After working in Japan for some time, Japanese politeness starts to get contagious as you cannot help but injecting politeness into everything you do- talking to strangers, talking to seniors, talking to someone you want to keep a distance from.

There is a plethora of changes to adapt to in the transition from a studious student to an obedient servant to your company, but responsibility and politeness are two values that we all pick up at work. They are also two very important values in life, something that we have all learnt in schools, but never got to put it into practical use, until we step into the society.

To put it simply, in Japan, it is all about politeness.

No matter whether you are talking to an elementary student, your peers, your superiors, your bosses, or your clients, it all boils down to one policy- politeness.

Politeness is a ritual, a remedy to all problems, and a rule to abide by.

And it is interestingly complicated. Having studied Japanese for six years before coming to Japan, I have no doubts that my textbooks have covered enough chapters on keigo, or the honorific language. I know what it is, I know how to use it, I know when to use it, I know how to conjugate the verbs…. theoretically. Have I ever used them in a practical situation? No… and why is that so? Simply because I was a student! Politeness and keigo come to life only after you step out of the comfort of your school.

I was lucky enough to have experienced a teeny bit of working life in Japan before I officially started work, and that gave me a huge headstart to the reality of keigo. My colleague was praising me today during lunchtime, about how I not only spoke good Japanese, but was spot on on the procedures of dealing with a phone call in Japanese in the polite way. In other words, I knew the standard procedures, standard phrases and appropriate amount of politeness to use while on the phone talking to a customer or an outsider.

That kicked off a train of thoughts. I realized I knew nothing about all these before I came to Japan, even though I could probably get a good grade out of a written keigo test. I could not even string up a sentence of correct keigo without stumbling before, and here I was today talking to an outsider on the phone with the right enunciation, articulation, level of politeness, and the right use of keigo. Of course I am far from perfect; I stammer sometimes, I say something wrong sometimes, and I lack the spirit of keigo– something that we never learnt in Japanese lessons.

When I say I am sorry, I mean just that. But unfortunately that does not suffice. The real way of saying “I am sorry” with the keigo spirit comes with straining your eyes and hissing as if you just ate the spiciest curry, nodding your head rhythmically and dragging your words as long as possible. I admit, I am incompetent in doing that.

When people ask me what is the most difficult thing about Japanese language, I would say it is the separate usage of language according to situations. It just not merely mean the use of honorific language and casual language, but within honorific language itself, there is a non-exhaustible list of different situations, and different ways to express your ideas. That, is a real challenge, and I cannot consider myself to have mastered Japanese language until I master this legendary spirit of keigo.

All epitomized in this photo I found on the net: If you want to apologize, do it the right way.