Language | BILINGUAL

In praise of the perfect Japanese compliment

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

If you’ve been in Japan a couple of months (or even weeks), perhaps you’ve caught on to the fact that we’re not very good at 褒め言葉 (homekotoba, words of praise). In many cultures, I like to think you wouldn’t hear a guy refer to his バカ息子 (baka musuko, stupid sons) or 愚妻 (gusai, dumb wife), but it happens quite often here — particularly among men over 60 who were taught that 身内をほめる (miuchi o homeru, praising one’s own family) is socially taboo.

This reluctance towards praise extends to schools and workplaces, where teachers and managers opt for 叱咤激励 (shitta gekirei), a kind of harsh scolding that is meant to offer encouragement, and 愛の鞭 (ai no muchi), which literally translates as “the whip of love” but is equal to the idea of “tough love.” Don’t expect a “good job” here, you’re more likely to have “どうしてこんな簡単なこともできないんだ?” (“Dōshite konna kantanna koto mo dekinai-n-da?” “Why can’t you do this one simple thing?”) screamed at you.

However, last year professor Takashi Saito released a book titled “ほめる力” (“Homeru Chikara,” “The Power of Compliments”), and his positive approach attracted a lot of praise from readers. More workers in Japan are coming around to the idea that ほめられると気分がいい (homerareru to kibun ga ii, it feels good to be paid a compliment). In the same vein, bosses and professors are starting to describe themselves as ほめて伸ばすタイプ (homete nobasu taipu, the type to bring out peoples’ best through praise). I’ve heard of situations in which people in power introduce themselves by casually mentioning, “安心してください、わたしはほめて伸ばすタイプです” (“Anshin shite kudasai, watashi wa homete nobasu taipu desu,” “Please relax, I’m the type to encourage improvement through praise”). On the other end, you could conceivably introduce yourself to your higher ups by stating, “私はほめられて伸びるタイプです” (“Watashi wa homerarete nobiru taipu desu,” “I’m the type that is encouraged by praise”).

Take note that the verb ほめる (homeru) means “to praise,” but when you add 伸ばす (nobasu, to lengthen) on the end — ほめて伸ばす — it specifically adds the nuance of praising in order to encourage. ほめられる (homerareru) is passive and means “to be praised.”

Another interesting point is that ほめる can be written using two different kanji: 誉める and 褒める. The former connotes a wider acknowledgement of merit (like a CEO praising her employees in a speech). The latter often refers to compliments in a more personal context, like a husband paying a compliment to his wife.

While Japanese people don’t traditionally speak highly of themselves or those in their immediate circles, there’s always one compliment that they’re ready to dish out to someone who has just arrived in the country: “日本語がお上手ですね” (“Nihongo ga o-jōzu desu ne,” “You’re very good at Japanese”). This is a way of reaching out to newcomers and in the grand Japanese tradition of not accepting compliments, your reply should be, “いえいえ、まだ下手です。 頑張ります” (“Ie ie, mada heta desu. Ganbarimasu,” “No, no, I’m still poor at it. I’m trying my best”).

Compliments can be tricky, especially in the workplace and if you’re in a position of power. The remark I’ve heard most from my male bosses over the years is, “疲れてるね” (“Tsukareteru ne,” “You look tired”), which I must say is pretty insensitive and definitely not something you should throw around in a Western company — all the women I know hate hearing this. One day, I said as much to my boss and he replied: “それは褒め言葉と受け取って欲しい” (“Sore wa homekotoba to uketotte hoshii,” “I want you to accept this as a compliment”). I could sort of see where he was coming from, it’s his way of saying that he appreciates the work I’m doing.

Besides, people in power need to be careful when praising their subordinates. A personal remark like “今日は綺麗だね” (“Kyō wa kirei da ne,” “You look beautiful today”) is best avoided. Your classic 好かれる上司 (sukareru jōshi, popular boss) makes their praise simple and heartfelt, and knows how to pack a volume of sincere gratitude in a well-timed いつもありがとうございます (itsumo arigatō gozaimasu, thank you very much as always). That one is reportedly the form of praise that most Japanese have cited as their favorite (and the most appropriate).

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