to convey respect, so "did you read it?" becomes "was it read by you?"

In English, if we say to another "did you do this?" there is a sense of affront. The more polite way is to make the noun and associated verb the subject in the sentence. "Was this action done by you?" Placing "you" at the end of the sentence is a softer way of asking.

Make up your own English sentence using sonkeigo principles to practice the use of this format.

Kensongo or kenjgo, is humble language. Humble language is used to describe one's own actions or those of someone in one's "in-group" to customers. Humble language tends to imply that one's actions are taking place to help the other person. As in respectful language, verbs are transformed to the most polite phrases like do itashimashite (you are welcome) and itadakimasu (to receive with thankfulness) prior to eating and or drinking.

A way to phrase this is rather than saying, "let me carry this for you," one would say, "I will carry it if you please."

In humble language, name suffixes are dropped. When referring to oneself, the suffix --san is dropped.

One also drops the suffixes for the names of those within one's group... so we would not refer to our sister geisha as ---san, or ---sama, but by their name ONLY. These two types of honorifics are most often used when you are talking about or referring to someone. 

Teineigo, polite language is used when you are speaking to someone. This is characterized by the use of the sentence ending "desu" and the verb ending "masu". The "u" is not pronounced. Polite language can be used to refer to one's own actions or those of another. It is often the first form of the Japanese language that is taught to non-native learners of Japanese. There are some nouns that have polite versions. For instance, otoko (man) and onna (woman) are not considered polite language. To change to the polite forms, one would use dansei (man) and josei (woman), or otoko no hito (man) and onna no hito (woman).

Teichogo, or bikago, word beautification is the practice of making words more polite or "beautiful".

"Tea and rice crackers go well together don't they?"

"The sweets you gave me were most delectable."

Grammatical Overview and Usage

Mastery of polite speech is a necessity for functioning well in Japanese society. Not speaking politely enough can be insulting, and speaking too politely can be distracting and sound insincere or sarcastic. Women's speech may contain more honorifics then men's. But in customer service, there is little difference in speech by gender. Addressing a superior or one who deserves respect, add --sama, after their LAST name. Again if they are friends, you may drop the suffix.

There are three levels of politeness: informal, polite, and formal

INFORMAL: used among friends

POLITE: used when addressing superiors

FORMAL: used in writing or prepared speeches

The respect language shows respect to the subject of the sentence. The humble language form gives respect to the object, usually by humbling the speaker.

Examples in English

INFORMAL: "John waits for Mary"

POLITE: shows respect for the subject "the Teacher waits"

FORMAL: shows respect for the object "We wait for you, Teacher"

O is an honorific prefix and is often translated as "honorable". The use indicates polite respect for the item or person one is speaking to or about. Again these are not usually referred to oneself or one's in-group. Example: "neesan" is older sister... "Oneesan" honorable older sister


Our okiya is primarily English-speaking though some of us have learned a few Japanese phrases.

But, how do you use Japanese honorifics in an English-speaking environment?

The easiest answer is to mind your manners, remember to say please and thank you, remember to compliment your host and hostess, thank them for their hospitality, always say "Sir" and "Ma'am" or "my Lady" or "Miss" if you are addressing people outside your in-group or your superiors, and do this...something Westerners are not used to...

HUMBLE yourself...take on the attitude of servant...all for the "other" is the motivating force behind honorifics--think of this as "honor" (honoring the "other")-ifics". When receiving a thank you for completing a task or giving a gift, the Japanese might reply "it is nothing"-- they negate their contribution. Turn the attention back to the "other". Remember that honorifics is "other-oriented".


Your assignment for this lesson is to:

  1. Practice using honorifics with one of your sisters, friend or patron
  2. Paste a part of your chat into a note card to share with your oneesan or Okaasan
  3. Discuss what you gained from this lesson with your oneesan or Okaasan
  4. Help out with the Ochaya two times by playing an instrument for one of the geisha or maiko as they entertain, or welcoming a guest and asking if they would like to have some tea and conversation