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:
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.
*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.
* 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.
* That (complimentary) language is wasted on me.
*I have received and am honored by your compliment.
* 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?
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?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.