Enryo (遠慮)/Kèqi (客气)

Yunfan Zhou & Kana Orita


With the process of globalization, people seem to worry about whether cultural homogeneity will occur. At the same time, it is gradually found that some unique cultural concepts have their universality, but different cultural backgrounds still restrict many similar concepts, and their essence is always different from the perspective of indigenous psychology.

     Japan and China are neighboring countries and historically share many aspects of culture including Chinese writing system and Confucianism. There are, of course, many differences in these two cultures which potentially cause conflict or misunderstanding not only because of the language barrier. Therefore, mutual understanding beyond the language level is required to avoid serious issues. For example, one of the major difficulties that learners of Japanese language face are the ambiguities in utterances made by native Japanese speakers, and they sometimes get confused if their request is accepted or fail to notice that they were asked for a favor by a Japanese interlocutor (Koyama & Ikeda, 2011).  One cultural concept that explains ambiguity in Japanese speech is Enryo (遠慮)(Koyama & Ikeda, 2011).

     According to Kubo (2006), Japanese enryo consists of two Chinese characters “en” and “ryo” which respectively means “far distance” and “consideration”, and it is performed to show the acknowledgement of self in relation to others. Kubo (2006) defined enryo behavior as “a social as well as regulatory speech act to maintain the expected social and emotional equilibrium between interlocutors” (p.140).

     The corresponding Chinese word of enryo is Kèqi (客气). According to Fang and Faure (2011), the Chinese characters “ke” and “qi” represent “guest” and “behavior” (or air), respectively. When these two characters are put concurrently, it means “behavior of guest,” or in a broad sense, keqi means “politeness,” “modesty,” “understanding” (p. 322).

    On the whole, keqi is a substitute concept for politeness in Chinese, mainly occurs in interpersonal interaction (Chen, 2011), which can be considered as “a rule of Chinese communication developed from the emphasis of harmony” (Sanzone, 2015, p. 275).


     Takita (2012) applied Brown and Levinson’s (1978) politeness theory to Japanese enryo to understand its concept. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness is derived from two types of face namely, positive face and negative face. Positive face refers to the desire to be approved by others while negative face refers to the desire not to be impeded and to be free from impose by others (Brown & Levinson, 1987). For example, when you want to be a leader on a group project, you expect others to approve you, which is positive face (Redmond, 2015). On the other hand, when you are studying in a library, you expect others to save your negative face by leaving you alone (Redmond, 2015). Takita (2012) claims that the enryo behavior signifies the care for others’ face.

     The typical enryo behavior based on the theory of face can be observed in discourse for asking a favor. The common enryo expressions in requesting are “sumimasen” (I’m sorry) or “moushiwakenai” (I’m troubling you) which show that the speaker is hesitating to interfere others. For example, when you get lost in an unfamiliar city, you can find someone passes by and say “sumimasen, michi wo okiki shitai no desuga” (I’m sorry, but I want to ask a direction). This expression is a good example in which the speaker hesitates to stop a stranger and take his/her time to explain how to get to the destination.

     Kubo (2005) explains enryo as a way to respond politely to an offer or invitation. For example, when your boss offers to treat your food, you might say, “ie ie” (no, no) or “tondemonai” (not at all) even if you actually want that offer. As Kubo (2005) states, accepting an offer immediately is considered to be rude in Japanese communication. Therefore, denial or refusal such as “ie, ie” (No, no) or “tondemonai” (Not at all) is a polite response that shows the concerns for the possible troubles might impose to the person who makes an offer (Kubo, 2005; Takita, 2012).

     Takita (2012) argues that enryo is also strategically used to indirectly show the desire that the speaker does not want be imposed upon. In other words, enryo is an indirect way of saying “no” to an offer or invitation from others. In Japanese communication, denying or saying something in direct way has a risk of face-threatening (Takita, 2012). Therefore, as Koyama and Ikeda (2011) claim, Japanese people use indirect speech to avoid conflicts and build harmonious relations with others. For example, when your boss invites you to visit his house after work but you really want to go home because you are tired, you can say “enryo shite okimasu” (I’ll refrain from doing that).

     The term “enryo” is also used to ask people not to do something. In many public places in Japan, we can see or hear announcements such as “otabako wa goenryo kuwasaki” (Please refrain from smoking), “tuuwa wa goenryo kuwasaki” (Please refrain from talking on the phone), and “insyoku wa goenryo kudasau” (Please refrain from drinking and eating). These are softer expressions of “Do not do something” (Chewy, 2018). Prohibiting people from doing something denies what Brown and Levinson (1978) call positive face. Therefore, indirect speech is preferred to avoid conflict as Koyama and Ikeda (2011) argue, and the term “enryo” is commonly used to indirectly prohibit a certain behavior.

