Nihongo Jouzu: Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil?

“Only three things are certain in life: death, taxes, nihongo jouzu.”

Being told nihongo jouzu when saying konnichiwa.

By Anastasiia

3rd Year, Global Business & Economics Major

I’ve lived in Japan for three years now, and one of the most common grievances about life in Japan that I’ve heard from people is “They always say I’m “nihongo jouzu” (even though I don’t think I am)”. Many people seem to take a very common compliment that Japanese people use (“You’re so good at Japanese!”) as a hypocritical, insincere statement. Millions of jokes have been made on the topic, including: “Only three things are certain in life: death, taxes, nihongo jouzu”.

International student studying Japanese or nihongo.

As for me, I’ve never thought about this phrase as something insincere. You may say I’m naive, but I’m taking these words to heart every single time. I’ve been studying Japanese for 8 years now, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t like it when my work gets appreciated. It’s not entirely up to me to say how “jouzu”, or good at Japanese I really am, but I’ve got my JLPT N1, and when someone says “You’re so fluent!” after I say “Arigatou gozaimasu!”, it warms my heart – feels like I haven’t been studying in vain!

One of the reasons people seem to hate this phrase is its overuse, but on the other hand, what else is there that Japanese people can politely comment on when they want to cheer you up? Many of them go on to say “Where are you from? Oh, I thought so, you’re so beautiful after all!”, but personally, I think I like that variation less. Doesn’t it sound like you’re only beautiful because you come from some place, and others aren’t because they are from a different place?

Another reason appears to be that people who aren’t really “jouzu” get told the same thing. Like you can say “konnichiwa” and not another word, and they would say you’re fluent, so it’s not really a matter of actual fluency or appreciating one’s hard studies.

Girl traveling with suitcase.

I look at it this way: Japanese people appreciate not only the hours that you’ve put into perfecting your pronunciation and memorising kanji, but also the sheer desire to learn Japanese. For them, learning a foreign language is immensely difficult because of their unique writing system and special grammar, so they understand better than most, I think, how hard it is to even start studying, let alone speak to somebody. And you, you don’t just talk, you come all the longest way from your home country, leaving your life and family behind, and that’s a really big step which they realise you’d made. So when you, a foreign student, listen to them, nod and say “konnichiwa”, they think you’re very brave! And “nihongo jouzu” is their way of expressing that. A way that is understandable to you no matter your level of Japanese.

There is also a whole discourse about how one should respond to such a compliment. The common understanding is, you have to decline and say “No-no, I’m not there yet”, or “Not at all…”, but here is what I have a problem with. People say it’s a cultural thing, and you have to downgrade your abilities in the eyes of others; but why, though? I feel like in this particular instance it’s quite acceptable to say “Thank you!” or “Thank you, I’ve been trying hard!”. Will it make you look more foreign? Well, probably, but I think it’s kind of inevitable, most of us don’t look Japanese, so it’s quite obvious. Why would I try and refuse a compliment about a thing I’ve been working really hard on? For me personally, the ability to speak Japanese is really special, and if praising it is a part of everyday small talk – I’m more than happy to thank everyone for their kind words and move on to other topics.

Many people wonder when will they stop getting told they are “nihongo jouzu”- somehow it gets old for them, and they cannot bear it anymore; but it seems that in most cases this compliment never completely disappears from a foreigner’s life in Japan. Some say, you are only then really good at Japanese when they stop telling you you are – presumably, struck in awe before your talent. However that may be, I hope it never disappears from my life, because I like to spend my days with an occasional cup of reassurance.

About The Author

Anastasiia is a 3rd-year iCLA student majoring in Global Business and Economics. She was born in Moscow, Russia and she has lived in Japan for 3 years. She loves being taught languages and is trilingual in Russian, English, and Japanese. In 2021, Anastasiia won first place in the Yamanashi International Student Japanese Speech Contest. Her favorite anime is Bleach, which inspired her to learn Japanese and live in Japan. Anastasiia is also an iCLA Student Ambassador.