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I have heard that, in former times, there was a very polite form of speaking in the form of, e.g., "the emperor liked playing to die" instead of "the emperor died". Is this true that there is a style of japanese in which people speak about playing to or pretending to do something for reasons of politeness?

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Thanks for asking this. I had actually intended to ask roughly the same thing, as I had come across the term in one of Joseph Campbell's essays, but had never encountered it in Japan, so I wondered if it really existed or he had made a mistake of some kind. –  Dave M G Dec 18 '11 at 2:59
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It is true that a word that means 'play' is used to get the super honorific form (although you seem to have misunderstanding in that you presented the emperor liked playing to die, which does not fit).

To get the super honorific form, you can attach あそばす (which is a classical honorific form of the verb 遊ぶ that means 'play' when used as a main verb) after the verb stem (with epenthetic vowel i):

亡くなる
'die/disappear' (euphemism of 死ぬ 'die')

亡くなられる/お亡くなりになる
'die' (honorific)

お亡くなりあそばす
'die' (super honorific)

or after お/御+noun

勉強する
'study'

勉強される/お勉強なさる
'study' (honorific)

お勉強あそばす
'study' (super honorific)

Generally, the strategy primarily used to honor someone in the Japanese language is to remove the volition from the person. Hence, referring to a person not by the personal pronouns or 彼女 but by the locational demonstratives こなた (obsolete), そなた (obsolete), あなた, どなた, or directional demonstratives こちら, そちら, あちら, どちら, as if that person is not a person, is more polite. られ, which initially only meant passive, came to be used to express honorifics because passive will syntactically remove the volitionality (agenthood) from the subject. The same with なる 'become'. Becoming something does not need volition. Using あそばす 'play', in my hunch, is along the same line. By adding this verb, it means that the act was not done under full serious volition or intention. In English, the same strategy is used to at least weaken the responsibility of the person doing something (although I am not sure if that is necessarily considered as being polite). For example, instead of saying The US army killed some civilians, Some civilians were killed (by the US army) implies less volition, hence less responsibility, of the subject.

In present Japanese, this form is used as 役割語 (stereotypical role words) for rich madams (often in imperative form). These are called あそばせ言葉.

ごめんあそばせ
'excuse me' (implication of stereotypical rich madam)

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Thank you very much for your answer! –  Eddy Dec 17 '11 at 12:09
    
@sawa do you or does anyone else have an informed opinion on the reason for the development of this usage or its conceptual implications? –  yadokari Dec 18 '11 at 3:18
    
@yadokari I added my answer to your question to my answer. –  sawa Dec 18 '11 at 4:11
    
thank you for the answer –  yadokari Dec 18 '11 at 5:12
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According to the 日本国語大辞典, the meaning of あそばす became separate from the strict sense of "play" (game/music) fairly quickly, but was still limited to a slightly broader sense of "perform some art or skill" (write, shoot, etc.) until the late medieval period, and use as an auxiliary verb (補助動詞用法) - the "maximum honorific form" here - dates only from the Edo period. If this is the case then praising the art/skill/elegance of the referent may have been more important than denying volition. (Just some interesting info that I thought I'd share as it was all new to me.) –  Matt Dec 19 '11 at 0:43
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