On the other hand, according to Sanzone (2015), Fang and Faure (2011), keqi appears to have two main functions in Chinese.

One of the functions is that keqi embodies the values of modesty and humility in traditional Chinese culture (Fang & Faure, 2011). A person has been taught to be polite since childhood, and society can accept only one who is well-mannered. A representative example is that children are taught that when they receive a gift, they must first refuse it before accepting it, because the ritual can show their politeness. It is traditional Confucianism that influences these views. Under the traditional Confucianism, an excellent person must have the characteristics of humility and politeness. In this respect, keqi behavior is one of the most suitable ways to show traditional Chinese cultural values. In other words, understating one’s capacity, expertise, strength, or competence and “engaging in the self-effacing talk is an integral part of the Chinese’s traditional socialization process” (Gao and Ting, 1998, p. 47).

     Another function of keqi, which is also its ultimate goal, is related to the concept of harmony, that is, keqi behavior can maintain a harmonious relationship. Harmony is an essential concept in China. As Chen (2011) stated, the Chinese believe that harmony is the basis of the Chinese communicative paradigm’s assumption, which means that “all the efforts of Chinese communication aim to achieve a state of harmonious equilibrium, and the process of reaching harmony is highly dynamic” (Chen, 2011, p. 3).

The meaning of keqi concretely explains its function. According to Sanzone (2015), keqi represents the meaning of mannerly and respect for others, which can help people to accomplish the communicative goals smoothly in interpersonal communication and promote consensus in the communication process. Also, keqi behavior can distinguish and confirm who is in or out of the group, and thus generate a more energetic “we feeling” (p. 277). For example, the Chinese usually confirm their relationship and reach a harmonious agreement in this way. While a Chinese person meets a friend, who invites him to eat fried chicken (bought by a friend), some people cannot say yes immediately. They will start by saying, “It is ok. I am not hungry.” The friend will invite them again, and they may answer, “That is not good for you.” When the friend says, do not be so polite, he will finally accept his friend’s offer. In this case, keqi seems to act as a sign to end the rejection ritual.

   Overall, the behavior of keqi (polite) exercised in the acquaintance relationship is a driving force to promote a more intimate state (Sanzone, 2015).


     According to Kubo (2006) the relation between interlocutors in Japanese communication is divided into three categories: Uchimono(ウチ者) (insider), Yososama (ヨソ様)(acquaintance), and Yosomono(ヨソ者) (outsider). Uchimono includes family and members of your group that stands against other groups such as colleagues of your company (Kubo, 2005). Yososama refers to neighbors and someone you have met before (Kubo, 2005). Finally, Yosomono indicates total stranger whom you have never met before (Kubo, 2005).

     The relation between others is an important determiner whether people are expected to perform enryo or not. Among uchimono or insiders, people are obligated not to express enryo (Kubo, 2005). If you perform enryo to your family, you will be described as “tanin gyougi na” (acting like a stranger). Performing enryo to your family members or uchimono gives an impression of you are not trusting them, and other people might think you and your family do not have a healthy relationship. Kubo (2005) also argues that it is inappropriate to expect uchimono to perform enryo to you since you are pushing the person away from your social group and makes that person feel isolated and uncomfortable (Kubo, 2006).

     It is among yososama relations in which people are obligated to perform enryo (Kubo, 2005). If you fail to perform enryo to yososama, you will be considered as “atsukamashii” (too demanding), “zu zu shii” (greedy), or “katte” (selfish) (Takita, 2012). For example, if you talk to someone who is studying in a library without enryo manner, you will be considered as selfish and fail to build friendly relations with that person because that behavior completely ignores his/her negative face.

     In yosomono relations, on the other hand, people are not supposed to express enryo (Kubo, 2005). Japanese people are told not to accept or serve any offer to total strangers since their childhood. Although refusing indirectly is a form of politeness, people are expected to deny or reject clearly to an offer from total strangers. If you fail and unintentionally perform enryo to strangers, you will be “amaku mirareru” (taken advantage of) (Kubo, 2005). For example, when a total stranger invites you to visit his house and you try to be polite, your behavior will not be understood as enryo, but he might take advantage if you cannot say “no” clearly.

