I’ve argued in previous posts that you as a non-Japanese-speaker can pick up a lot of information by listening to the Japanese sound track while watching anime with subtitles–nuances that are not available in the translation. One of the most useful and interesting things to listen for is whether the characters are using polite or plain speech.
English has different levels of formality. Consider the difference between “Is this Joe’s place?” and “Is this the residence of Mr. Blow?” . They may mean the same thing, but they suggest very different situations. However Japanese goes far beyond English in it’s levels of formality. Polite speech (keigo) amounts to a completely different dialect with its own verb conjugations and specialized vocabulary . Because there is no real English equivalent the subtitles rarely attempt to show that it is being used, but sometimes you need to know when it is being used (or not used) in order to fully understand the characters’ reactions.
Detecting when polite speech is being used is trickier than the other things I have suggested. You should first practice listening for the honorifics, family titles and pronouns. Once you can do that, you are ready to try listening for polite speech.
I am assuming that you are not actually trying to learn Japanese and are not interested in memorizing a lot of vocabulary, idioms, verb conjugations and other grammatical rules. You need a simple, reliable rule with no special-case exceptions that will indicate when polite speech is being used.
The Polite Copula
The best strategy is to listen at the end of sentences for desu (usually pronounced des’ with the final syllable reduced to a hiss.) This is the polite form of the copula, a linking verb commonly translated as “is”, though it is also attached to plain-form verbs in order to make them polite. As many as one-third of the sentences in polite speech end with some variant of this, as in the following examples.
- desu “it is.” Example: Kyou wa atsui desu. “It is hot today.”
- desu ka “is it?” Example: Kyou wa atsui desu ka? “Is it hot today?”
- desu ne “it is, isn’t it?” Kyou wa atsui desu ne? “It is hot today, isn’t it?” This ending demonstrates concern for the listener’s feelings and opinions, and is very common.
- desu yo “it is, for sure.” Kyou wa atsui desu yo. “It is hot today for sure.”
- desu kara “because it is.” Kyou wa atsui desu kara… “Because it is hot today…”
- desu kedo “it is though.” Kyou wa atsui desu kedo. “Nevertheless it is hot.”
- n desu or no desu “it is (about the fact that it is).” This has the effect of making the statement less direct and more polite, more about the speaker’s internal mental state than external reality. The effect is rather like the English “…in my opinion.” Kyou wa atsui n desu. “It’s hot today in my opinion.”
- desu wa “it is, and I’m female.” Kyou wa atsui desu wa. “It is hot today.” This polite form is typically used by women who are feeling fairly confident, and is thus a favorite of ojou characters. If an ojou has just sprung a trap on her opponent, she can be counted on to finish her announcement with a smug “desu wa!”
- ja/dewa/-ku nai desu “it’s not.” (colloquial) Kyou wa atsuku nai desu. “It’s not hot today.”
- ja/dewa/-ku arimasen “it is not.” (more formal) Kyou wa atsuku arimasen. “It is not hot today.
- -katta desu “it was.” (conjugating the adjective) Kinou wa atsukatta desu. “It was hot yesterday.
- deshita (Pronounced “desh’ta) “it was.” (conjugating the verb) Kinou no otenki wa iya deshita. “Yesterday’s weather was awful.”
- deshou “it should be/I predict it will be.” Expresses a belief or preference. Often substitutes for the lack of a true future tense in Japanese. Ashita wa atsui deshou. “It’s supposed to be hot tomorrow.”
Plain Speech Equivalents
Once you learn to identify sentences that end with the polite copula, you’ll also start to recognize their plain-speech equivalents:
- da “it is.” Kyou wa atsui da. “It’s hot today.” This form of the copula is often dropped, especially by female speakers, making the statement sound less forceful. Kyou wa atsui.
- no “is it?” Kyou wa atsui no? “Is it hot today?” A rising intonation on the no is required to indicate that this is a question and not one of the other usages of no. The no may be dropped, in which case a rising intonation in required on the last syllable to indicate that the sentence is a question. Kyou wa atsui?
- ka In plain speech this is used for rhetorical questions. Kyou wa atsui ka? “Is it hot today? (The answer is obvious.)”
- ne “it is, isn’t it?” Kyou wa atsui ne? “It is hot today, isn’t it?”
- na “it is, isn’t it?” This variant sounds a bit more casual and more masculine. Kyou wa atsui na?
- yo or da yo “it is for sure.” Kyou wa atsui yo! “It’s hot today for sure!” zo is a more forceful, tough-sounding variant, used mostly by men.
- n da or no da “it is (about the fact that it is).” Informal equivalent of n desu. Kyou wa atsui n da. “It’s hot today in my opinion.”
- na no Alternate form of no da, used primarily by women.
- no Alternate form of no da, used by women. Note the lack of a rising intonation, which would indicate a question. Kyou wa atsui no.
- wa Confident feminine ending. Kyou wa atsui wa! Note there are other circumstances in which sentences end in wa. In its usual meaning of “as for”, it can also be used by either sex to form a question. Kurasawa-san wa? “What about Mr. Kurasawa?” This works in either polite speech or plain speech.
- ja/-ku nai “it’s not.” Kyou wa atsuku nai. “It’s not hot today.”
- -katta “it was.” (conjugating the adjective) Kinou wa atsukatta. “It was hot yesterday.
