The Beginner’s Guide to Otaku Japanese Part 5: Formality

In Japan, politeness expressed through language is very important. Be it in everyday situations, business, or with friends and family - formality is valued and can tell a lot about one’s character. In this article we have summarized some of the common facts about formality in Japanese. This is our last article in this series. We hope you had fun reading the articles and that you will continue working on your Japanese!

Factors influencing politeness

Familiarity - What is your relationship with the listener?

When speaking with someone in Japanese, ask yourself questions like, “How close are you with the person?” or, “What is your relationship with the listener?” If you are familiar with the person you are talking to, then you can speak informally. This applies to people who are family and friends. When you are not familiar with your listener, it’s best to use formal language.

Another important thing to note is that speech directed at the general public, such as radio and TV broadcasts, is also formal, depending on the kind of channel and show.

Rank - Senpaiー!!

A second factor influencing the language is rank. In Japanese society every person has a relative rank to every other person, depending on the relationship between them.
To understand this easier, you can ask yourself, “Who is the senpai?” or, “What is my rank with person __?”


Parents: Familiarity varies when talking to parents. When talking to your own, informal language is used. When talking with others’ parents, always speak formally.

Job: Let’s say you are in a job where you have worked for many years and a newcomer joins your team. You are the one with the higher rank, (the senpai) and are allowed to be informal. The newcomer is supposed to show you respect, therefore talking formally. Customers, however, have a higher rank than you, and thus both you and the newcomer are to treat the customers respectfully.

Age: If you are older than the person you are talking to, you can use informal speech. Formal is also applicable.

This is a TOM Summer Ninja Academy 2014 original article.

The Beginner’s Guide to Otaku Japanese Part 5: Formality 1

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