     Apart from speech acts, enryo behavior can be observed in Japanese people’s nonverbal behaviors as well. Shibata and Toyama (2018) studied the Japanese unique phenomenon of Enryo no Katamari(遠慮の塊) (a mass of hesitation). It is a last remaining portion of food left on the table as a result of hesitation to finish the dish when people share food at restaurants or izakaya (Japanese bars). Shibata and Toyama (2018) compared the eating behaviors of the friend condition group with people who are familiar with each other and the stranger condition group with people who are not familiar with each other. The results they found is that the participants in the stranger condition group shared food more equally than the friend condition group. Therefore, Japanese people change the amount of food they eat in accordance with people they are sharing the food with. It implies that Japanese people usually do not perform enryo to their friends, but to people they are not familiar with, they always care about other people and make sure every participant eat as much as they do.

Like Japanese people’s behavior in interpersonal communication, Chinese people also adopt different ways of speaking according to the type of counterpart. According to Fang and Faure (2011), Chinese people appear to have three different ways of talking according to the type of counterpart: the family, the friends, and the strangers. Communication with family and friends tend to be very polite, while interactions with strangers are brief and purely functional. But close family members or friends are the exceptions, which means the Chinese will not be keqi to them. In short, as mentioned in Sanzone (2015), Chinese people show keqi when interacting with acquaintances, not strangers or close people.

Fang and Faure (2011) believed that there are two typical keqi behaviors in the host-guest relationship. One form of keqi behavior can be referred to as self-denial. For example, even in sumptuous dishes at the dinner table, the host will say to the guest, “The dishes are not so well prepared.” or “There is nothing delicious.”

Another form of keqi behavior can be called offer-decline ritual, which is commonly shown in that the guest often refuses the host’s offer (for example, would you like a drink) before accepting it. This ritual is considered to reveal the politeness of the guests and the hospitality of the host (Fang & Faure, 2011).

Related expressions

There are many words overlap the concept of enryo in verb and noun forms: Hikaeme (控え目; moderate), Tsutsushimi (慎む; refrain), and Hikaeru (控える; hold back) and many (Enryo, n.d.a). All those words are used as frequently as enryo in daily life. Hikaeru is a common alternative word for enryo as represented by the expression such as “ohikae kudasai” (please refrain), but “go enryo kudasai” (please refrain) has stronger imperative meaning (Eigobu, 2019). 

According to Gao and Ting (1998), there are several terms often used in keqi behavior: Yujian(愚见;stupid opinions), Gaojian(高见;great opinions), Hanshe(寒舍;shabby house), Guigu (贵府;precious masion). These terms are formal words (or written words) and rarely used in daily life. Another common expression of keqi is bu keqi(不 客气), which means “you are welcome.” or “don’t mention it.”


     After comparing the functions and specific cases of keqi and enryo, we found some similarities between them in terms of features.

     Firstly, there are two functional similarities between the two concepts. Both concepts are used to maintain harmonious relations with others. Also, both can show the speaker’s politeness by rejecting the other’s offer before accepting it. Moreover, the idea of being keqi or enryo only to acquaintances is also a similarity between the two concepts. Japanese people and Chinese people do not show enryo or keqi to close family members or strangers.

     At the same time, there are many differences between the two concepts. Firstly, keqi and enryo have different sources, even though they originate from ancient Chinese articles. The term keqi comes from Zuo Zhuan, and its original intent is “the morale of intruders in combat” (Zhu, 2016). In contrast, the term enryo comes from the Analects of Confucius, whose original meaning is “forethought” (Enryo, n.d.b). Secondly, enryo serves two unique functions which keqi does not have: to refuse others politely and to ask someone not to do something. Also, there is a specific behavior that occurs when the Japanese share food. This kind of behavior is referred to as Enryo no Katamari (遠慮の塊), which is not common in China.

      To sum up, the two concepts have many similar points, but from the comparison above, we found that directly translating the words does not always help to understand because the corresponding translation does not contain the same meanings. That is especially important in China and Japan, where Chinese characters are used. Sometimes it may be better to look at these concepts individually, even though they have the same characters.


