Don't act like a bakagaijin (stupid foreigner) in Japan; be respectful!

So it's been a little while since my previous post in here, but I'm hoping this will be of interest to people out there and I'll make up my delay by posting an additional post sometime mid-week.
This time around, I'll talk about respect as revealed through the Japanese language.
Most everyone knows that Japanese people are generally very respectful individuals and highly value respect. Japanese people do not only show respect through their action, but through their words as well, just like in English. To those of you that may have learned a little Japanese before, you've heard of the so called "polite form" and "casual form". You can say good morning as "ohayo" or "ohayo gozaimasu". You can say thank you as "arigatou" or "arigatou gozaimasu". In reality, even that polite form you learn in phrase books or beginning Japanese books is only moderately respectful and that casual form, impolite.
There are actually five levels of "respectful language" in Japanese, and each one calls for a different conjugation of the verb. There's terms like "keigo", "teinei", "kudaketa", "humble", and "honorific", all of which need to be used with care, because they all signal something about your relationship or your social ranking (based on job, age) relative to one another. The polite form that most people learn is Teinei, which is appropriate to use in most instances such as talking with strangers. However, I've heard on many occasion (and I've said this myself as well) foreigners saying "arigatou" to the people who move out of the way for their luggage on the subways, to people who pick their stuff up off the floor when they've dropped something, etc. I know we're inclined to say "arigatou" over "arigatou gozaimasu" because either we don't know there's a real difference or we think it's cooler to say "thanks" instead of "thank you". As foreigners, I know we'll be forgiven because simply showing that we know any Japanese at all is impressive already, but to really understand Japanese people would mean understanding how they use their language and I believe, actively choosing to be polite over being impolite especially as tourists from America.

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Comment by Kerri Engelder on April 15, 2013 at 3:14pm

How interesting... there is a similar polite way to talk to people in Italian too, though it is mostly used for professors and older professionals.




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