Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present
216pp. January 2004
Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present
Author: Wetzel, Patricia;
Patricia Wetzel offers in this volume a comprehensive examination of a frequently discussed yet much misunderstood aspect of the Japanese language. Keigo, or “polite language,” is often viewed as a quaint accessory to Japanese grammar and a relic of Japan’s feudal past. Nothing, Wetzel contends, could be further from the truth. It is true that Japan has a long history of differentiating linguistic form on the basis of social status, psychological detachment, emotional reserve, and a host of other context-dependent factors. But, as is made clear in this unique and broadly framed study, modern keigo consciousness and keigo grammar emerged out of Japan’s encounter with Western intellectual trends in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Keigo in Modern Japan presents a finely nuanced linguistic and political review of keigo available nowhere else in English.

The first chapter outlines the ways in which keigo has been problematized in Western linguistics through the application of structuralist analysis and its offshoots. But keigo’s presence in the English-language literature does not begin to compare with the place it occupies in the Japanese linguistic canon. Wetzel describes the historical roots and growth of keigo and the popularity of how-to manuals, which, she contends, are less about overt instruction than reinforcing what people already believe.


“Ground-breaking ... it provides a wealth of content and bibliographic information in English and Japanese that I have not found anywhere else” —IIAS Newsletter 41 (2006) (Download full review, PDF)

“A landmark achievement, rich in historical moments and documentation” —Philosophy East and West 56 (2006)

“A fascinating story indeed” —Donald Richie, The Japan Times, 25 July 2004

“As the author states, there is no place in Japanese linguistic life that is not keigo; it provides a ‘linguistic window onto the depth, complexity, flexibility and variety of Japanese culture’ (p. 3). In answer to the students who ask me, ‘But why do we need to learn keigo?’ I would simply give them this book.” —Journal of Japanese Studies 31 (2005)

“Students of social history and the philosophy of science will find the content as useful as students of sociolinguistics and pragmatics will.” —Pacific Affairs 77 (2004)

Author: Wetzel, Patricia;
Patricia J.Wetzel is professor of Japanese and director of the Institute for Asian Studies, Portland State University.