Is politeness the right term to describe 連用形+ます inflection? Should it be always referred as formal instead of polite, and informal instead of plain?

Politeness is the listener's interpretation of the opponent's communication style. Words in Japanese inflect to project different levels of formality, how can they be polite or impolite by themselves? A speaker can use very formal language and at the same time be very impolite to the listener, e.g. employing sarcasm or certain body language.

  • 2
    So who used the word "politeness" in referring to different infections in Japanese language? Why don't you speak to them directly and ask for the reason?
    – nodakai
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 7:41
  • 2
    Are you asking about vocal inflections (tone of voice) or variations on how a word is conjugated ?
    – Harukogirl
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 4:21
  • 1
    Are you talking about this kind of terminology confusion? japanese.stackexchange.com/q/36338/7810 Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 11:48
  • 1
    「~ます・~です」などは「丁寧形」、「~だ・である」などは「普通形」といいますが関係ないでしょうか kanjifumi.jp/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Scan10234.jpg 「丁寧形」「丁寧体」などは普通「polite form」といって、「formal form」とかいわないと思うんですが・・
    – chocolate
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 5:18
  • 2
    ^でも、formality と politeness は別ですしね。「polite でない formal な文体」ってあるでしょう。例えば、論文とか法律とか。「日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。」なんて、formalだけどpolite じゃないですよね。
    – chocolate
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


Japanese has this term: 社交{しゃこう}辞令{じれい}

In English, that may be defined as "diplomatic way of putting things" (社交辞令 on Jisho.org) or "diplomatic wording" (direct translation by looking up each word in dictionaries).

How to discover

The term 社交辞令 is not easy to discover when looking into bilingual dictionaries, regardless of searching from either languages.

  • English-Japanese dictionaries: The term will not be found when looking up using any of these keywords: diplomatic, polite, formal.

  • Japanese-English dictionaries: The term may not be found when looking up using either word しゃこう 社交 or じれい 辞令.

  • Online Japanese dictionary: Many words found in result and 社交辞令 is included i.e. search result for "diplomatic" on Jisho.org.

The term 社交辞令 is less likely used in conversation for some reason that I may aware (but decided not to mention here). I have only heard this term several times on Japanese TV documentaries or variety show that features interviewer meeting Japanese people on street.

Alternate translations

In English, the word 'diplomatic' mainly refers to diplomatic relation between countries but this can be extended to relation between people.

ADJECTIVE [...] Having or showing an ability to deal with people in a sensitive and tactful way. -- Oxford Dictionaries

Note that online dictionary might include other words, such as "polite" or "lip service" as translation for the term 社交辞令. However, being diplomatic does not necessary mean polite, impolite or rude or anything in particular.

Above all, I'm almost certain that this term is most appropriate to describe the generic politeness and formality that doesn't necessary mean polite or otherwise impolite by itself.


Your question: A speaker can use very formal language and at the same time be very impolite to the listener, e.g. employing sarcasm or certain body language.

Yes off course! I believe it doesn't depend on the language.

Such situaiton we call "慇懃無礼 (a feigned politeness)" in Japanese.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .