I am humbled, your honor

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Honorific and Humble Forms

Japanese can be roughly separated into three levels of politeness: casual, polite, and honorific/humble. So far, we have already gone over the polite forms using 「~です」 and 「~ます」. We will now cover the next level of politeness using honorific and humble forms. You will often hear this type of language in any customer/consumer type situations such as fast food counters, restaurants, etc. For now, the first thing to remember is that the speaker always considers himself/herself to be at the lowest level. So any actions performed by oneself are in humble form while actions performed by anyone else seen from the view of the speaker uses the honorific form.

Set Expressions

The difficult part of learning honorific and humble language is that there are a number of words that have separate verbs for honorific and humble forms. Anything that does not have it's own special expression fall under the general rules of humble and honorific conjugations that we will cover next.

Honorific and Humble Verbs

Honorific verbs with special conjugations

A number of these verbs do not follow the normal masu-conjugation rules and they include: 「なさる」、「いらっしゃる」、「おっしゃる」、「下さる」、 and 「ござる」 (which we will soon cover). For all masu-form tenses of these verbs, instead of the 「る」 becoming a 「り」 as it does with normal u-verbs, it instead becomes an 「い」. All other conjugations besides the masu-form do not change from regular u-verbs.

Plainます-formPast ます-formNegative ます-formPast-negative ます-form

Examples of honorific form

We can now begin to see that 「ください」 is just a special conjugation of 「下さる」 which is the honorific version of 「くれる」. Let's look at some actual examples. Since these examples are all questions directed directly to someone (second person), they all use the honorific form.

(1) アリスさん、もう召し上がりましたか。- Alice-san, did [you] eat already?
(2) 仕事なさっているんですか。- What are you doing at work?
(3) 推薦状書いてくださるんですか。- You're going to give me the favor of writing a recommendation letter?
(4) どちらからいらっしゃいましたか。- Where did you come from?
(5) 今日は、どちらいらっしゃいますか。- Where are you going today?

Examples of humble form

The following examples are all actions done by the speaker so they all use the humble form.
(1) はキムと申します。- As for me, [people] say Kim. (I am called Kim.)
(2) 書いたレポート見ていただけますか。 - Will I be able to receive the favor of getting my report looked at?
(3) 失礼致します。- Excuse me. (lit: I am doing a discourtesy.)

Other substitutions

In addition to these set expressions, there are some words that also have more polite counterparts. Probably the most important is the politer version of 「ある」, which is 「ござる」. This verb can be used for both inanimate and animate objects. It is neither honorific nor humble but it is a step above 「ある」 in politeness. However, unless you want to sound like a samurai, 「ござる」 is always used in the polite form: 「ございます」.

By extension, the politer version of 「です」 is 「でございます」. This is essentially the masu-form conjugation of 「でござる」, which comes from 「である」 literally meaning, "to exist as" (to be covered much later).


(1A) こちらは、部屋です。- Over here is my room.
(1B) こちらは、部屋ございます。- This way is my room.

(2A) お手洗いこのビル二階あります。- The bathroom is in the second floor of this building.
(2B) お手洗いこのビル二階ございます。- The bathroom is in the second floor of this building.

Other examples include 「いい」, which is more formally expressed as 「よろしい」. There are also six different ways to say, "I'm sorry" (not counting 「悪いね」 or slight inflection changes like 「すいません」).

Successively politer expressions for apologizing:
(1) ごめん
(2) ごめんなさい
(3) すみません
(4) 申し訳ありません。 (申し訳 is the humble form of 言い訳)
(5) 恐れ入ります
(6) 恐縮です。

In addition, the politest suffix for names is 「」, one level above 「さん」. You won't be using this suffix too often in actual speech even if you speak to that person in honorific/humble speech. However, expect to use it when writing letters even to people you are somewhat familiar with. Also, service people such as cashiers or waitresses/waiters will normally refer to the customer as 「お客様」. Of course, royalty and deities are always accompanied by 「」 such as 「神様」.

