What Japanese People Say And What They Really Mean

Ever misunderstand or misinterpret what a Japanese person has told you?  Even if you know the Japanese, a lot of times you make a mistake on what is actually being said.  Here is a list of 7 of the most common things Japanese people will say to you while you are in Japan.  It is important to understand what they say to you actually means, otherwise you may start to harbor silly, unwarranted feelings that you are being insulted.

1. “日本語が上手ですね”

They say:  Your Japanese is great.
You think they mean:  Wow, my Japanese must be great.
They really mean:  Wow, I’m impressed that you just spoke in Japanese.

You can usually get the meaning when you are told this after saying something simple like an introduction in Japanese.  This comes from the fact that most foreigners don’t study/speak Japanese, so when Japanese people hear it, it surprises them.  You will notice a strange phenomenon that the better your Japanese gets, the less you will hear this.

2.  外人
They say:  Foreigner
You think they mean:  Foreigner (racist slur)
They really mean:  Foreigner (friendly phrase)

This is one of the strangest things that foreigners react to inappropriately.  They think that if they are called a 外人 (literally meaning outside person), they are being insulted, or put down.  They then also think that the more correct phrase is 外国人(literally meaning outside country person).

Chisel this into your mind.  The phrase 外人 is not racist.  Take a poll of a 1000 Japanese people that use the phrase, and I guarantee you that 999 will say they use the phrase just to refer to foreigners and think nothing of it.  You have to remember that Japanese is a big description-name-calling society.  There are many set names that are used for people that they don’t know the real name of.  It is just a part of the culture.  A few examples are:

お兄さん: Used by children to address a man who is in his late teens to late twenties.
おじさん:  Used to address a man in his 30s-50s
おばあさん: Used to address a woman over ~60
お客さん: Used to address a customer

3. 鼻が高い
They say:  Your nose is big/long.
You think they mean:  You have an ugly big/long nose.
They really mean:  You have a beautiful big/long nose.

In Japanese culture, where this is a less common trait, it is a compliment.

4. 堀が深い
They say:  Your face is carved out well (usually referring to the the deepness between the eyes and the nose)
You think they mean:  What the hell?
They really mean:  (Compliment) You have a nice face.

This one is hard.  Japanese find the feature of having the deep area between your eyes and nose to be a symbol of beauty, so when they say this, they are complimenting you.

5.  納豆を食べれますか?
They say: Can you eat Natto (insert any uncommon Japanese food)?
You think they mean:  What, they think I don’t have the ability to eat Natto because I’m a foreigner?
They really mean:  Do you eat Natto?

While  literally 食べれます is the “can” form of eat, Japanese people usually aren’t asking whether you have the ability to eat it, but whether you do eat it.

6. 箸を使えますか。
They say:  Can you use chopsticks?
You think they mean: Wow, you have the ability to use chopsticks? (Condescending)
They really mean:  Wow, you have the ability to use chopsticks (non-condescending, with slight ignorance).

There is an unfortunate misconception to many Japanese people who don’t have travel experience that all food is eaten with silverware in Western countries.  They don’t realize the massive spread of Asian restaurants around the world.

7.  かっこいい!可愛い!
They say:  You are cool/handsome/hot/cute!
You think they mean:  Ooh, I must be cool, handsome, hot, or cute.
They really mean:  As a foreigner (which has a bit of an exotic appeal), you automatically possess a little of this status.

These words are highly overused in the Japanese language, and I’m convinced that they’ve lost all of their original meaning.
Next time you hear any of the following, you’ll know how to react properly.
*Note:  These may not always be 100% accurate.  Unfortunately, just like anywhere in the world,  there are also rude/insulting people in Japan.

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


What Japanese People Say And What They Really Mean — 17 Comments

  1. I can relate to these as I’ve experienced some already. But what makes it strange is, the more you improve, the less you get complimented. Which isn’t a bad thing. I have a japanese friend who doesn’t really talk to me in japanese much. It’s only when I showed how I transcribed a scene in japanese(fully correct), that she switched to japanese. I think it really comes down to showing people you can do it and show it to them.

    Keep up the good blog posts

  2. I got at my school…”your face is so small, your legs are so long”…all compliments of course. I thought it was funny. Wasn’t offended. They also say I’m fashionable which I totally was like “noooo I’m def not” lol I should write about that lol.

