Keigo Mistakes to Avoid With Your Japanese Clients

Keigo Mistakes to Avoid With Your Japanese Clients

You don’t need to know the ins and outs of keigo grammar construction to improve how you sound, starting from today. Master these 5 keigo mistakes to avoid, and you will make a better impression the next time you interact with your Japanese clients. 

As a foreign executive in Japan, you won’t be expected to know and use keigo to the degree your Japanese colleagues must use honorific language. 

But correcting these easy-to-make keigo (honorific and polite language) mistakes will help you avoid offending your Japanese clients and customers.

Master these phrases that even Japanese get wrong—and quickly improve your overall presentation. 

Note: Context is everything when it comes to when and how to use polite language. The scenarios that follow are within the context of a business-client relationship. 

Mistake 1. When you want to confirm you understand what your client has said

🗙了解しました。 = ryoukai shimashita

🗙わかりました 。= wakarimashita

“I understand” is the English translation for the phrases above, which are perfectly acceptable in situations where you are not talking with a client or a superior. 

However, when talking with a client, customer, business colleague, or a superior, here are the polite ways of saying you understand what the other is saying: 

✔️承知いたしました。= shyouchi itashimashita

✔️かしこまりました。= kashikomarimashita

Mistake 2. When you want to convey thankfulness to your client

🗙お世話様です。 = osewa sama desu

Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase used to express thanks and thought that you could incorporate this into your meetings with clients. Osewa sama desu is acceptable for your co-workers or for those who are doing work for you. But when addressing your clients, use the following: 

✔️お世話になります。 = osewa ni narimasu = thanking them for their future business relationship

✔️お世話になっております。= osewa ni natte orimasu = thanking them for their current business relationship

These phrases thank the other person (in this case, your client) for their care or concern. It is a social nicety that shows you value the importance of their business relationship with you.

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Mistake 3. When you want to thank your clients for “hard work” 

🗙ご苦労様です。= gokurousamadesu

🗙 お疲れ様です。= otsukaresamadesu

Gokurousamadesu is used in cases where a boss (superior) thanks the other (a subordinate) for their effort or hard work. 

Otsukaresamadesu is used between colleagues and is an expression of acknowledgment for work done, often used as a “cushion” phrase or a greeting. Additionally, otsukaresamadesu is the correct phrase to use toward your superiors. 

Japanese etiquette experts, however, advise against words of comfort or acknowledgment of hard work to one’s superiors, as it can sound condescending.   

Additionally, in a business setting, otsukaresamadesu is a phrase used within one’s own company and not with your clients. 

When you want to convey an attitude of thankfulness for something your client has done, then a more fitting phrase is the one we mentioned earlier: 

✔️お世話になっております。 = osewa ni natte orimasu = thanking them for their care or concern.


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Mistake 4. When you haven’t seen or heard from a client in a while

🗙お久しぶりです。 = ohisashiburi desu

Ohisashiburi desu is an informal expression, equivalent to the English phrase “long time, no see.” Adding an “o” in front of a phrase does not make it honorific nor OK to use with clients. 

When greeting clients you haven’t seen or heard from in a long time, use the following phrase: 

✔️ご無沙汰しております。= gobusata shite orimasu

This phrase apologizes for the period when you have not been in contact. (Remember, in Japanese culture, apologies are a way to move forward and don’t have all the same connotations as in the US.) 

Mistake 5. When you are with a client and you need to excuse yourself 

🗙ちょっと、すみません。= chotto sumimasen 

Chotto sumimasen is an informal phrase used to excuse yourself when you are with friends or colleagues. 

However, when you’re with a client and your phone rings, or you need to excuse yourself to use the bathroom, the phrase to use is the following: 

✔️失礼します。すぐに戻ります。= shitsureishimasu; suguni modorimasu = I beg your pardon (as I take your leave), and I will return quickly.

When you return, you would say the following: 

✔️大変失礼しました。= taihen shitsureishimashita = I have bothered you greatly. (That’s a direct translation, and it’s equivalent to the English “thank you for waiting.”) 

Please note, getting up or leaving your clients during a meeting is considered quite rude. Of course, there are occasions, such as when drinking with clients, that you will likely need to use the bathroom or otherwise get up for a moment. In those instances, shitsureishimasu is preferable to sumimasen.

For those who wish to learn more about keigo mistakes to avoid, Keigo to kotoba zukai by the Japanese Service Manners Association is an excellent resource, which I referenced when writing this article.

Stay tuned for more TokyoMate articles on business manners that will help you go beyond bowing and business cards to win at capturing the attention of your Japanese customers—the right way!

Want to leave a beautiful impression on prospective clients? Need help with building lasting customer relationships in Japan? 

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