I stumbled upon a Japanese book the other day that I had never heard of before, but rushed to buy once I learned what it was about.
This book teaches a special aspect of the Japanese language: the most formal or “respectful” version. Today I’m going to be talking about it in this Japanese respect language review.
The full name of the book is Japanese Respect Language: When, Why, and How to Use it Successfully by P. G. O’Neill.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he also wrote another book that I’ve reviewed before where he helps people learn all of the Essential Kanji they need to be able to read and understand Japanese.
What Is “Respect Language” Exactly?
One of the aspects of Japanese that makes it a little different from other languages is that there are special forms of words that have to be used in certain situations where respect needs to be shown.
This has a lot to do with the hierarchical structure of the culture, but the basic gist of it is that you can speak neutrally towards people who have a lower or equal status as you, but you must speak respectfully towards those who are above you.
This book actually goes into great depth explaining what kind of situations would call for you to use respectful language, and I have to admit that there are a lot of situations that I didn’t know about beforehand.
Some obvious examples are when speaking directly to the person whose position is above your own, but some of the more ambiguous situations are when you’re talking about a person whose station is higher than yours.
Do you use respectful language or neutral?
Well, the book does a good job of explaining when you would want to continue speaking about them respectfully, and when it would be alright to fall back onto the neutral forms of words.
I found the diagrams that the book uses to illustrate these situations and concepts to be very helpful as it provides a visual representation of these real life dynamics.
Who Needs To Learn This?
I think that people who are just starting off with learning Japanese won’t really get a lot out of this book, but those who are at an intermediate level or higher would appreciate the information.
Furthermore, if you’re the kind of person who wants to one day live and work in Japan then this book has the information that you’ll probably need to know so that you can communicate effectively with your superiors in work and the customers of the company.
It would also come in handy for those times when you find yourself in a more formal situation, such as an event dinner or maybe the first time you meet your fiancee’s parents if you fall in love and get married in Japan.
On the flip side of things, if you’re really just learning Japanese so that you can understand books, shows, and the like, then it’s probably not a big deal if you skip learning about this formal language.
Those are just my personal thoughts on it.
Learning The Right Words
As it turns out, there are several ways that you can show respect when speaking (or writing) Japanese. This book does a pretty good job on explaining each one and when you would want to use one over the other.
For example, there are situations where you elevate the position of the other person to show them respect. There are also different situations where you lower your own status in order to show others respect.
The strategies and words necessary to do so are different for each of these situations, so the book spends a decent amount of time going over them.
There are also a lot of slight changes to everyday words that you learn, especially those words that add お or ご before them to make them polite.
One of the things that I really appreciated about the book is that it not only teaches a lot of different respectful forms, but it also talks about how commonly they are used by natives.
For example, it teaches how the られる passive form of verbs can be used to show respect, but should generally be avoided because it can be confused with the passive/potential form of verbs.
Instead, the book recommends using the other forms such as the お base-verb になる construction so that you can clearly show respect without the possibility of a misunderstanding.
The book has a lot of little self-tests that you can use throughout several chapters to make sure you understand the concepts that are being taught.
Some of them are conceptual such as “If you were talking to such-and-such a person, what form of the language would you use?”
Others are more hands-on by requiring you to use the correct form of a word which was taught earlier.
Even though I’m not typically one for these kinds of quizzes, I actually found them to be quite useful because it made me really think about the situation and which form of Japanese would be most appropriate.
It also helped to recall the right vocabulary for each situation.
There aren’t a lot of special words that you need to learn in order to communicate correctly in these situations, but I felt like they are words that rarely get used in other contexts (novels, shows, etc.) so they aren’t all that common.
Maybe it’s just the Japanese stuff that I typically consume, but respect language is one area that I felt needs special attention if you want to understand it and, more importantly, use correctly in real life.
Where To Find It
I’ve read about respectful language before in different courses or textbooks, but none of them have ever come close to the in depth explanations and the numerous examples that this book provides.
It is by far the best book I’ve ever read on understanding and using respectful language in Japanese.
If you have any comments or questions, please be sure to let me know. Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: