You Say Konnichiwa – They Say Jouzu
One of the strangest situations that you face when you start a Japanese conversation is greeting someone with one word to then be showered with the praise of jouzu (you’re so skilled)! Surprise, confusion, and frustration are common feelings. In the past, I provided various clever ways to respond (here, here and here) in order to calm your inner rant before it starts.
However, I wanted to take a different approach this time on the subject, and one that might actually make more sense than you think.
How fast can you judge someone’s Japanese ability?
I used to be under the impression that to really tell if someone is good at Japanese you’d need a conversation that went into some kind of depth. Everyone uses the same greetings and standard pleasantries so often that they become second nature. It’s easy to be fluent in talking about the weather.
Making a judgment based on one word, possibly followed by a “my name is…”? Insanity!
Or is it…?
Konnichiwa is the first word that you learn in Japanese. But that doesn’t mean it is the easiest. Beginners mispronounce it with the improper intonation extremely often, by adding too much emphasis on the second syllable. Many of the foreigners that native Japanese interact with are beginners. Perfect pronunciation of just this one word makes you stand out.
To add to pronunciation problems, there is also a pacing issue. Konnichiwa comes out of many learner mouths with hesitation followed by unnecessary speed (caused by the excitement of an actual Japanese conversation). Even if you nail the pronunciation, having a hurried, non-relaxed tone can ruin it.
That feeling of Jouzu
Both native Japanese people and foreigners really good at the language can tell you the same thing. You get a certain immediate feeling for someone’s Japanese and how good it is, based on their pronunciation of the first few words. It intuitively sounds good or slightly off, even if you can’t explain why.
This doesn’t mean that feeling of jouzu is always correct. There are plenty of people with good pronunciation and bad Japanese. I’ve started many conversations with someone where I think they will be much better than they actually are. It might take a little more depth into the conversation before I make that realization. And at that point you realized you were wrong, you wouldn’t then undo your initial jouzu with a heta (you suck!)
If I’m personally going to say jouzu to someone, I wait. But that’s because I have experience talking to thousands of Japanese learners and understand the entire dark cloud around this situation. Most native Japanese people in Japan don’t have exchanges with foreigners whose initial Japanese sounds awesome. I believe this might be a contributing factor to the involuntary response to that feeling of jouzu.
Of course if a jouzu is followed by a horribly pronounced koneeeecheewa, that’s an entirely different story of nervous/polite flattery.
One word judgment?
What do you think? Can you give a general judge of ability from a few spoken words? Have you experience a feeling of jouzu?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Personally I never understood people’s annoyance with being “jouzu’d”. We all know that japanese is a really difficult language to even get intermediate at let alone master. I think that japanese people are not used to seeing foreigners put much effort into learning the language that hearing someone speak at any level is honestly surprising and jouzu worthy. So don’t get annoyed, think of it as motivation because you are jouzu! Just keep striving to jouzu even more.
That is how I feel too. I guess if you live there long enough and get confident enough it can get annoying to some people?
I find myself saying similar things to people learning English, and Japan is generally even more polite and complimentary so it’s not surprising.
“I guess if you live there long enough and get confident enough it can get annoying to some people?”
Maybe that’s it. I would assume that after you’ve been there for a while and after you’ve gotten to the point where you already know you’re pretty good, it could feel a little patronizing (even if it’s not intended that way).
While I think your line of reasoning may be true in some anomalous cases, I think the vast majority of this exchange just boils down to Japanese super politeness to point of being fake. In Asian culture in general, when you come face to face with a stranger outside your circle you try to be as polite as possible (in general). So when you see this outsider, especially a foreigner be bold and “show off a bit” by showing knowledge of the language you praise them. Like a little kid doing a little performance for house guests… even if the performance basically sucks.
Recently I had a job interview in Japan all in English. The position was billingual, so the manager asked if he could talk to me in Japanese. I agreed.
He asked how my Japanese was (in Japanese) and said that with a dictionary I could get through most things. It was only one sentance, but he went ‘jouzu!!’ and immediately switched back to English.
My second and final interview was the exact same, 95% of the interview was in English but they asked for a self introduction in Japanese and got more ‘jouzu’ compliments. Was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever been in.
I ended up taking the job but I digress :)
Anyways, I have found that I think a lot of people are just happy that you learned their native language and ‘jouzu’ seems to be a way to appreciate that. Sometimes it feels superficial (say, when I’m at a convenience store buying something) but sometimes you get more genuine compliments (like I got recently when signing up for pension in Japanese).
I just take it in stride now. If someone came to America to travel, and had some bad English but they learned it to travel and were able to put their self-conciousness aside enough to speak English to me, I’d tell them they’re doing well myself. I always want to encourage people getting out of their comfort zone and I choose to take ‘jouzu’ comments that way as well.
I’m originally from the UK, and while living there I had a few friends that were from Singapore. Singaporeans speak English as the country’s “official language”, so most people there are fluent or native speakers.
These friends were mostly medical students, and so would do placements across the country, often in rural areas.
Something that often vexed them (or that they occasionally found funny) was when they interacted with the older or more “local” patients, and got what they came to feel to be the typical “You’re English is really good” comment. Despite being fluent speakers of English, to these patients they didn’t look (or sound, as a result of accent) like they should be. Thus the patients would be surprised or impressed, to the point where they felt like they should say something – for whatever reason.
From the perspective of a modern native English speaker, perhaps particularly if you’re from certain parts of the US, having people you would regard as an outsider to yourself that can also speak in the same language as you doesn’t seem even remotely perplexing. In fact, you might even find it odd if someone you came across couldn’t speak, say, enough English to have a conversation.
Now the case with the British patients might not be a perfect parallel, as the situations and reasons you can be jouzu’d are perhaps more varied, but my point really is that for the most part it’s an inevitability that we’re simply going to have to grin through, that I’m sure will change in a matter of course. Really already, the situation in Japan has changed drastically over the past 10-20 years. In another 10 years I’m sure the trend will have continued. Maybe only a few more years until store clerks stop slowly pointing toward the price on the till or the microwave for me?
Interesting perspective. And I agree that things will definitely continue to change over the next decade or so.