Japanese people are exceedingly kind. They’re so kind, in fact, that they won’t tell you honestly if your Japanese sucks.
Let’s take an example from my home country, the ol’ U. S. of A. If you walk into one of our fine fast food establishments and order your triple quarter pound meatwich with anything less than the most perfect American, the cashier is likely to lean toward you sneering and go, ‘HUNH?’
After they’ve done you the favor of understanding what you said, they may shake their head in disgust to let you know that you need to put in a little more time doing pronunciation drills.
The Japanese won’t do that. No matter what a train wreck your Japanese language skills are, they’ll invariably smile really big and say, ‘日本語上手ですね!’
In ABC’s that would be, ‘Nihongo jozu desu ne,’ which translates to, ‘Wow, your Japanese is really great!’
I remember one of the first times I went out in Japan, I managed to get out a ‘こんにちは’ (konnichiwa – hello) and this was the reply.
Really? My Japanese is amazing!? That’s all there is to it?
To me, it seemed kind of patronizing. I mean, c’mon, we both know that I struggled to get that most basic of greetings out. But I didn’t feel like they were insulting me. In fact, it almost seemed like some sort of encouragement.
And actually, that’s exactly what it is. When people say that phrase to you, what they’re really saying is, ‘Your Japanese sucks but keep trying and I know you’ll get better and I don’t want to act like your Japanese sucks because that’d be rude and make you feel bad, and then maybe you’d give up.’
It’s actually the kindest thing they could do.
Now, once your Japanese reaches the not-sucking level, they’ll stop saying that. You won’t hear it again. At some point later in the conversation, they may say something but it’ll be more genuine. For example:
‘Nihongo wa anmari komaranai desune.’
‘You don’t seem to have any problem with Japanese, huh?’
‘Nihongo ha zenzen shabereru ne.’
‘You can totally speak Japanese, huh?’
‘Nihongo perapera jan!’
‘WTF, dude, you can f***in’ speak Japanese!’
But like I said, it’ll come later in the conversation. It won’t be the first thing they’ll say to you.
The Japanese language is hard. Luckily, Japanese people will only make fun of your bad Japanese behind your back. To your face, they’ll lie outright and tell you you’re doing a great job. I appreciate all the people over the years who’ve twiddled my ego with that phrase so that I didn’t think I totally sucked at Japanese.