One major objection to Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory [Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 56–311; Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987] raised by Matsumoto [J. Pragmatics 12 (1988) 403; Multilingua 8 (1989) 207; Japanese/Korean Linguistics, vol. 2, Center for the Study of ... [Show full abstract] Language and Information, Stanford, pp. 55–67] and Ide [Multilingua 8 (1989) 223] is based on data involving Japanese honorifics. The issue is why honorifics, the use of which Brown and Levinson classifies as a negative politeness strategy (‘Give deference’), should occur in non-FTA utterances. Having shown that Brown and Levinson’s theory does not explain Japanese honorifics satisfactorily, Ide goes so far as to propose an account based on the concept of discernment. The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) to show that by taking into consideration a salient feature of the Japanese society, namely, its vertical and hierarchical structure, it is possible to propose an account that is consistent with Brown and Levinson’s theory; and (2) to argue against the discernment theory which seems to have gained some recognition. A series of arguments will be advanced to show that an account based on the politeness theory is superior to the discernment account.