How to Japan

5 Essential Keigo Phrases You Need to Know to Work in Japan

Mastering keigo is essential for working in Japan. Here are 5 polite phrases that will help express yourself better at the office!

“Keigo” – it’s the single most terrifying word to Japanese language students (after “kanji,” of course). Put simply, keigo (敬語けいご) is a speech style that shows deference to those of higher status. It’s a rather complex but somewhat formulaic system; while it is at first daunting, it is likely that learners will hear and pick up on many key phrases simply through exposure to Japanese work environments. Most Japanese co-workers will not expect their foreign counterparts to know the ins and outs of keigo, especially since many Japanese study it themselves. However, properly using keigo will undoubtedly soften your speech and be appreciated by others.

Here are five essential phrases to politely communicate at work:

1.「おそりますが」“My apologies, but…”

This is technically a kenjō phrase, meaning it indicates your low status in comparison to the listener, and can be used to soften a request. Often, the following request may take time, effort, or consideration to be completed. Opening your request with a line such as osore-irimasuga acknowledges the trouble the other must go through, and the speaker’s appreciation. This phrase should come in handy especially when starting a new job, where reports and projects may require approval by your superiors.

おそりますが、ひょう数字すうじをご確認かくにんいただけますか?」 = “I’m sorry to take up your time, but could you check the numbers on the chart for me?”

2.「都合つごうがつかないため」 “I’m not available”

Textbooks often teach students 「都合つごうわるい」 or the simple 「ちょっと…」 to indicate that a proposed time doesn’t work. While both options can be used quite liberally across different situations, switching out わるい (literally “bad”) for つかない elevates the expression. Because of the addition of ため at the end, meaning “because,” a suggestion for another time or date would be expected.

都合つごうがつかないため別日べつびでおねがいします」 = “Because I’m not available (at that time), let’s find another day.”

3.「時間的じかんてき余裕よゆうがないため」 “I don’t have time to spare”

Though the English translation of this phrase may not allude to its polite nuance, it is used to state that there isn’t any space time for a new project, an extra lesson, or an impromptu meeting that could be an e-mail. As with number 2 above, the ため at the end means that there should be a follow-up sentence.

おそりませんが、今日きょう時間的じかんてき余裕よゆうがないため、アミさんのレッスンを明後日みょうごにちにしていだだけないでしょうか。」= “My apologies, but because I don’t have any spare time today. Would you be able to put Ami’s lesson for the day after tomorrow?”

「スケジュールに余裕よゆうがない」 can be used as an alternative phrase.

4.「ご指導しどういただけませんか」 “Could you please provide guidance?”

Starting at a new job in Japan or in a department means a lot of new things to learn. Rather than a somewhat blunt, “I don’t know about ___, can you tell me?” 「〜らないので、おしえてください」, 「___をご指導しどういただけませんか」admits lack of knowledge and politely requests assistance in one fell swoop.

資料しりょう作成方法さくせいほうほうをご指導しどういただけませんか?」= “Could you provide some guidance on how to make the materials [pamphlets, documents, etc.]?”

5.「不勉強ふべんきょうもうわけありません」“I apologize for my lack of knowledge/study”

「わかりません」wakarimasen “I don’t know/I don’t understand,” is probably one of the most common phrases uttered by new foreign employees as rarely is it expected that new comers enter with a vast set of knowledge. Using 「不勉強ふべんきょうもうわけありません」adds weight and functions as an appropriate apology for the inconvenience not comprehending may cause in a work environment. It can easily be used as a stand-alone phrase.

Richard Scheno is a freelance writer, master's student, and music producer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York City

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