- datta “it was.” (conjugating the verb) Kinou no tenki wa iya datta. “Yesterday’s weather was awful.”
- darou “it should be/I predict it will be.” Ashita wa atsui darou. “It’s supposed to be hot tomorrow.”
There are a number of general rules governing when polite speech should be used. However these are basically rules of thumb and sometimes contradict each other. The extent to which characters follow them will vary depending on their personality and upbringing. Some particularly vulgar characters will never use polite speech at all, while a few excessively well-bred or supernatural characters will never use anything else.
Plain speech is the form first taught to children, and very young children may use it because they haven’t mastered polite speech yet. Children use plain speech among themselves and adults use plain speech when speaking to children.
Polite speech should almost always be used when addressing someone who is older than you or who outranks you. Exceptions may be made if the relationship is very close.
Uchi vs. Soto
The concepts of uchi and soto permeate Japanese society. Uchi (“home”) can refer to one’s own family, work group, company, school class or any any other in-group of which one is a member.
Soto (“outside”) refers to anyone who is not a member of the uchi. As a general rule, outsiders must be treated with great politeness and consideration. To do otherwise would reflect badly on the uchi.
One consequence is that if an anime character addresses the audience he will always use polite speech, while if he is just talking to himself he will use plain speech.
The family is the central, most intimate uchi and the general rule is that they will use plain speech among themselves. Older family members are called by respectful titles, but they still are addressed using plain speech.
Still, it is common to see exceptions in anime. In particular, rich aristocratic families are more often than not depicted as addressing each other in polite speech and using ultra-respectful titles like onii-sama. I don’t know if this has any basis in reality, but it serves the literary purpose of showing that these people are incredibly well-bred and rather intimidating.
Ordinary parents may sometimes use polite speech when reprimanding a child. (I have heard some English-speaking mothers do something similar, addressing misbehaving daughters as “Miss”. I guess it works though shock value.)
On the other hand, polite speech is sometimes used for a family member who has done something outstanding, perhaps suggesting that he has earned the right to be treated with the deference due to a guest.
Kaasan – Mom’s Life (Mainichi Kaasan) is full of examples of this sort of thing. Note how when Rieko gets REALLY upset with the kids she switches to polite speech.
- Ii desu ka! Mo ichido iimasu! Umi no ue wa ikemasen!
- [ “All right?! I’ll say this one more time! You are NOT to go into the deep water!” ]
Also, consider the following:
- (Goes to wipe down the table, then notices her father napping on the floor.)
- Oto-shan [otou-san] nete bakari de ikemashen [ikemasen]. Kawaishou [kawaisou], oshigoto de utsu kara deyou [deshou] ne.
- [ “Daddy you shouldn’t sleep like that. Poor Daddy, you must be worn out from your job.” ]
- (Places the cleaning rag on his forehead.)
- Atashi ga zutto kanbiyou shite agemasu. Oto-shan, hayate yoku natte ne.
- [ “I’ll take care of you. Daddy, please get well soon.” ]
- (Bursts into tears and hugs her.)
- Fuumiiiiii–kawaii zo—!
- [ “Fumi–that’s TOO CUTE!” ]
What makes Fumi so cute (aside from the inherent cuteness of a four-year-old’s attempt to use polite speech) is that she is obviously imitating her mother. Japanese wives routinely coddle their husbands when they come home exhausted after a long day’s work .
Japanese people identify strongly with their employers, commonly introducing themselves by specifying their company. Toyota no Kawamura desu. “I am Kawamura of Toyota.”
A company is a more formal uchi than a family. Younger coworkers will be addressed using plain speech, but superiors will definitely be addressed using polite speech. Even coworkers at the same level may be addressed in polite speech unless you know them well. These rules are relaxed a bit at the mandatory after-work drinking parties.
Children relate to their schools much as adults do to their employers. Children in anime routinely introduce themselves by specifying their school and class.
Younger students are addressed in plain speech; teachers and older students (sempai) are normally addressed in polite speech. Classmates of the same age may use polite speech when they first meet, but will usually shift to plain speech once they get to know each other..
All other things being equal, women are generally more polite than men. Even when using plain speech they tend to use more polite forms, such as words with “o-” prefixes.
Since English has no exact counterpart to Japanese polite speech, translators often ignore it entirely. However sometimes it cannot be ignored, which can result in strange-sounding attempts to express what is going on.
- Clow Reed ni mo yosou dekinakatta kutte nan da? … Nan desu ka?
- [ “What are things that not even Clow Reed could have predicted? … ” (rephrase in polite speech.)]
- “Nan da” de ii desu yo.
- [ “You don’t need to use polite speech with me.” ]
Cardcaptor Sakura, Episode 70
The subtitles actually say “Your initial tone of voice is fine,” which sounds a bit odd, since there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Shaoran’s tone of voice. (Eriol, being an aristocratic type, continues to use polite speech.)
 The Japanese equivalents would probably be “JO-san no tokoro no?” and “BUROO-san no otaku desu ka?”.
 There are actually multiple levels of formality within polite speech, but distinguishing them is beyond the scope of this post.
 It is probably true that the average Japanese husband works harder than his American counterpart. On the other hand the average Japanese wife works just as hard and gets less recognition for it.