Culture

“Your Mom is Ugly” or How to be Polite in Japan

Every country has its own culture. And although some of the weirdest things come out of Japan, the Japanese people are known throughout the world as some of the nicest people that you can meet. If you’re planning on going over for a visit, then you’ll want to know how to be polite in Japan.

So what does that have to do with insulting someone’s mother? It all comes down to compliments in Japanese, and how they tend to handle them.

If you were born and raised in America, and someone told you that you’re good-looking, or that you’re great at sports, you’d probably thank them and perhaps let them know some other great things about yourself.

But that’s pretty much the opposite of the way that people do it in Japan.

The Culture of Denying Compliments

If you study the Japanese language, you’ll no doubt notice something interesting things about it. In particular, you notice how you add honorifics like san and sama on to the end of other people’s names when you talk to them, or about them.

But when it comes time to say your own name, you drop all honorifics. It’s considered incorrect to add one on to your own name.

This is all because of the Japanese culture of showing respect towards another person, while being humble about yourself. This humble attitude also gets extended to the people who are close to you like you friends and family.

Related: Read more about the uchi and soto concept in the middle of this post.

So if you were hanging out with your Japanese friend and you saw a picture of them with their family, you might think that they have a pretty mom and want to say something nice like “your mom is really pretty” or whatever.

In America, that’s a pretty normal thing and you probably don’t think twice about it. But in Japan, that would actually be considered childish and immodest. You friend will deny it with something like “oh no, my mom is not pretty at all.”

It’s almost like Japanese and American cultures are opposite of each other, but the basic rule in Japan is to deny or downplay any compliment that you receive, and that of course extends to compliments about your family as well.

It might sound a little mean, or even kind of funny, but a conversation between two Japanese mothers might go like this:

Mom 1: You’re son is so smart! I was amazed when I heard how well he did on the school exam.

Mom 2: Oh no, my son is not smart at all. In fact, he is quite dumb and needs to study more. In fact, I wish that he studied as diligently as your son does. Your son’s discipline is excellent!

Mom 1: Who, my son? Oh no, my son is lazy. He doesn’t work hard at all.

I remember watching an interview of some high school Japanese kids where they were asked questions in English, and they had to answer in English.

They weren’t perfect, but you could easily understand everything that they said and the ideas that they were trying to convey.

At the end of the interview, they were complimented on how well they spoke and understood English, and every single one of them responded along the lines of “Oh no, my English is not good at all. I need to work much harder at it.”

A very Japanese answer indeed.

How to Deny, and How to Reply

No doubt you will be complimented on your Japanese skills at some point. The most common compliment is something along the lines of:

  • 日本語がお上手ですね!
    Nihongo ga ojōzu desu ne!
    You’re Japanese is good!

You could of course say “thanks” as your reply, but if you want to make a really good impression and reply the way a Japanese person would, then try saying:

  • いいえ、まだまだです。
    Iie, mada mada desu.
    Oh no, I’m not good yet.

If someone says that they really like something that you own, like a beautiful sweater or a new jacket, you might try replying with one of these:

  • これ?美しくないよ。
    Kore? Utsukushiku nai yo.
    This? It’s not beautiful.
  • 安かったです。
    Yasukatta desu.
    It was cheap.
  • すごく古くて擦り切れている。
    Sugoku furukute surikirete iru.
    It’s very old and worn out.

Basically, you can flat out deny the compliment you’ve received, or you can just down play them in some way. So if you give someone a compliment, don’t take their response personally if it’s not exactly what you were expecting. It’s just how things are done in Japan.

The Culture of Rejecting Gifts

A similar scenario occurs when it comes to receiving gifts in Japan.

What’s funny is that in the Japanese culture it is expected that you get a gift for everyone in your group (work, school, etc) whenever you come back from a trip somewhere or on a special event like Valentines Day, and yet when you try to give it to them they will reject it the first time.

And sometimes they will reject it the second time too!

But usually by the third time you “insist” that they take the gift, they will gladly accept it.

Take a look at a common interaction that takes place when a gift is given and accepted and the words that are used for it.

-When a person hands a gift to the recipient, they say:

  • これ、つまらない物ですが、どうぞ。
    Kore, tsumaranai mono desu ga, dōzo.
    Literally: This is a boring thing, but please (accept it anyway).

-And when a person is receiving a gift, they reply with:

  • すみません。
    Sumimasen.
    Literally: I’m sorry (that you had to go to the trouble of giving me this).

One person says “this is gift is crap” and the other says “Sorry about that.”

You gotta love Japan! (◠﹏◠✿)

But it gets better. In America when you are opening your presents you rip them open, right? Well, I do! And most other people do as well. But if you rip open your gift from your Japanese friend, you’ll rip their heart open too!

The Japanese people put a lot into the way a gift looks. They will use beautiful paper, folded intricately, and tied off with a beautiful string. And inside is a little knickknack that they picked up for a dollar at the store.

In this case, it really is the thought that counts. Or maybe I should say, it’s what’s on the outside that matters.

In fact, this “turning down gifts” is not just limited to something inside of wrapping paper, they will also turn down things like an offer of food or beverage when they are visiting you. Even if they are really hungry or thirsty!

  • いいえ、結構。
    Iie, kekkō.
    No, thank you (I’m fine).

So if you’re hosting a party, be sure to ask people if they’d like something many times. Trying telling them this after the first rejection:

  • 遠慮しないで。
    Enryo shinaide.
    Don’t be shy.

It’s like a game almost, so keep that in mind and have some fun while doing so.

Different, Not Bad

There are a lot of differences between cultures. And that’s a good thing!

It would be boring to travel half-way across the world, only to find that it’s the same as the place you just left!

I always enjoy learning how the Japanese view the world, their customs, and philosophy on life. I don’t necessarily think that one culture’s ways of living is better than another’s, it’s just different. And it’s nice to be able to learn about them all.

And I hope you enjoyed learning about it as well. Let me know what you think with a comment below!

Do you like the Japanese way of turning things down? Do you dislike it? Share your opinion!

4 Comments

  • Henry

    Hi, Nick! I really enjoyed your post! I didn’t know all this about the Japanese culture! I’m quite surprised but I kind of like it! Reading this has made me interested in learning more about their culture! Is there a historical reason for this humble attitude? Thank you for this great post!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Henry, yeah the culture of Japan has always been one of honor and of the group’s needs over that of the individual. You see it emulated a lot in the Samurai’s code, also known as Bushido (武士道).

      The warrior’s way is to live with honor, and to die with honor. And even though nobody is committing seppuku (腹切り) these days, the need to act in accordance with Japan’s society is still high. That’s probably one of the reasons why it’s one of the safest countries on earth!

  • Roopesh

    I actually enjoyed learning about Japanese culture here. It was really interesting and I wanted to learn more. So, I bookmarked your site and am looking forward to your future articles.

    Just out of curiosity, let say that it is someone’s birthday, would they follow the same way as you described when it comes to receiving a birthday present?

    Nice read, thanks
    Regards
    Roopesh

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, what’s actually interesting about Japanese birthdays is that traditionally they weren’t celebrated with gifts at all. It’s only more recently that Japan has started doing birthdays like we typically do in The West with everyone getting a gift for the birthday boy or girl.

      So in this newer birthday tradition, gifts aren’t really rejected since the entire point is to give the gift to someone on their special day. The rejecting gifts custom is more common in those traditional gift giving settings. Such as the two holiday occasions for gift giving in Japan: Ochugen and Oseibo.

      And you can also read how to say “Happy Birthday” in Japanese by clicking here!

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