Japanese compliments: how to give them, how to respond to them

Even if you’ve been studying Japanese for only a little while, chances are that no matter where you go or what you say, you’ll hear this compliment a lot:

(Nihongo jōzu!)
“Your Japanese is so good!”

It doesn't matter if you’ve only been studying Japanese for a few weeks or have spent years living in Japan, as a foreigner, you can’t get too far without hearing someone praise the words that come out of your mouth.

So what do you say when someone compliments you and you want to say something nice back? Or how do you respond to a compliment in Japanese the right way?

Let’s learn about exchanging compliments in Japanese so that not only will people tell you « 日本語上手 », but they’ll mean it too.

How Not to Respond to a Compliment in Japanese

Before we learn how to give a compliment in Japanese, let's learn how one should respond to compliments in Japanese, as compliment culture is very different in Japan compared to the west.

Consider for example the following conversation:


(B-san, nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Mr. B, your Japanese is really good”

(Arigatōgozaimasu.)
“Thank you”

Although this interaction seems perfectly normal in English, Mr. B has unknowingly made a grave faux pas: he immediately accepted the compliment.

In Japanese culture, this is often seen as rude or arrogant and it doesn’t give a good first impression.

Here’s an even worse example of what NOT to do:


(B-san, nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Mr. B, your Japanese is really good”

(Sōdeshou! Watashi ga ni-nenkan Nihon ni sunde ita monodesukara.)
“Right, isn’t it? It’s because I lived in Japan for two years!”

This is far worse because not only is Mr. B accepting the compliment without hesitancy, but he is acting like he deserves the praise by giving a reason.

It gives off a very hubristic sort of image and while no one will call you out to your face, “the foreigner who is so full of himself” may become the topic of gossip soon after.

How to Properly Respond to a Compliment in Japanese

So when you can’t directly accept a compliment in Japanese because it is deemed rude, what do you say when people give you praise? Well, the first thing you have to do is humble yourself and deny it, and insist that isn’t so.

Let's look at another interaction between Mr. A and Mr. B.


(B-san, nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Mr. B, your Japanese is really good”

(Jōzu? Īe! Zenzen jōzu janai yo!)
“Good? Not at all! My Japanese is not good!”

Here, Mr. B is humbling himself by insisting that his Japanese is not good and that he is simply not worthy of the praise being bestowed to him by Mr. A.

It doesn't matter how good Mr. B’s Japanese actually is in fact, he could be a near-native speaker for all it matters, but by rejecting the compliment, he is simply being polite.

Here’s another example:


(B-san, nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Mr. B, your Japanese is really good”

(Īe, madamadadesu! Korekara motto ganbarimasu!)
“No, not yet! From here, I still need to keep trying harder!”

Not only is Mr. B here being humble by insisting that he is not worthy of such praise, but his call to action in stating that he needs to study more insinuates that only if he continues to work hard will he then be worthy of Mr. A’s kind words.

While this may be a bit counterintuitive, here are some useful vocabulary words that will help you politely reject a compliment in Japanese:

The Right Way to Compliment Someone in Japanese

Did you know that there are some major dos and don’ts that you have to keep in mind when complimenting someone in Japanese?

Let’s take a look at some examples so that you can be praising, and not accidentally offending.


(Anata ha kirei desu.)
“You are beautiful”

(Anata wa atama ga iidesu.)
“You are very smart!”

(Anata wa nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Your Japanese is really good”

Can you spot the problem? The issue here isn’t with the compliment itself, it's with the way we are addressing the recipient.

Despite the pronoun “you” being very heavily used in English, in Japanese, referring directly to someone as « あなた » (anata) can actually be seen as a bit rude. In general, as a rule of thumb, it's often best just to omit all pronouns altogether.

So what can you use instead? Let’s take a look at some correct examples:


(B san wa honnto ni kirei desu ne.)
“Ms. B, you are really beautiful”

Here, rather than call Ms. B “you”, the speaker is calling Ms. B directly by her name, which shows not only that you know her intimately, but that the compliment is directed at her and only her.


(Atama ga ii desu ne.)
“You sure are smart!”

Here, the pronoun is omitted altogether. Because it’s a direct dialogue, it can be assumed from the context that the recipient is the other person. To make it sound more natural as well, adding « ね » on the end makes it sound more confident.


(Shacho wa nihongo wa jōzudesu ne!)
“Company president, your Japanese is really good”

Calling people by their names is a very personal cultural thing in Japanese and so when engaging with your superiors or people you want to show respect, you can use their title in lieu of their name.

In this case, linguistically speaking, you are describing them instead of talking directly to them, which shows the difference in the social hierarchy and implies respect.

