The road to flattery is basically customary in Japan. In every aspect — from friendship to business — it is especially important to give compliments here and there, whenever and wherever you can. The Japanese are known for their politeness; if anything, the compliments are just part and parcel of their nature.
When travelling or living a foreign country, especially one as unique and special like Japan, the best thing one can do is dive straight into getting a hang of the local ropes. Why not start off on the right foot with nailing down the complimenting culture in Japan?
Complimenting in Japanese Culture
The Japanese word to praising someone or giving compliments is homeru (褒める). Compliments can come in all shapes, sizes and forms — everything from praising the act to the person itself. For some of us who come from cultures where compliments are taken as a romantic gesture or someone with an ulterior motive, we might be surprised that the Japanese give them out generously. Well, that’s the Japanese for you: generous.
For the Japanese, it’s pretty simple; you don’t have to give compliments at all, but it doesn’t hurt to give them either. They are not tools to build good relationships with people — whether it is for business or personal — even though it can help. The Japanese give compliments genuinely and without malicious intent; they’re all pure-heartedly given.
Everyone loves being praised and getting compliments. If you think someone’s shoes are pretty or they have done something nice to you, why only say “thank you” when it takes less than five seconds to attach a compliment after? It makes your day better, it gives the air a gash of positivity and it sheds a good light on the person giving the compliment — win-win-win!
Let’s take a look at the various ways you can give compliments and the best phrases that you can use for such situations.
Complimenting people is probably the most common compliment category — and the most important, in my opinion. You meet people on a regular and daily basis. They are the easiest kinds of compliments to give; these are the ones that can just come out of your mouth without thinking!
For the Japanese, complimenting one another is mutually understood. Some of them can burst out compliments without thinking they wanted to; they come so naturally to them! Let’s take a look at the best compliments to give to people in Japanese.
The most popular, well-known and common compliment to give to people is, of course, “kawaii” (かわいい). This translates to “cute” but it’s used for almost everything — things, actions and people. Most of the time, this compliment is used for anything that has some sort of lovable charm.
Some of us have the idea that cute is the image of someone that is feminine, adorable and endearing — we use the English word “cute” that way. In Japan, the cute word “kawaii” is not limited to that. It’s such a generic word that it can be used like “pretty” or “beautiful”.
Isn’t the flexibility of the usage of the word great?
While you can compliment a boy or man “kawaii”, it does have a feminine note to the word. If you’re looking to praise a guy’s looks because he is handsome or attractive, the best compliment you can give them is “kakkoii” (かっこいい) which means “cool”. But you don’t really use it the way the English word “cool” is used. While in some situations you can, kakkoii is usually used to compliment someone’s form or looks.
If someone looks like they’re well put-together, polished and refined, go up to them and compliment them with a “kakkoii”. It can also be used to mean “handsome” — more or less, it has the same nuance.
If you watch anime, Japanese shows or movies, you would definitely have heard this compliment one way or the other. The most common one would definitely be a group of girls squealing “kakkoii” when talking about an attractive and cool guy.
The first two compliments are more about what’s on the outside; this one is more about what’s on the inside. When someone is generally a compassionate and considerate person, say to them “yasashi” (優しい) which means “kind”.
This compliment has the same nuance as the English compliment “you’re so nice”, but with ten times the genuine factor. Some people don’t like being called the “nice guy” or “nice girl” because of the saying, “nice guys finish last”. Well, it’s completely different from “yasashi” guys and girls; the English saying doesn’t apply.
This compliment is my personal favourite; nothing beats a compliment that says something perfectly matches me. “Niatteru” (似合ってる) comes from the word “niau” (似合う) which is used to express harmony, so by complimenting someone with “niatteru”, you’re saying that whatever that person has on them extremely suits them, so much that it’s practically made for them!
This compliment is often used for things like clothes and hairstyles. If your friend comes with a new haircut or a fresh new suit and it looks extremely good on them, give them a “niatteru” compliment — it’ll definitely make their day!
Complimenting Acts & Works
On to the next section on complimenting, and that’s how to compliment someone’s actions and works. It can be any type of action — whether it is to you directly or just in general, it doesn’t matter.
If you have done a great job on something like a presentation at your job or a sports match, it will feel even better if you got praised for them. Why not be the one that gives these praises? Who knows, you might get some in return the next time! After all, what goes around comes around.
This is the best compliment you can give to anyone when it comes to their work or actions. “Jouzu” (上手) has the meaning of “skillful”. If you’re a foreigner and speak to a Japanese person in Japanese language, there’s almost a 100% probability of them complimenting you with “Nihongo wa jouzu desu!” (日本語は上手です！), which means that your Japanese is very good.
Other times you can use this compliment is whenever a technique or action showed is presented perfectly or excellently. It can also be used to describe a person directly as well.
After a long day of working so hard that you’re on the brink of exhaustion, what better way to get your spirits back up than a compliment that recognised your efforts?
If you’re meeting some friends after work or at the office with some colleagues, why not praise them with a “ganbatterune” (頑張ってるね) which translates to “you sure are working hard”. This compliment acknowledges the fact that the person is doing their very best despite the setbacks and problems.
Compliment Phrases That Can Be Used For Anything & Everything!
Here’s a tip: there are a handful of compliment phrases that are so flexible, you can use them for almost anything! I personally use them all the time — every day, in fact. They’re extremely convenient and easy-to-give compliments that are great practice to get you on the complimenting culture in Japan. Let’s take a look at the top two.
I have to say, this is the one compliment you’ll hear every day. “Iine” (いいね) translates to “that’s good” and is a simple yet powerful compliment. It can be used for anything from people themselves to their actions. It’s like the Instagram and Facebook “like” button!
If someone is describing a situation or experience and you think that is something that exceeded the standards of good, you can reply with “iine” — in that case, it’ll translate more to “that’s nice”.
A level up from “iine” is “sugoi” (すごい) which means “amazing”. Similar to the previous one, you can use it to compliment people and actions — basically anything and everything. It’s like a super like button if there is one.
, it’s used to describe anything that’s extravagant and surprising. When someone told you a superb story or a situation where it’s positively unimaginable, you can go “sugoi!” — it’s like saying “that’s so amazing!”
Now here’s the tricky part — what about the other end of the stick? If you got a compliment, what do you do? Simple: return the compliment. Receive compliments make you feel good, but returning them makes them also feel as good as you, so why not?
There are a few ways to reciprocate a compliment. It goes without saying that a thank you “arigato” (ありがとう) and maybe a small bow is the ultimate response, but you can definitely add a little extra.
Be humble about it. A response like “sonna koto nai desu” (そんなことないです) is a good one; this translates to “that’s not true” or “I don’t think so”.
Express your happiness for getting the flattery. “Ureshii desu” (嬉しいです) has the same meaning as “that made me happy”. It’s quite a normal response to compliments; sometimes even combined with the phrase for being humble (sonna koto nai desu).
Of course, you can definitely compliment them back. If you received a “kawaii” or “kakkoii” compliment, respond with “anata koso!” (あなたこそ) or “anata mo!” (あなたも！)which has the connotation of “you too!” in English.
By this point, you’re a complimenting master! It takes zero yen to be nice to someone — what better way to do that than giving out compliments wholeheartedly? It spread such a positive vibe from you, and everyone loves a vibrant and yasashii person. So go out there and spread the love — and compliments!