Honorific and Humble Conjugations

For all other verbs without set expressions, there are conjugation rules to change them into honorific and humble forms. They both involve a common practice of attaching a polite prefix 「」. In Japanese, there is an practice of attaching an honorific prefix 「」 to certain (not all) nouns to show politeness. In fact, some words like 「お酒」、 「お茶」、or 「お金」 come with this prefix so often that it's become practically the word itself. In general, 「」 is written in hiragana as either 「ご」 for words read as 音読み (例: ご意見ご飯) or 「お」 for words read as 訓読み (例: お金、 お仕事). In fact, you may have been using this prefix already without realizing it like 「お好み焼き」 or 「お土産」. There are some exceptions to this rule such as 「お返事」. Luckily since 「」 is rarely written in kanji, identifying the exceptions should not really be a problem.

Honorific Form

The honorific form of verbs that are not among the set honorific expressions given above can be formed in two different ways.

Honorific Conjugation 1: お + stem + に + なる

This kind of makes sense if you think of it as a person becoming the honorific state of a verb. All subsequent conjugations follow the normal rules of conjugating the u-verb 「なる」. To be honest, this type of sentence formulation is rarely used.

(1) 先生見えなりますか。- Have you seen the teacher?

Honorific Conjugation 2: お + stem + です

(2) もう帰りですか。- You're going home already?
(3) 店内召し上がりですか。- Will you be dining in?
Service people want to be extra polite so they will often use this type of "double honorific" conjugation or 二重敬語 (in this case, the honorific 「召し上がる」 combined with the honorific conjugation). Whether it's necessary or grammatically proper is another story.

Using 「ください」 with honorifics

You can also use 「下さい」 with a honorific verb by replacing 「になる」 with 「ください」. This is useful for when you want to ask somebody to do something but still use a honorific verb.

Yet another often-used expression.
(1) 少々待ちください。- Please wait a moment.

Similarly, with 「ご覧なる」, you simply replace 「になる」 with 「ください」.
(2) こちらご覧下さい。- Please look this way.

This works for other nouns as well. For example, riding the trains...
(3) 閉まるドア注意下さい。- Please be careful of the closing doors.

Humble Form

Humble verbs are formed in the following fashion.

Humble Conjugation: お + stem + する

You've probably already heard the first example many times before but now you know exactly where it comes from.

(1) よろしく願いします。- I properly make request.
(2) 先生聞きしたいことありますが。- Teacher, there's something I want to ask you.
(3) すみません待たせしました。- Sorry, I made you wait (causative form).
(4) 千円から預かりいたします。- We'll be holding on [from?] your 1000 yen.

You'll hear something like example (4) when, for example, you need to get change after paying 1000 yen. Again, the 二重敬語 where 「する」 has been converted to the humble 「致す」 form when it's already in the お+stem+する humble form. Some Japanese people complain that this makes no sense and that 「から」 should really be 「を」.

Making honorific requests

We learned how to make polite requests using 「~ください」 in this previous section and we just looked at how to use honorific verbs with requests as well. However, there is yet another way to make requests using honorific verbs. This grammar only applies to the honorific verbs with special 「~ます」 conjugations that we just covered. This includes 「下さる」、「いらっしゃる」、「なさる」、and 「おっしゃる」. I've never actually seen this used with 「おっしゃる」, but it is grammatically possible.
Making requests for honorific actions

Now you finally know where grammar such as 「なさい」 and 「してください」 actually came from. Let's look at a few quick examples.


You'll probably hear this one a million times every time you enter some kind of store in Japan.
(1) いらっしゃいませ。- Please come in!

However, a middle-aged sushi chef will probably use the abbreviated version.
(2) いらっしゃい!- Please come in!

Some more examples...
(3) ありがとうございましたまた越しくださいませ。- Thank you very much. Please come again.
(4) どうぞ、ごゆっくりなさいませ。- Please take your time and relax.

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This page has last been revised on 2006/8/19