*Did you know that in Japanese, people don’t “butter up” to their boss, but rather “sesame seed” up to their boss?


(Shacho ni goma suru)
“To suck up/butter up to the boss”

Japanese Compliments for People’s Appearance

Complimenting someone’s appearance can bring a smile to their face and turn their entire day around. Maybe you like their shirt, think their makeup looks really nice, or you just think they have the most wonderful eyes.

The next set of vocabulary words are adjectives describing what people look like and so give them a whirl and compliment your friends!

Two other words that you might (hopefully) hear are « イケメン » (Ikemen) and « 美人 » (Bijin). While these are both nouns, they describe an attractive man and woman respectively and are used quite often.

A lot of time, you’ll hear these in conjunction with where someone is from such as « フランス美人 » (a beautiful French woman) or « 韓国イケメン » ( A cute Korean guy).

Japanese Compliments for People’s Personality

While saying nice things about how people look is one thing, if you really want to show how well you know someone and how special they are, complimenting their personality can truly melt their heart.

Compliments of this nature are very personal and can really help bring up someone’s self-esteem.

Japanese compliments for someone’s personality can be constructed with the following adjectives:

( related article: describing personality traits in Japanese )

Using Multiple compliments Together in Japanese

So you know how to say that someone is beautiful in Japanese and you know how to say that someone is smart, but what do you do if someone is both beautiful and smart?

To connect two more adjectives in Japanese, you’ll first need to change all but the last adjectives into the て form. In Japanese, there are two types of adjectives, those that end in い, and those that end in な。

To change い adjectives into the て form, you just drop the い, replace it with く and then stick the て on the tail end. For example:

面白い → 面白くて
優しい → 優しくて
心強い→ 心強くて

The one exception to this rule is « いい », meaning good, where it becomes « 良い » (yoi) and then conjugates as « 良くて ».

For the な adjectives, it's even simpler as all you have to do is get rid of the な and replace it with で. For example:

立派 → 立派で
真面目 → 真面目で
勤勉→ 勤勉で

We can now construct sentences which combine multiple Japanese compliments together:


(Kare wa yasashikute, majimedesu.)
“He is nice and earnest.”

(A-san wa atama ga yokute, isshōkenmei de, rippana hitodesu)
“Mr. A is smart, dilligant, and a excellent person.”

(Sensei wa sensu ga yokute, kashikokute, nandemodekiru hitodesu.)
“The teacher has great sense, is brilliant, and can do absolutely anything.”

Don’t forget that the last adjective doesn't get conjugated into the て form and can be left as is.

Another way you can compliment two aspects of a person simultaneously in Japanese is with the phrase « だけじゃなくて » (dake jyanakute). This is a more advanced grammatical pattern, which means: “not only, but also.”

Using this pattern, we can construct sentences which combine two Japanese compliments:


(A-san wa supotsu jouzu dake jyanakute, atama mo ii desu.)
“Not only is Mr. A good at sports, but he is also smart.”

(Kare wa yasashi dake jyanakute, mirai wa akaruidesu.)
“Not only is he kind, but his future is also bright.”

Japanese Compliment Enhancers

Is your girlfriend pretty? Or is she really pretty? Adverbs can enhance and bring a whole new level of depth to your compliments, and will take the flat out of flattery.

Here is a list of Japanese adverbs which are used to enhance compliments:

Some examples of Japanese compliments with an adjective that is enhanced by an adverb, are listed below:


(A-san wa hontōni kawaiidesu ne)
“Ms. A is really cute!”

(Uchi no haha wa utau no wa sugoku jōzudesu.)
“My mom is incredibly talented at singing.”

(B-san wa igai ni, eigo peraperadesu.)
“Unexpectedly, Mr. B’s English is fluent.”

Telling People that they are Good at Something in Japanese

We’ve gone over people’s appearances and personalities, one more thing that you can compliment is their skills.

To compliment someone’s skills in Japanese, the most common phrase structure is: « XXXで上手 ». For example:


(A-san wa supotsu de jouzu)
“Mr. A is good at sports”

However, there are actually quite a few ways that you can praise people’s skills and abilities that go beyond the simple « 上手 ». These words are good if you want to hone in and compliment something very specific that someone is talented in.

Conclusion

Giving and receiving compliments in Japanese is a delicate balance. If you are too direct, you risk offending the other person. If you are too eager to accept a compliment, you come off as arrogant.

Learning how to give and respond to a compliment in Japanese is not just about language, but also a lesson in culture.

But with practice and cultural exposure, soon it will become second nature. And with that, perhaps you’ll be receiving compliments on just how well you can compliment others.

PS: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.