A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:
She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)
Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.
Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.
Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.