“Your Japanese is So Good”

If you study Japanese, and have lived in Japan or talked with Japanese people, you’ll often hear this phrase. Usually people will say something like nihongo ga jōzu desu ne or nihongo ga perapera desu or some variation.

At first, I just believed people because I was naive, but then over time, I realized that sometimes it didn’t make sense. I knew I wasn’t fluent, so I was confused why people would say that. Then eventually I realized that some people were being polite, and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I made some kind of mistake, and they wanted to help me save face.

Still, I kind of felt frustrated by this. It was a reminder that I still didn’t speak Japanese well, and maybe they were patronizing me. On other blogs about foreigners living in Japan, I’ve seen people express similar feelings.

However, before I left Japan recently, I was at my daughter’s preschool for a summer-festival, and one of the other Japanese moms told me my Japanese was good. My first reaction was the same as usual, but then she said more emphatically, “No, really, your Japanese is good”. Then she asked me and my wife where I learned it. I realized later that she wished her husband spoke Japanese at that level.

This experience made me rethink a lot of assumptions. I assumed people were being patronizing when they said this. Maybe sometimes they really are, but I also realized that people also are sincere when they encourage people like this. Perhaps they’ve met foreigners who speak almost no Japanese at all, and appreciate the effort it takes. Or, perhaps, they just like speaking their native language to a foreigner like me, and appreciate the effort.

This is kind of a Buddhist lesson too. Recently I read a great Buddhist book1 titled How to live without Fear and Worry by Ven. K Sri Dhammananda which said:

A person’s thoughts and beliefs shape his life, experiences and circumstances. Like mirrors, all men become like their own reflected mental images….Until a person realizes that his own character is but the effect of his own thoughts and beliefs, he remains a victim of circumstances.

The ugliness a person sees in others is a direct reflection of his own nature. Therefore, a person should not act hastily and project the image of unwholesomeness and hatred within himself on another innocent and unfortunate being. (pg. 84)

So, in a way, it’s helpful to change our attitude, and the world around us will change too.

Anyhow, on a more practical level, I’ve learned over time that when someone compliments your language skills, regardless of their intention, the best thing to do is just downplay it and move on. In Japanese, you can say sono koto wa nai desu or something similar. If you say “thank you”, it doesn’t sound too humble, and if you take offense for some reason, then that will make things worse. Better to just be gracious, humble, and move on. :)

So, if someone tells you your Japanese is good, even when it obviously isn’t, play it cool. It’s kind of selfish and stupid to get offended.

Another Buddhist lesson here: you can’t change other people, but you can change how you react to them.

P.S. Eat Your Kimchi had a similar discussion with regard to Korean, where the same thing happens, so it’s not just in Japan.

P.P.S. For the record, my Japanese is pretty bad. I describe it as “functional”, but not great.

1 Thank you Ven. “A” for the book. :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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5 Responses to “Your Japanese is So Good”

  1. I think the same thing happens with foreigners here. I always want to tell people their English is awesome, but usually don’t for two reasons.. one being that I can be really shy and the second is that I don’t want to seem insincere/sarcastic. So yeah it probably occurs everywhere, in every language.

  2. kelleynymph says:

    I faced the same issue when I lived in Japan and I always heard joozu so much, I just disregarded it. I just waved it off and said “Iie iie.” It was only when one of my friends said pera pera rather than joozu, that I actually took it even a little more seriously. I think that in Japan they just appreciate the effort more than anything else. Japanese is a very difficlut language that is as far removed from English as you can get, so being able to say even the simplest things is a plus to them I think. But it can be discouraging to know that they are telling you you are good and the truth is they are just being polite. My friend has been living in Japan for about 3 years doing JET and she is still aggravated by this issue. I’m going to have her read this entry. :)

  3. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Kelleynymph,

    Yeah, I didn’t hear “pera pera” at first either. Perhaps it’s more for “advanced” students, etc.

    Yeah, Japanese and Korean are quite different than English, I’ve come to realize. I guess that’s why I enjoy learning them (what fun is learning an “easy” langauge?).

    Hope your friend enjoys this post. :)

  4. I recently started learning Japanese again at home on my own after many years since I first started learning it. I began when I was sixteen, but then learned Icelandic instead on my own and ended up living in Iceland instead of going to Japan. It’s been 10 years since I was last in Iceland, but I’m still somewhat fluent. I experienced the same experiences while living in Iceland but took me at least a year and half before I fully spoke Icelandic (even though I understood) because I was so shy. Part of learning and speaking is getting over being self concious and just trying to be understood. I think people appreciate the effort and I always try to start with something funny. I once met an employee from a Japanese embassy and broke the ice by saying “watashi no neko no namae wa Nezumi desu.” That certainly got a laugh! :)

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Arigatou! :)

  5. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Greenteakarma and welcome!

    Thanks for the touching story. :)

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