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5 Japanese ‘compliments’ that can sound off to foreigners

25 Comments
By SHELLEY SMITH

One thing you’ll learn soon after arriving in Japan is that Japanese people love to compliment. Greet them with konichiwa (hello) and you’ll quickly be applauded for your amazing Japanese abilities. Of course, for those of us who have lived in Japan for long enough, it does become quickly repetitive and often linked to being quite microaggressive, but that’s a whole other topic. 

You’ll also quickly find that the Japanese (along with many other Asian countries) have very high respect for natural western beauty and often hold it to a high standard they feel they must replicate. If you visit the beauty section in pretty much any Japanese drugstore or variety store you will see aisles of skin whiteners, double eyelid-making glues, face slimmers, body slimmers and nose lifting clips, all with the purpose of keeping up to that beauty standard. 

If you take that highly sought standard of beauty into consideration, you can start breaking down the strange comments you as a foreigner may receive and find that they’re not really just pointing out your body parts to you​​—they’re actually complimenting you! Of course, you still have every right to feel strange about it but it’s always nice to know that they mean well when saying them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Japanese people are polite but not discrete. Pointing things out about physical appearance is an everyday thing here in Japan, and not only directed to foreigners. Many Japanese people won’t hold back when making verbal observations about people having put on weight, losing hair, having acne and other things people can’t fix immediately. Japanese youth and young adults not as much, but children, the middle age and the elderly can be quite brutal. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean every observation is a rude one. 

Here are five common "compliments" that could potentially sound off to those of us from the west. Let’s dissect them and find out what Japanese people really mean by it:

“Hana takai ne (Your nose is so tall)”

iStock-513689750.jpg
Photo: iStock: VladimirFLoyd

Having the shape of your nose pointed out can make anyone self-conscious. What the Japanese mean by this however is that you have a beautifully well-defined nose that protrudes from your face—a perfect side profile. When compared to a typical east Asian nose, where the nose is more often lower with smaller and weaker lateral cartilage, any nose with a nice “tall look” seems more out there (literally), exotic and in this case more beautiful (according to Japanese beauty standards).

It all comes down to people wanting what they don’t have. Just the same way someone with a bigger nose may want it to be smaller, the Japanese, who more often have lower noses, want tall ones! So, when they see a nice tall nose, they can’t help but point it out. You might even get “big nose” or “nose like a tower” however, again, as off as it sounds, they are more often just complimenting you.

“Ashi nagai ne (You have such long legs)”

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© Savvy Tokyo

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25 Comments
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“ One thing you’ll learn soon after arriving in Japan is that Japanese people love to compliment. Greet them with konichiwa (hello) and you’ll quickly be applauded for your amazing Japanese abilities. “

– this one is funny and annoyingbecause when you start getting better, that’s when your Japanese is “bad” or “not good enough”; actually, if we think about it, it will never be good enough.

another one:

hashi, jouzu desu neee

..

I mean, even a baby can do it, but when it comes to the gaijin, it’s something out of this world.

..

advice: keep smiling and say thank you.

5 ( +11 / -6 )

Japanese: did you dye your hair?

me: no, I am a man.

-2 ( +9 / -11 )

You’ll also quickly find that the Japanese (along with many other Asian countries) have very high respect for natural western beauty

What this means is they have been brought up to envy certain white European looks. What the heck does natural western beauty mean anyway?

1 ( +14 / -13 )

Why be upset if they're compliments?

Or do some of think that those "compliments" are actually micro-aggressions?

In my case, I've got better things to worry about.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

My apologies.

My previous post was a bit aggressive (and off-topic) and I don’t want people to misunderstand me and think I’m one of those foreigners always complaining about the way Japanese people think, act and communicate. I’m nothing like that. (I kindly ask the moderator to remove my previous post (if that’s possible). Thank you.)

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Nobody ever said any of those to me in 30 years.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Microaggression...whatever

0 ( +4 / -4 )

advice: keep smiling and say thank you.

Respectfully disagree. While it's not necessary or helpful to show anger or frustration when the other person's intentions are good, saying "thank you" only reinforces the idea that I am okay with this kind of infantilization.

