When learning Japanese, let’s learn Japanese culture, too!



Japanese language and culture go hand-in-hand. If you’re learning the Japanese language, it’s important to learn Japanese culture as well. When you take a Japanese lesson with an italki teacher, you should practice Japanese culture alongside the language. A good way to do this is to try to behave the same way during an italki Japanese lesson as people actually behave in Japan.




In fact, Japanese can’t be used appropriately without an understanding and respect of Japanese culture.




Japan is a vertical society, which means that people are not necessarily in equal positions. In various hierarchical relationships--teacher and student, boss and subordinate, older and younger--if casual speech is used, respect isn’t conveyed to one’s partner and it causes discomfort. Japanese culture values taking your partner into consideration and then behaving accordingly. Respect is shown to one’s partner by using polite language. By doing so, people avoid making their partner uncomfortable. For this reason, strangers also use polite language when they speak to each other.




Students of Japanese should try to follow these same norms during lessons. In other words, because the italki teacher is a teacher (i.e., a person with more status), the student should use polite language.




As an italki teacher, beginners who don’t know polite language often send me a request saying they want to learn only casual speech. It’s difficult to accept this request. It’s important to learn both polite and casual speech. In addition, even if a teacher and student will practice casual speech together at some point, polite speech should be used during the first meeting because this follows the customs of Japanese culture.




The advice I give students is to study polite language and casual speech at the same time. In my lessons, we practice using these two speech styles properly. Alternatively, to prevent confusion, students can concentrate on learning polite speech first and then once they become familiar with conversation in polite speech, they can focus on learning casual speech. For students who are reaching an intermediate or advanced level, another effective form of training is switch the speech style from lesson to lesson.



Expressions that Show Japanese Culture



As an example of how Japanese culture is intertwined with Japanese language, consider the following phrases that all technically mean the same thing but convey very different levels of politeness. They are ordered below from most respectful to most casual. Knowing which phrase to use when is a matter of both culture and language.




  1. 水を持って来ていただけませんか?

  2. 水を持って来ていただけますか?

  3. 水を持って来てくれませんか?

  4. 水を持って来てくれますか?

  5. 水を持って来てくれない?

  6. 水を持って来てくれる?

  7. 水を持って来て。


There is not enough space to provide detailed explanations, but the following sentences are additional examples of how word choice in Japanese can convey varying levels of politeness, modesty, etc.




Expressions for describing giving and receiving can focus on either the giver or recipient. ("I gave my teacher water". “I received water from my teacher.” “My teacher gave me water.”)



私は水を先生にあげました       私は水を先生にさしあげました

私は水を先生からもらいました     私は水を先生からいただきました

あつし先生が水をくれました      あつし先生が水をくださいました


English uses only “I” and “you” to describe one’s self and one’s partner, but in Japanese there are different terms for “I’ and “you” that vary in politeness and familiarity with one’s partner.







A very polite way of saying “I,” used by both men and women.




Women use this form of “I” in both polite and casual speech. When men use it, their speech becomes more polite.




This is used by women in casual speech.




Men use this in casual speech, and it is relatively polite (compared to the next one).




This is used in casual speech by men only.






First, if you know a person’s name, it is best to use that person’s name instead of “you.”




This used when talking with a stranger. It is also used when a wife addresses her husband.




This is used when addressing a subordinate. It is also often used when addressing a child you don’t know.




Using this word gives the impression that you’re looking down on the other person. Be cautious when using it. In very close relationships where you understand each other well, it can be normal to use it.



If you learn how to use both polite and casual speech styles properly, you will have more comfortable and natural interactions with native Japanese speakers.




Try practicing both styles in an italki lesson!



Hero image by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash