9 Unique Ways To React To Repetitive Compliments About Your “Great Japanese”

日本語が上手ですね (Your Japanese is great!): The standard cookie cutter comment by Japanese people regarding your Japanese ability despite your actual level or the complexity of what you just said. What appears to be harmless flattery, often hits people the wrong way. In trying to explain the real meaning behind common phrases foreigners hear directed at them, I once said that this phrase doesn’t mean “Your Japanese is great,” but really means “Wow, I’m impressed that you just spoke in Japanese.”

I want to reiterate one more time. There is usually no malice, hidden racism, or show of superiority by the native Japanese speaker. They are just trying to be kind.

Most Japanese people say it because they are:

1) Actually impressed with your Japanese because they don’t hear many foreigners speaking Japanese.
2) Want to show you that they are impressed.
3) Think the polite thing to do is compliment you on your Japanese ability.

So why would this bother anyone?

It’s all a matter of timing and who says this to you. For beginners to intermediate level, you probably never even thought about this. You may even like to hear this. There are two distinct principles that determine your relationship with this phrase.

1. The better your Japanese gets, the less you like this compliment.

Eventually you want to be appreciated for what you are saying in Japanese, not the mere fact that you are speaking Japanese. Think of it in reverse. A speaker from Japan comes over to your country to give a speech in English at a technology conference on a new type of production technique. At a meet and greet afterwards, imagine going up to him and the first thing you say is “wow, your English is great!”

2. The quicker you hear the compliment after you’ve spoken any Japanese, the more it annoys you.

If you just meet someone and you’ve discussed some in depth subject or field with the flowing grace of a beautiful swan (?), you may not react so much to this phrase, as you may often surprise people with your verbal eloquence and prowess.

However, if you’ve just met someone and have said:

こんにちは、はじめまして。ボブです。 (Hello. Nice to meet you? My name is Bob.)

You probably feel something a little different.

The Standard Reaction

So regardless of the way the phrase may or may not create a bit of annoyance brewing up inside of you, you usually have a reply ready.

If you are a beginner, you probably smile and say something simple like ありがとうございます (Thank You).

If you are intermediate to advanced, your go-to response shows a little humility and you say something like:  まだまだです (I’m not quite there yet) or いや~全然です (No, not at all).

This is all fine except it’s boring, and repetitive, and if you are going to respond to the same compliment 1000 times, it would be nice to have some variety. By answering it in a unique way, it is a good way to push out any negative image of the phrase and have a good laugh together with the speaker.

So I want to provide you with 10 alternative ways to react:

Direct Humor

This kind of humor works well with most people because it is very straightforward that you are poking fun at what they just said, but in a playful way.

1. 日本人ですからね。
*You know it’s because I’m Japanese

2. あなた (or if know the speaker’s name, add that here)ほどではないです。
*(My Japanese) isn’t as good as yours.

3. (When you don’t know the person well or at all): お陰様です!
*It’s all thanks to you!

Culture Reference Humor

This is the type of playful humor that shows your love of the Japanese culture and the way the language works.

4. 私の日本語は・・・怖い鮫でしょうか。
* My Japanese is a scary shark?
– The concept is to make a bad pun. This only works if people catch the pun, so it may require explaining, which would defeat the whole purpose. Here 上手 (Jouzu) and ジョーズ (Jaws), which sound fairly similar, are switched.

5. (Giving a thumbs up and goofy smile) チョベリグ!
* Super very good!
– This was a popular phrase from the 1990s used among young people. If heard today, it sounds incredibly cheesy and old. It would be like saying “Tubular!” “Radical!” or “Cowabunga!” in English.

6. (Giving your best guts pose)日本語王に俺はなる!
* I’m going to become the Japanese king!
– This a famous line and cultural reference to One Piece, where the main character says “海賊王に俺はなる” (I’m going to become the pirate king).

Ultra Classical Polite

This is a response in a way that no Japanese person would ever in their wildest (foreigner speaking Japanese) dreams expect. This will make you look like a refined 19th century gentleman (with top-hat and monocle) or lady.

7. 私にはもったいないお言葉です。
* That (complimentary) language is wasted on me.

8. おほめに預かりまして光栄です。
*I have received and am honored by your compliment.

9. そのようなお言葉を頂戴しては、こちらが恐縮してしまいます。
* In receiving such (complimentary) language, I am deeply obliged to you.
– This doesn’t translate into English well, but trust me, the Japanese is extremely powerful. In this situation, the phrase 恐縮 is used as a way of mini-apologizing for possibly causing any discomfort to the speaker due to his compliment of your Japanese. Like it already?

Your Strategy?

How do you feel about hearing 日本語が上手ですね! What’s your typical way of responding? Has this phrase ever bothered you? Plan on trying out any of the above phrases?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


9 Unique Ways To React To Repetitive Compliments About Your “Great Japanese” — 32 Comments

  1. While I don’t plan on using any of those replies, I did enjoy reading them!

    I used to feel awkward and felt like I had to deny it (when I really just wanted to say thank you) because I heard that’s what one should do when speaking Japanese. But now I know you can say thank you and it’s perfectly fine. Unless someone is genuinely saying “I’m not that good yet”, then it’s false humility, which I don’t like at all and think is awkward.

