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:日本語上手! (Nihongo jōzu!)
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.
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:A: 「Bさん、日本語は上手ですね！ 」
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:A: 「Bさん、日本語は上手ですね！ 」
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.
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.A: 「Bさん、日本語は上手ですね！ 」
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:A: 「Bさん、日本語は上手ですね！ 」
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:
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.A: 「あなたはきれいです。 」
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:A: 「Bさんは本当にきれいですね。 」
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.A: 「 頭がいいですね。 」
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.A: 「社長は日本語上手です。」
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?社長にゴマする
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).
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 )
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:「彼は優しくて、真面目です。」
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さんはスポーツ上手だけじゃなくて、頭もいいです。」
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さんは本当に可愛いですね。」
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さんはスポーツで上手
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.
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.