In directing plays over the years, it has always struck me how clever actors are at producing insulting dialogue in the early stages of rehearsals. From the first day of rehearsal, they have the invective of their characters virtually down pat. When their character is called upon to say something nice or tender to another character, however, it doesn’t readily trip off the tongue. Perhaps insulting others comes naturally to humans, while complimenting people has to be practiced and learned.
Let’s look at this phenomenon in Japanese. This week I will focus on Japanese compliments. In Japan, as anywhere, flattery will get you everywhere.
There are two common ways to say “compliment”: ohome no kotoba (おほめの言葉) and oseiji (お世辞). The ohome in the former comes from the verb homeru (ほめる), which means “to praise.” The latter means flattery and can be ironical. Osejijzu na hito (お世辞上手な人), or someone good at oseiji, is an unctuous flatterer.
But let us assume that your compliments are not of the latter variety and you have a friend whose child is as smart as a whip. Nothing will put you into your friend’s good books more quickly than Orikōsan desu ne (お利口さんですね, What a clever child!).
If you call your friend a yarite (やり手), you are praising her for being a mover and a shaker, although my old dictionary defines yarite as “a man of ability, a capable man.” A woman can be a yarite, too, dictionaries to the contrary notwithstanding.
The word bijin (美人, beautiful woman) is still in common usage, and a sugoi bijin (すごい美人) is a knockout, or what my dad used to call a “lollapalooza.” A man can also be a lollapalooza if he’s otokomae (男前, handsome) or kakkoii (カッコいい, good-looking, cool). If you say about someone that they are migi ni deru mono wa nai (右に出るものはない), it means that they are unsurpassed, the tops. This is because Japanese lists go from right to left, so naturally there is no one to the right of, that is, “above,” them.
That person may well be an ōmono (大物), or a big shot, a big cheese. Generally people who are big shots harbor a secret to their success. You might say they are sumi ni okenai (隅におけない), which means that there’s more to them than meets the eye. Sumi ni okenai literally means they “cannot be cornered.” This is the kind of coincidence of meaning that occurs rarely in two languages.
Two very common phrases used as compliments are erai! (偉い) and taishita mon da (大したもんだ). These have a multitude of English equivalents, depending on context, such as “You’re really something!” “That’s amazing!” or “Awesome!”
The character sai (才) denotes talent. A person with a good head for business is shōsai no aru hito (商才のある人). A person who is brilliant at something is a tensai (天才), or genius. And a woman — it must be a woman in this case — who has wit to match her beauty may be described as saishoku kenbi (才色兼備). The sai is the character seen above, and the shoku is 色, the character for color that also suggests charm, beauty and eroticism. That’s a mouthful for anybody’s tongue.
Suteki (素敵) is a catchall for all kinds of expressions, from fantastic and amazing to brilliant and stunning. If someone looks you in the eyes and says this one word, it means love.
Rippa (立派) is another word used as a compliment. It also means brilliant and superb. It is often used to describe something that a person has achieved or attained. If you add the honorific prefix go to rippa, you get gorippa (ご立派), a bon mot expressing admiration for something or someone. Gorippa da! (ご立派だ) can mean “I really admire you!” and “Bravo!”
But you must be a bit careful when the level of compliments is raised to downright flattery. Japanese people can be quite ironical when they ki no nai homekata de kenasu (気のないほめ方でけなす), or damn with faint praise. If someone looks at the miserable sushi you have made as it falls apart on the plate and says Ojōzu desu ne! (お上手ですね, Oh, how very skillful of you!), get a grip on yourself and don’t fall for it.
This business of damning with faint praise brings me to next week’s topic, that of the art of the bujoku (侮辱), or insult, which for us humans may be akin to “doin’ what comes naturally.” If I urge you to read this column in next week’s Japan Times, I do not mean to insult your intelligence … not until next week, at least.