What I do is calmly say that it's not a big deal. The other person can take away from it whatever they want.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Yeah I had those times as well when I thought it was cute, then after thousands of times being told how amazing your chopsticks skills are or how happy they are you are enjoying their country by someone that has been alive a shorter time than you have lived here it gets quite annoying and just adds to that feeling that you don't belong. Japan and Asia gets a pass just for being Asia, while it would be crazy to say those things in any other country.

7 ( +11 / -4 )

It's about time people paid more attention to a person as a persona and not making judgements based on how they look.

Exactly, not making judgement on people coming to Japan for work or for study as 2nd tier group.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Hashi joe zoo desu ne

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

The one that annoyed my ex wife and her mother ( I didn't care) "Ningyo mitai" looks like a doll.

This would be said over and over about the 2 children when they were babies.

For some reason this really got both the ex-wife and her mother really upset.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

How about being complemented on your Japanese speaking ability even speaking 2 words :)

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Well I am a Japanese whom locals think is a westerner (by my appearance). It is pretty silly to get chopstick compliments, so I am always sure to reply with amazement at the commentors incredible spoon and fork abilities.

Thats usually the end of it lol

9 ( +11 / -2 )

Hashi jouzu desune - So I get to look flustered and then switch to using hashi left-handed, or one hashi in each hand. With a little practice you can become proficient and you, too, can be micro-aggressive and challenging to the other speaker, non-verbally checking to see he or she can match you in hashi flexibility.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Does those compliments really offense you? Really? Get upset about the their compliments that Japanese( those probably not used to the occasion) use as they probably think good starts to become friendly? Does Japanese apology offense you too as it is often said not real apology, and not sincere enough? Grow up. That's just one of cultural difference from what you might have gotten used to from where you come from.

Is this post impolite to other Gaijin only users? NEVER.

And if you can’t treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.

 

By a principal of The US Air Force Academy 

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

My skin is as white as snow. I need to be very careful with the high UV days.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Imo, most people are just awkwardly trying to be nice or start a conversation. When someone makes a comment about my nose or big eyes, I usually say something about how I think smaller noses are cuter and it's easier to wear glasses with them, or something to that extent. Then talk about, well I guess everyone wants what they don't have lol. Or compliment their straight black hair. Or lack of body hair. Or whatever it is to compliment back. This sometimes makes them uncomfortable, but that isn't my intention. I'm just trying to say something nice back.

People need to chill out about well-intentioned compliments, even if it comes off a little awkward. I much prefer it to people making rude comments, like gaijin stink or all Americans are fat etc.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I am half but Japanese born but don’t look Japanese at all.

I’ve lived abroad as well as here and am well aware of when someone is giving me a compliment, or is actually being passive aggressive.

Expats seem to have their own pov

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I much prefer it to people making rude comments, like gaijin stink or all Americans are fat etc.

If someone praises you on the skill of speaking the language of a country you've spent a great part of your life in, isn't the implication that they think non-Japanese are too stupid to learn the language and you should be glad for being praised on a skill you take for granted at this point? Afaik, Japanese friends I've met in the UK never got praised on their English because it's understood you speak the language of your resident country and implying otherwise is condescending.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Sounds off to "white" foreigners would have been a better title. Majority of the foreigners here do NOT get such compliments because more than two quarters are either Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipinos or Nepali.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

If someone praises you on the skill of speaking the language of a country you've spent a great part of your life in, isn't the implication that they think non-Japanese are too stupid to learn the language and you should be glad for being praised on a skill you take for granted at this point? Afaik, Japanese friends I've met in the UK never got praised on their English because it's understood you speak the language of your resident country and implying otherwise is condescending

Or is it that because most Japanese have seriously studied English for 10+years, and have never attained a comfortable level of fluency (mostly through no fault of their own), so that they are genuinely impressed if someone can speak Japanese well. Not to mention knowing first-hand what a beast kanji is to learn. And, as I said before, they're just trying to be nice and not implying anything by it. People will really try to be offended by anything to feel special.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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