As you all know I am a long time resider of Japan. Prior to moving here and well into my tenure, I made a decision to learn and continue studying Japanese. My philosophy, what’s the point of living in a country if you cannot speak the language. By not knowing the language you short change yourself of all the experiences you could have had. Now, with so many experiences under my belt I am forced to blog and write a book.
With such a chasm of cultural differences between Japan and the US, there are many benefits to knowing the language. The culture is so different, in many ways polar opposite to the motherland I call the United States. The gift of Japanese language is that I have had a myriad of experiences. What it has afforded me over the years is to adapt to the culture and gain a deeper understanding.
here are reoccurring phrases in a variety of contexts which have become clearer over the years. One such standout is the phrase – “日本語上手ですね,” “nihongo jozu desu ne,” translated as, “Your Japanese is good.” Unlike the five phases of grief, this phrase and others have three – joy, anger and acceptance.
Stage 1 – Joy
For the first couple of years, hearing this utterance of praise, “nihongo jozu desu ne,” I was filled with such joy. It reinforced that I was becoming a brilliantly fluent Japanese speaker. I heard it everywhere I went: I went:
Mother-in-law after I said, “ohayo gozaimasu,” “Good morning.” Her reply, “nihongo jozu desu ne.”
Father-in-law after I said, “konbanwa,” “good evening.” His reply, “nihongo jozu desu ne.”
A complete stranger, After accidentally bumping into him I said, “sumimasen,” “excuse me.” His reply, “nihongo jozu desu ne.”
After a day out on the town and arriving home, I would be in such a good mood having been praised so much for my Japanese speaking ability. It had been a dream and I was fulfilling it. After telling my wife about my day, something she put up with, she would come back with, “They really said that after you only spoke one word?” Defending my honor, “Yes, I think the one word was spoken with perfect pronunciation.” Her reply, “All you said was one word?” My reply, “It takes a while to add more and more words.” I didn’t know what I was saying. All I knew was that it made me happy. She wasn’t buying it. I didn’t care. My “nihongo WAS jozu desu ne.”
Stage 2 – Anger
Fast forward many years later, my spoken word count increased to the point I could now hold one hour plus conversations in Japanese. Yet I was still complimented the same way – “nihongo jozu desu ne.” I wanted it to be, “nihongo SUPA jozu desu ne,” translated as, “Your Japanese is SUPER good.”
By now the old phrase was wearing thin. No longer was it a compliment, rather a deterrent. I thought maybe I ought to just go back to one word utterances so the compliment had real meaning. I mean come on! Halfway into a conversation about politics, in Japanese, they come out with it – “nihongo jozu desu ne.” I wanted to add, “fuckingu jozu desu ne.” Of course I am good at Japanese. I just discussed the intricate details and downfall of the American political system. What’s the point of complimenting me? Some sort of passive aggressive strategy to get me to like you? I am talking to you, isn’t that enough? The anger continued during those middle years.
Stage 3 – Acceptance
My language continued to improve as did my deepening understanding of the culture. It wasn’t until recently that I had a “nihongo jozu desu ne” epiphany. It was in the context of the current pandemic, and thanks to a 100 yen store clerk that moved me along my journey from the anger stage to acceptance.
Standing in line at the local 100 yen shop, a store where everything is 100 yen or $1.00, or you do the math at the current exchange rate for your local currency. Bottom line, it’s cheap! I was there to buy one item only – the pantyhose looking sink prophylactic for drains. I ran out, and being on lock-down the drain was overflowing with a concoction of veggies, meat and whatever else I chose to throw in there. It was my own personal wet-market. If I didn’t do something quick I was afraid I would unleash my very own strain of covid. I can see it now!
“Foreigner creates own covid-20 strain in hopes of wiping out neighborhood in order to snatch up beautiful surrounding homes at a cheap price.”
Good plan, but no.
Looking good wearing a sky blue corona-blocking mask covering everything below the middle of my nose with fashionably coordinated matching blue hat and jacket, I was next to pay. Ringing me up, the clerk, whom I have interacted extensively with for more than five years was getting a plastic bag ready for my sink drain net thingy. Stopping her mid movement I said, “fukuro, iranai,” I don’t need a bag.” Looking up at me she replied “nihongo jozu desu ne” and without missing a beat continued, “hyaku hachi en kudasai,” “one hundred and eight yen please.” (There’s 8% tax here).
Even with Captain and Tennille’s “Love will Keep us Together” playing in the background and a billboard size photo of two Amish blond five year old foreign kids, or Hitler youth grinning ear-to-ear as a backdrop, it wasn’t enough to quell the anger welling up. I paid and stuffed the item in my backpack and stormed out.
Taking the escalator down to the first floor, it was then that I had it – the epiphany. The clerk didn’t recognize me because of my mask. I mean she could tell I was a foreigner by the only fully exposed feature – my eyes. Other than that, she had no idea.
It was then that I realized the phrase “nihongo jozu desu ne,” while on the surface is meant as a compliment, there is so much more to it. Of course if you know someone whose Japanese level is sub-par, the utterance is meant to bolster confidence. That was my joy phase. During those early years I soldiered on studying knowing despite my first grade level ability I would continue to get those compliments.
During my anger stage it was simply about my own issues. I was overly confident not knowing it was a sincere compliment because I had heard it so many times over the years.
The other use for the phrase is as a social icebreaker. In the store clerk’s case, for all she knew I could have been a masked “Dorobo,” “robber” ready to clean out the cash register making off with a whopping 10,000 yen. That’s $100 or you do the math … After all it was a 100 yen shop, not a bank. It was in her best interest to diffuse the situation robber or not by breaking the ice and telling me my “nihongo IS jozu desu ne.”
The whole idea behind a Japanese dealing with foreigners, often times they don’t know how to make the feeling between one another copacetic other than to say , “日本語上手ですね.” After, all the culture is about making sure the other is taken care of.
Reaching the bottom of the escalator I had it all figured out. I vowed from that day on, I would no longer get angry and accept the phrase for what it is. And who knows, maybe I will use it on an unsuspecting foreigner in the future – “Hey dude, your Japanese is like, really good!”