Cultural nuances of Japanese

I started learning Japanese way back in college, and one of my Japanese professors tried something that failed spectacularly.

Near the end of her class, the professor handed us out packets of information about how to use Japanese within Japanese society.

Nearly every student protested, sometimes openly, that this was a tremendous waste of time. “Why are we learning this?” I remember one particularly frustrated student say aloud.

For me, however, this was like being handed the keys to a kingdom. I still have those packets.

It’s one thing to learn how to speak a language, but it’s quite another to learn how to speak it well within the society that uses that language.

For example, in America (where I’m originally from) if someone says, “Your English is so good,” the natural response would be, “Thank you.”

In Japan, however, this is generally viewed as a rude response to the praise. Saying thank you to someone complimenting your Japanese is akin to saying, “Yes, I know it’s amazing. Thank you for noticing.” To many Japanese, this is bragging, which is highly frowned upon here.

Therefore, the correct response to “Your Japanese is so good” is to say, “Oh no, no, it’s not good at all yet.” It doesn’t matter if you just gave your college dissertation in Japanese despite only being a native English speaker, this should be your go-to response.

Another nuance I’ve learned is that you do not boast about anything to anyone who is not in your immediate social circle (like your spouse or your own parents and kids).

If your kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize and your neighbors come running up to you praising their name to the heavens, your job is to promptly dismiss all praise. Deflect. If need-be, find some flaw about your child to bring up if the neighbors keep praising your kid anyway.

None of this is to say, “I hate my child.” On the contrary, it is to give the appearance of being humble and having humility. If you go around saying, “My kid just won the Nobel Peace Prize!” then many neighbors and friends will give you tight smiles and declare you to be full of yourself behind your back.

That doesn’t mean many Japanese don’t enjoy being praised. I don’t know anyone on earth who doesn’t enjoy that, even if only inwardly. But your immediate reaction in Japan to received praise should always be deflection and humility. Even if inwardly you want to shout from the rooftops how amazing your kid is, outwardly you have to act like your kid didn’t do anything special.

My professor tried to teach us all that, to help us be even just a tiny bit more accepted into this incredibly exclusive society, and to this day I think it’s a shame more students didn’t understand just how incredibly nice that was of her to try and teach us.