     The comparison of the cultural concept in Japanese and Chinese revealed that the concept of keqi overlaps another Japanese concept of kenson (謙遜). According to Shinmeikai kokugojiten (1988), kenson is to consider the self as inferior to others and behave in a moderate way. In Japanese communication, kenson behavior is often observed when Japanese people introduce themselves to someone they meet for the first time, when someone compliments them, and when they want to compliment others (Yoshitomi, 2007). For example, when a host invites a guest and serve some tea, he/she might say to the guest “socha desuga douzo” (This is not a good quality of tea, but please have some). In another example, when someone makes a compliment such as “e ga ojouzu nanodesune” (You are good at painting), Japanese people usually respond “taishita koto naidesuyo” (This is not good) in kenson manner. Those speech acts or behaviors are extremely similar to self-denial in keqi.  

      In Chinese, there is a term that is almost the same character as the Japanese kenson: Qianxun (谦逊). “Qian” means modest, not arrogant, and “Xun” means to avoid, to give in (Xinhua Dictionary, 2019). Qianxun means modest and respectful. It is generally believed that qianxun (谦逊) describes a person’s deferential attitude to a higher degree than qianxu (谦虚), indicating a very courteous manner, behavior, and character towards others (Modern Chinese Dictionary, 2016). Besides, qianxun can only be used as an adjective in general and is often used as a written word.

    By comparing the Japanese kenson and the Chinese qianxun, we found that there are similarities between the two terms. For example, they both express people’s respect for others by denying themselves, which overlaps with the meaning of keqi. But because qianxun is used to describe a very high level of respect, it is not common in the daily life of modern China. Therefore, in this respect, there are subtle differences between the two terms in actual use.

As a result, perhaps contrasting the Japanese kenson with the Chinese qianxun can also help us understand cultural differences more deeply.

References and Further Reading

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: some universals in language usage.

     Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chen, G. M. (2011). An introduction to key concepts in understanding the Chinese:

Harmony as the foundation of Chinese communication. China Media Research,

7(4), pp.1-13.

Chewy. (2019, February 26). “go enryo kudasai” wa “kinshi” to onaji? Ruigo ya eigo    

     hyougen “goenryo negaimasu” ga tsukeienai riyuu wo kaisetsu. [Is “Please refrain”

same to “prohibition”? Explanation on why synonyms or English expressions “Please refrain” cannot be used] Retrieved from https://chewy.jp/businessmanner/2099/

Eigobu. (2019, May 7). “go enryo kudasai” to “ohikae kudasai” no imi no chigai to 

     tukaiwake. [The differences in meaning and usage of “go enryo kudasai” and “ohikae kudasai”]. Retrieved from:  https://eigobu.jp/magazine/goenryo-2  

Enryo. (n.d.a). In Rensou ruigo jiten. [Association synonym dictionary]. Retrieved from: https://renso-ruigo.com/word/%E9%81%A0%E6%85%AE

Enryo. (n.d.b). In Gogen yurai jiten. [Etymology dictionary]. Retrieved from:


Fang, T., & Faure, G. O. (2011). Chinese communication characteristics: A Yin Yang

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Gao, G., & Ting-Toomey, S. (1998). Communicating effectively with the Chinese (5).

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Koyama, S., & Ikeda, Y. (2011). Developing a Japanese enryo-sasshi communication

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Kubo, S. (2005). A Study of Rapport Management from Speech-Act Perspectives:On a

     typical Japanese speech act “Enryo”. Matsuyama Daigaku Ronsyu, 17(2). pp.161-191.

Kubo, S. (2006). On a Japanese speech act enryo: an analysis of an X-sociative and

     X-regulation speech act. PAAL Japan,10, pp.139-150.

Modern Chinese Dictionary (7th ed.). (2016). The Commercial Press.

Redmond, M. V. (2015). Face and politeness theories. English Technical Reports and White Papers, 2. Retrieved from: http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/engl_reports/2

Sanzone, D. (2015). The global intercultural communication reader. Canadian Journal of

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Shibata, H., & Toyama, N. (2018). How people share food with friends and strangers.

     Journal for the integrated study of dietary habits, 29(2). pp. 111-118.

Shinmeikai kokugojiten. (3rd ed.). (1988). Sanseidou. 

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     Hiroshima University Foreign Language Research, 15. pp. 189-196.

Xinhua Dictionary (12th ed.). (2019). The Commercial Press.

Yoshitomi, C. (2007). An analysis from the pragmatic and social psychological viewpoints in relation to the expression of “KENSON”. Ryukoku Daigaku Ronshu, 469. pp. 138-168.

Zhu, Y. (2016). Keqi de ciyi yuanquan. [The origin and evolution of the meaning of “keqi”]. wen jiao zi liao [Cultural and educational information], 19, pp. 30-32.