If you have ever traveled to Japan, you may have noticed that the Japanese spoken by store employees is quite different from that which you learned as a beginner. For example:


In fact, honorific speech is only required in normal conversation if you work in the service industry. Even native speakers have difficulty using honorific speech correctly! Because of this, many Japanese companies train their employees in honorific speech in order to improve their level of service.

However, even if you don’t have the opportunity to use honorifics, recognizing them is very important for daily activities in Japan such as shopping and ordering food. Let’s take a look at some honorific expressions commonly heard in shops.


1. いらっしゃいませ  Welcome

( irasshaimase )

いらっしゃる is an honorific form of the verb くる. Originally, the full expression was 「ようこそ いらっしゃいました」, which has the same meaning as the ordinary expression 「よく きましたね」. This expression is used for greeting customers as they enter a restaurant or shop.


2. かしこまりました  Certainly

( kashikomarimashita )

This word has the same meaning as 「わかりました」, and is used when accepting an order or request.


3. 袋・レシートはご入り用ですか?

Do you need a plastic bag / receipt?

( fukuro/reshiito wa goiriyou desu ka? )


 Following the standard pattern used to transform a noun into an honorific form:

ご+名詞 {“go” + noun} 

the phrase 袋・レシートはご入り用ですか? means the same thing as 「必要ですか? 入りますか?」 (hitsuyou desu ka? irimasu ka?). Some other nouns commonly used in this way are 自由 (jiyuu), 案内 (annai) and 見学 (kengaku).

For environmental reasons, many stores in Japan suggest refraining from the use of plastic bags. Also, many people bring with them their own reusable shopping bag, known as 「マイバグ」 (mai bagu). For these reasons, you will often be asked at the cash register if you require a plastic bag.


Image by Shadowgate (CC BY 2.0)


4. お持ち帰りでしょうか? Take out? / 'To go'?

( o-mochikaeri deshou ka? ) 

The normal way to phrase this question is 「持ち帰りますか?」(mochikaerimasu ka?). In Japanese, the honorific form of verbs is created by adding お to the ます stem of a verb, followed by です. Some examples:

[お+verb (pre ますform) + です]
__待ちます     「お待ちですか?」
__座ります     「お座りですか?」


5. 少々お待ちくださいませ  Just a moment, please

 (shoushou o-machi kudasaimase) 

This very common phrase means that same as 「少し 待ってください」 (sukoshi matte kudasai). The suffix 「ませ」 shows respect to the person who performs the action of the verb.

Japanese honorifics may appear daunting at first, but don’t worry! Once you are able to recognize the typical phrases, it’s really not as difficult as it seems in the beginning. Expressions such as the ones described above are spoken over and over again in the service industry, so it won’t be long before noticing them becomes second nature. And of course, the vast majority of foreigners will never be required or expected to actually use these honorifics in their own speech.

Still, there is something worth keeping in mind. In the Japanese language, using more words to say something usually makes it more polite, and honorifics are certainly no exception to this general rule. Due to their length and to the repetitive nature in which they are used, the honorifics used in retail environments are often spoken very quickly, making it tricky to catch everything that is said. If you find yourself in such a situation, try saying this:

すみません、そんけいご わかりません。ゆっくり はなしてください。
Suimasen, sonkeigo wakarimasen. Yukkuri hanasite kudasai.

“Sorry, I don’t understand honorific speech. Please speak slowly.”


Hero Image by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) (CC BY 2.0)