Any Western foreigner who’s spent a while in Japan will be familiar with the phenomenon of 日本語上手. For those who are just starting out on the long journey to master the Japanese language, it can feel good to hear a Japanese person tell you 日本語上手. Any glimmer of understanding can feel fun, so it’s nice to decipher this polite phrase in real time. Wow, Japanese people are so friendly! I love this country! But once you get better at Japanese and you hear it for the hundredth time, it starts to grate on you.
It’s difficult to explain, but it’s almost as if it’s patronizing. It feels sarcastic somehow. You get a strange gnawing feeling that they’re being condescending. Japanese people, of course, will insist that it has no such connotation. Perhaps the cultural wires are crossed, and the feeling that they’re kind of making fun of you in a subtle way is just a cultural misinterpretation.
However, even if they’re not actually looking down on you when they say 日本語上手 there’s no denying the fact that there’s a hidden meaning. The better you get at Japanese, the less you hear 日本語上手. Eventually you start to use it to your advantage. It morphs into a trial-and-error system for bettering your language abilities. When you trip the 日本語上手 reply, you know you made a mistake. Your pronunciation was unclear. Your pitch accent was off. You used an academic word in a small talk conversation. Something like that. If they zero in on your Japanese, rather than simply engage with what you’re saying, then what you said was probably a bit off.
日本語上手, however, is just one instance of a larger phenomenon in Japanese culture. These past several years in Japan have not only made me allergic to 日本語上手. I also do whatever I can to get people to stop saying すごい. I even consider it a bad sign if I get かっこいい. Japanese people! Stop with the pretend compliments and the exaggerated praise! Please!
But you’re not going to get anywhere if you try to just get them to stop. Weirdly enough, you need to earn it. The better you get at Japanese, the less 日本語上手. The more you’re able to act in accordance with Japanese norms, the less すごい.
This cuts to the core of how Japanese culture works. When a Western foreigner delves into Japanese, one of the first things they learn about the culture is that you’re supposed to deflect compliments. If a Japanese person tells you 日本語上手, you’re not supposed to say ありがとうございます. You’re supposed to say まだまだです. Even if you’re near-native level in Japanese, you’re still supposed to act like you’re not all that great. Those are the rules of the language game in Japan. When you get a compliment, you explain why you’re not really all that awesome.
Before you say this sounds too obvious to be worth mentioning, note that there’s a deep implication to this rule structure. Japanese culture seeks to create harmony, avoid confrontation, and bring everyone together. But a culture will wither and die without a powerful foundation of constructive criticism. So how do Japanese people point out that something seems a bit off about someone’s way of speaking or acting? That’s right. They tell them that they’re すごい. At the end of the day, Japanese politeness is a thin veil hiding a judgmental mindset. Japan is not a tolerant nation.
But why does telling someone that they’re すごい act as a way of criticizing them? It’s because the language game is such that you’re supposed to deflect compliments. Saying that something is すごい is a plausibly deniable way to criticize, since—don’t get me wrong—a lot of the time it actually is positive. But whether it’s positive or negative, the expected reaction is the same. You’re extremely good at tennis, and a Japanese person says that you’re すごい? Well, your kick serve still needs work. You’re not really that special. You give an opinion on Japanese politics to a Japanese person, they have no intention of updating their beliefs in accordance with what you’re explaining, and they say it’s すごい that you’ve heard of politician X? Well, everyone has heard of politician X, and what I’m saying is simply the common argument in circle Y. What I’m saying isn’t really that special.
While the positive すごい is self-explanatory, the negative すごい is less obvious. So I’ll try to give another example. I’m interested in health, and sometimes I’ll suggest radical ideas like water fasting. When I explain why I think water fasting is useful, Japanese people will react in one of two ways. Either they’ll say that I really know a lot about health and nutrition, and that it’s really すごい how much I understand about these complex topics. Or they’ll just give their opinion, ask questions, or ask for clarification. Guess who’s a hundred times more likely to actually try water fasting because I suggested it? Definitely not the person who stressed how すごい I am.
Since you’re supposed to deflect compliments, a positive すごい is an opportunity for you to show that you’re aware of where your weaknesses are. And beyond that, there’s that phenomenon in life where the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Often it’s the low-level people who are the most arrogant. Deflecting a compliment in the right way can show that you’re the real deal. It demonstrates that you’ve gotten past the Dunning-Kruger phrase.
On the other hand, a negative すごい is an opportunity for you to learn something (if they’re correct), or to defend yourself (if you’re correct). They point something out as すごい, and you’re supposed to explain why what they’ve pointed out isn’t all that shocking, out of place, or strange. Just as you would with a positive すごい, you just explain why there’s nothing extraordinary going on. You’re just a normal person doing normal things.
Basically, the fact that you’re supposed to deflect compliments by explaining why you shouldn’t stand out as anything special means criticisms can be worded as compliments. If someone compliments you for real, you deflect it by explaining why you shouldn’t stand out as all that extraordinary. And if someone phrases a criticism as a compliment, in doing so they’re asking you to try to deflect it in the same way. It’s an opportunity to put the criticism to rest by showing why what you’re doing is so justified as to come down to normalcy. There’s nothing weird about it. And of course the plausible deniability of the すごい being real or not allows Japanese people to give tentative criticisms without committing to any one position. If anything seems out of the ordinary, well, it’s すごい!
To connect 日本語上手 with すごい, consider this. If a Japanese person says 日本語上手 and you reply ありがとうございます, you’re in the beginner phase. If you say まだまだです instead, you may think you have it all figured out, but actually this is just the next phase. I used to simply say まだまだです, but then I got a lot of Japanese people who said I was すごい because I understood the special Japanese cultural system of being humble. It’s as if I was successfully rolling out of the 日本語上手 submission, only to roll straight into the すごい submission. The proper response, by contrast, is to point out where you’re lacking, and leave it to the imagination whether you think you’re good or bad elsewhere. And then you’ll just get a normal reply with no exaggerated compliments.
In the end, my point is that there’s a reason 日本語上手, すごい, and other such phrases can feel patronizing, although it’s hard to get Japanese people to consciously acknowledge the nature of these subconscious cultural patterns. The Japanese cultural system of humility gives rise to a language game where both compliments and criticisms can be phrased in the same way, and if you want to properly integrate into Japanese society you’ll need to learn how to play this game.