  3. When I went to a Japanese conference for young adults in NY, the people there would call me 可愛い every single time they looked at me. It got tiring quickly, and did not feel like a compliment. What do you say after the 10th time being called that? I just began ignoring them.

    • Whenever I hear a repeated stereotyped compliment I always try to respond in a creative way that amuses me. How about “当たり前じゃん。毎日特訓しているし”. Of course, after all I am doing special training every day.”

  4. These are great! My favorite is when someone tells me I speak great Japanese, when the ENTIRE conversation has been in English. It’s happened multiple times, and cracks me up every time!

  5. Hello, I’m Japanese. I’ve just found your blog and read this article. This is very interesting to me. :)
    I’ve been learning English and helping some friends who study Japanese. So, I’d like to know what they think, what is their culture more. Reading your blog also helps me improve my reading comprehension. Thank you. ;)

  6. You know I really agree with the idea that people actually say 「上手ですね」less the better your Japanese gets!
    I’ve been living in Japan for about 6 months now and in terms of speaking I would say I’m getting to the point of higher intermediate or early advanced. My host grandma still says 「偉いね」when I write down simple kanji but at the train station I asked for information about a train in regular Japanese and I seemed to get a very angry and dismissive response that I don’t think I would’ve received if I acted as if I could hardly speak Japanese.

    It is very weird! It’s almost like Japanese people recognise beginners and advanced speakers but intermediate is like a no-mans land?

    • Firstly, awesome blog!!
      Without blowing my own trumpet too much, my Japanese is probably advanced level. I can converse day-to-day and so long as the topic doesn’t drift into the history of coronary surgery I can hold my own.
      I still get jyouzu’ed all the time. I treat it as one part of meeting a new Japanese person. It is almost always followed with an explanation of how long I lived in Japan, etc.
      It still bugs me though. I never really know how to respond. Agreeing with them is a bit pompus and trying to modestly deny it in perfect Japanese is a bit dumb.
      I usually just say thank you but that’s not what I am thinking on the inside!

  7. I love your blog! It’s nicely written and very entertaining! I’ve a question – what do Japanese people mean when you give them some new information, and they say “Eh”? (へ) Does it have a positive/negative connotation? I often hear that when I talk to them, so just hoping they’re not confused or something!

    • If it’s a short え followed with a question it shows confusion and/or minor surprise (doesn’t have a positive or negative connotation). It’s kind of like saying “what?” Often written out as えっ? if you extend the length of the え, it can show major surprise.

      If you are talking about an extended へぇー, that is used for surprise, expressing interest (that something was deep or remarkable). Or it can be used a bit sarcastically to show that you don’t care at all and are completely uninterested.

  8. are not the case.
    Some Japanese are malicious or uneducated.

    ” You say “What you said hurts me”, But I don’t think so,so I dont care. ”
    The people like said this is the worst.(Ex 1.)

  9. The longer I live in Japan the more I realize the people
    with whom I interact on a daily basis cannot recognize genuine kindness. Japanese people’s kindness is not from the heart. It’s manufactured to give a face value good impression.

    Anyone who lives in Japan for at least two years should have the experience of a ‘good and kind-hearted’ Japanese friend suddenly stop corresponding with them. The answer is the Japanese can only feign for so long, and you were around longer than they could endure.

    I know of Japanese who curse and slam their doors whenever they see a foreigner, get off public transportation if a foreigner alights, encourage their children to tease and call foreigners names, set off store alarms and call security when they see a foreigner, police/landlords searching foreigners’ (mainly those who live alone) apartment rooms among other devious things. A lot of foreigners do not know their rooms are searched.

    I could go on and on but will save some.

    • I lived in Tokyo for a year, so I’m far from being an expert on your notion of ‘Japanese kindness.’ However, while I had begun to develop similar, negative thoughts, after returning home to the U.S. for a while, I began to think (and still do) that politeness and ‘kindness’ are a way for Japanese people to ensure that their society functions smoothly—they live in a collectivist culture, after all. It was extremely rare for me to encounter openly rude people, even on jam-packed JR trains. As an American living in the contemporary U.S., I find your comments on Japanese xenophobia and racism absurd, at least in terms of such characteristics being as widespread as you make them sound. I would be willing to bet that in the ‘tolerant melting pot’ of America, we have FAR more nationalist/racist jerks than Japan does. And while I found the comment amusing, I seriously doubt anyone ever searched my apartment in Japan.

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