    I know it’s a cultural difference. A lot of people denying compliments in Japan are probably genuinely saying it because they feel they aren’t that good yet or are embarrassed. But that wouldn’t be the case with me, so I’d rather just be honest and thank the person for their compliment.

    I’ve never been bothered by it. I know my Japanese needs improvement and it’s nice to hear encouragement and to have someone cheer me on.

    Back when my Japanese was elementary, my husband told another Japanese learner (who was intermediate) that my Japanese isn’t really good (which really hurt!) He was being humble for me. Something I soon learned I don’t like about Japanese culture and that he learned not to do again.

    • Yeah that would be kind of shocking at first to hear your husband appearing to insult your Japanese. Glad that cultural difference got cleared up quickly!

  2. lol! I’m a そんなことありません kinda guy myself, but I’m gonna have to give these a try sometime. I love the 日本語王に俺はなる! line. How many of these have you personally tried in real life?

    The 上手 line doesn’t really bother me especially. I know they mean well. Besides, I really appreciated it when I was just starting out and my Japanese was junk, even though I knew what they really meant. :P

    • I’ve tried all of them with great success and surprise except for:


      I haven’t found the right person yet who I think would catch the pun and get the humor. But I will definitely aim for a target in the near future!

      And I agree, it is nice in the beginning to hear this as it does make you feel good.

      If you get around to trying any of them, definitely report back with your results!

          • I love bad puns so I have a whole strategy for pulling this off. My reply would be closer to「ジョーズ?俺の日本語は怖いサメじゃねぇよ。」 Basically I’ve found that leading with the correct pronunciation of the pun you are about to deliver helps people comprehend it faster. (This is common in manzai which is probably why it is so effective.)

            Unfortunately for me I don’t hear 上手 much and the phrasing I get is always an accusation in the form of 「何で日本語そんなに旨いの?」 so I probably won’t have much chance to use this one.

            • Nice! I like this even better than what I came up with. Emphasizing the word in the beginning definitely makes it easier to understand.

              I’m sure someone will eventually say 上手 to you and then you can go in for the kill!

  3. I am so trying 1, 7, and 9!!! I may do number 5 one day for shiggles. There’s an 英会話 at my University this Friday. I’ll report back with my findings.

  4. Haha awesome article! These are going in to my Anki deck ASAP so I can pull one out when the opportunity presents itself! :D

  5. For me personally, 日本語上手ですね, doesn’t really bother me too much. Usually I just say,”まだまだ、かじるですけど.” (Not yet, just small bites (little phrases here and there)).

    The phrase that kind of boils of my blood is when I just made a mistake and someone immediately says,”やっぱり、日本語難しいですね.”

    • Really, people say this to you? That seems very condescending to me. I would never say that to someone who was learning English, unless I knew them very well and wanted to tease them.

    • I remember hearing that in the past as well and it also bothered me. I eventually decided to always keep a positive mindset with these types of things, and try to remember these as “misguided attempts at kindness.”

  6. I learned somewhere to respond 「お上手ですねい。」which I guess means something like “And you are an expert flatterer.” But it seems to have a “You’re pulling my leg” sense to it. That or「いえ、いえ。ぼくの日本語はよくないです。」

  7. I got this far too much and would usually respond with, いや、ボロボロです。Most people understand my word play オヤジギャグ? on ペラペラ。It was always fun to watch their reaction.

  8. My regular answer after over 10 years of hearing this is ここは日本ですからね。(meaning approximately, it’s natural to speak good Japanese in Japan) or sometimes hit back with 日本人は英語が下手ですから(日本語を話すしかない)ね。(Japanese don’t speak English well, so (I have no choice but to speak in Japanese))

  9. I’ve tried numbers 1-3 with great success, but something about 7 confuses me: should I be saying わたくし instead of わたし, or can I be a “classical gentlemen” with either?

    • Glad to hear they are bringing you some entertainment!

      As for わたし vs わたくし, it kind of depends what you are aiming for. わたくし makes it feel a bit over exaggerated, like you are trying to push extreme politeness. わたし makes it feel more like you are legitimately trying to go for eloquence.

  10. I used number 9 on an elderly woman after giving her my train seat; the reaction was priceless. However, after telling this story to one of my Japanese friends, he told me I shouldn’t say things like this, because these sorts of phrases can sound like sarcasm coming from a Japanese learner who is still far from fluent, and only when I’m 100% confident in my abilities should I use them. Luckily, she didn’t continue the conversation, so she didn’t know she’d just complimented a fraud. Thoughts?

    • I think that’s just one reaction. Some people will be offended by jokes as well.

      I say as long as you are doing it in a polite way it’s okay. If you laugh at the person as you are saying it or have a condescending look on your face when you say it, people will take it the wrong way.

  11. I finally gave this a go today, but I said あなたより上手です by mistake. The guys was just like, erm, I don’t think so… >.<

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