Politeness in Japanese language is VERY important, INDEED!
... and into European languages, it even cannot be translated ...
Polite phrases base on a very special concept, of hierarchies in society, and traditions of honor. In some way, it is anti-democratic :), but it is a very strong tradition.
Politeness in Western LanguagesEnglish is said to be polite if applied sophisticated. Other languages, like German, lost any sense of polite phrases, at least they had become utterly frank and cynical and do no longer transport geniune honor. Indeed, in today´s German, any honorable phrase is regarded fooling(!) by the addressee, and the "honor" is a hidden insult...guess why I can tell? I am German - I was, that is :)
French still kept some sense of honorability, deviding the informal You "tu" from the honorable You "Vouz". German has a informal You "Du" and an honorable You "Sie" (which equivalents They, having the farest distance of all languages).
In Swedish, the informal You "Du" has completely replaced the honorable You "Ni" since 1960, so even the Swedish king is addressed using "Du"! But in contrary to German, Swedish language kept a friendly touch, to my mind one of the best mixes of democracy and politeness. That is why I came here :)
Politeness as a Mirror of SocietiesPoliteness in general is a way to comply to a social role and to keep a defined distance - that is NOT defined by the individual, but by society! So in a way, You can say that the emancipation / liberation of the individual has come as far as the language lost its politeness - what an irony :)
In Japan, traditonal conecpts of hierarchy and what we would call "sexism" (e.g. women do not drive busses) are still very strong. Even when it flattened after WW2 and under the postwar developements, it is way stronger than in the West. In fact, it could be compared to conservative muslim societies, or in some sense, to the British class society, despite all democratic traditions. Read more about this at the Demonstratives.
politeness between the genders defined what not to say...
politeness in allday life is about confirming hierarchies, boss and servant, parent and child so to speak. The confucian ideal of obedience (in the West now totally disprized) still has an incredible importance. I was shocked over and over about its degree, even when I knew about it...
Every Japanese knows a hundred times better that this is of course nothing but a fassade, a theatre! Honorability mus never be mixed up with honesty!
The Japanese call it "TATEMAE", the "built-up-before", a kind of firewall :)
Only those persons that belong to Your personal friends You can open to, showing "HON-NE", Your real being. It is VERY hard for foreigners to become a member ... I had the luck in 1990.
politeness against (Japanese!) "foreigners" and REAL foreigners is a problem, because they simply do not belong to the known hierarchies - even a Japanese coming from another part of the country is "making problems" for that. So to overcome this, a Japanese stranges is kept far away using the highest honorable smalltalk phrases, in order to define his/her social role. A free human individual without a social role is completely beyond them! You see the same among Chinese or Indians...
Well, it depends on HOW "alien" that person is ...and WHAT and HOW LONG You have to deal with him/her. It is all quite a matter of cautious calculation. An alien that is of "no importance" can be and IS ignored completely that it really shocks! That person could be in life danger, it would still be ignored...
Foreigners from the Westen, the "GAI-JIN", are VERY-STRANGERS, because the most alien Japanese can be supposed to know about TATEMAE. A GAJIN is completely blind and ignorant for all this!!! That makes is utterly stressful for Japanese at the first contact with Westerners.
There are variations of reactions: an average Japanese holding up TATEMAE as a life principle may try to be VERY polite, which is in Western eyes VERY STIFF (the stiffest British could not beat this!). Or that Japanese may at least try to ignore You.
Other Japanese who can "overcome" their "shyness" may open to You - if You open to them, and if You open to unimagined worlds and concepts, and be tolerant, VERY tolerant, because that is what You want from them, too. It is best to establish contacts to Japanese students, because they are probably the most open Japanese on earth :)
"Honorable" Phrases and -WordsThe direkte Anrede (Demonstratives) "Anata" ("You") can become something very different:
The politenesss-suffixes (on names) may change its "nuance" also:
"Gender" Phrases and -WordsYes, Japanese are "sexists", women and men have different languages. Well, they actually share this in ANY language, but not often to that degree :)
です DESUPerhaps THE most important politenesss phrase: です DESU, pronounced "dess", not "de-su" (or the U almost unhearable). In lecture books, it is referred to as the "copula", and translated with "to be".
But DESU is not only "to be", it means politely "to-be", the informal "to-be" is "DE ARU". DESU is the suffix of almost ANY Japanese sentence, as a kind of "all what has been said was meant POLITELY!"
Only when a verb already ends on MASU ("mass"), DESU is omitted.
Their semantics are the same: "The tree is beautiful". Just the latter is meant polite, which cannot be translated. No way ...
ます, ました MASU, MASHITA ...Every verb has a polite form, ending on MASU ("mass", with a short British a), or MASHITA ("mushta"), for present and past tense, and MASEN ("massäng") or MASEN DESHITA ("massäng däshta") for the respective polite negations. When You do not understand any word, but hear a Japanese talking to You in "MASS" forms, You know at least that You are actually honored :)
"Smoothing" Phrases"All flows", especially in Japanese language
Nothing is certain, the words HAI (Yes) and IIE (No) never mean what You might think. Americans and Germans get crazy with this...they prefer hard facts. Unthinkable to Japanese ...
So Japanese use a lot of smoothing phrases that represent some "IMHO", "in my humble opinion".
Japanese, phrased into English:
"Yes! He is reading that book ... !Erh! i believe :)"
On the other hand, when a boss says that a job must be done RIGHT NOW, he can be even more frank than any cowboy from Texas!
"YOU do it right now, and YOU stay here till it is READY, ´ROIGHT ?!!!"
The poor clerk answers "HAI!!!" , that meets perfectly the German "JAWOHL!!!"
Rough Japanese - Not Polite AT ALL"Oi! Oi! Omaira nani sunn deyoo?!" is something like "HEEEY! WHAT THA F*/%¤#/( ARE YA DOIN´?! WILL YA STOP THAT!"
"Are nan da" - "Whazthat!"
Under the utterly refined multifold layers of politeness, there is a super vulcano under all these surfaces :)
You should learn to understand these phrases, but do never use those phrases, until You know VERY good who You are talking to!
That is like Karate: learn how to defend Yourself most efficiently, and stop that guy within 3 seconds - but for Yourself, learn self discipline and stay calm.
I learned those phrases, too, not because I thought they are fun, but because my Japanese girl friend wanted me not to talk like a woman - she was teaching me Japanese ... I should sound more macho, she said ... well ... maybe Japanese is the only language where I express some macho behavior :)
The roughest Japanese at all is used by the Yakuza members, the Japanese mafia mob. I once sat beside two of them in a subway ... that was a little scary, and I did not get ANY word they were talking about. They would not harm me - at least I was MUCH taller than them, but I left the train next station ...