Keigo is an honorific form of Japanese that communicates respect. Many social situations require the use of keigo and inability to use it is often perceived as lacking manners and etiquette. Families, close friends, and people of the same age or academic grade, on the other hand, are not expected to use keigo to one another and speak informally instead. Being raised in the United States, I never had much of an opportunity to learn keigo since I only spoke casual Japanese with my mother and close family friends. Although I still have some anxiety about being unable to speak perfect keigo, living here for two years has shown me the importance of being unashamed of my imperfections.
In Japan it is custom to speak to people older than you (senpai) in keigo. It is considered to be a form of respect and Japanese people instinctually follow these customs. When I moved here, I had no idea how big a role these customs played in social relationships. All of my bilingual friends in university seemed to be perfectly adept at maintaining great conversation in English, casual Japanese, and keigo. Although I’d be able to casually chat without a problem with friends in my grade or younger than me, I was petrified of speaking to anyone I didn’t know, full of fear that they would think I was rude. I found myself avoiding conversation with Japanese people because I felt ashamed for my lack of ability.
Letting Go of Fear
I often sought advice from my mother, calling and asking her to teach me keigo. Naturally, I expected that she would readily inform me of the importance of being polite and respectful by speaking properly. I was shocked when she told me that I didn’t need to change the way I spoke. She told me it was fine because “people shouldn’t expect that of you anyway, you weren’t raised in Japan”. I had trouble accepting her perspective because I felt a strong sense of responsibility to respect the cultural norms of Japan. However, her words ultimately made me realize that I had no reason to stress so much over keigo. There was no way I would suddenly be perfect at it, so I decided to let go, socialize, and allow myself to learn along the way.
My anxieties about speaking to people were luckily dismantled through increased exposure to Japanese people. When I started to regularly participate in circle activities, there was no way to avoid talking to my senpais. I would try to remember what my mother told me and maintain confidence in conversation, and it worked. I felt almost stupid for having been so afraid in the past of something that seemed so simple now. I began initiating conversations with people and made a habit of delivering a disclaimer and apology about my poor keigo skills. Every person that I have introduced myself to since has had the same reaction – they always laugh and reassure me that there isn’t anything to worry about.
The first few times I thought that I was only received well by luck, but I now know that Japanese people are much more accepting than I imagined them to be. The only hindrance to my social life was my fear of judgment for not being up to Japanese standards. These “standards”, however, were just projections of my own anxieties that stemmed from insecurity. My Japanese friends and family showed me that being my own worst critic was distracting me from the opportunity to communicate with the wonderful people surrounding me.
Keigo and etiquette as whole is certainly a major part of the cultural fabric of Japan. However, I wrongly believed that these traditions were strict and unforgiving to those who couldn’t practice them to perfection. Japan is infinitely different from my home in the United States but being blessed by the presence of accepting individuals during my life in Japan has shown me that friends are always there for you no matter where you make them.