5 Japanese ‘compliments’ that can sound off to foreigners

One thing you’ll learn soon after arriving in Japan is that Japanese people love to compliment. Greet them with konichiwa (hello) and you’ll quickly be applauded for your amazing Japanese abilities. Of course, for those of us who have lived in Japan for long enough, it does become quickly repetitive and often linked to being quite microaggressive, but that’s a whole other topic. 

You’ll also quickly find that the Japanese (along with many other Asian countries) have very high respect for natural western beauty and often hold it to a high standard they feel they must replicate. If you visit the beauty section in pretty much any Japanese drugstore or variety store you will see aisles of skin whiteners, double eyelid-making glues, face slimmers, body slimmers and nose lifting clips, all with the purpose of keeping up to that beauty standard. 

If you take that highly sought standard of beauty into consideration, you can start breaking down the strange comments you as a foreigner may receive and find that they’re not really just pointing out your body parts to you​​—they’re actually complimenting you! Of course, you still have every right to feel strange about it but it’s always nice to know that they mean well when saying them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Japanese people are polite but not discrete. Pointing things out about physical appearance is an everyday thing here in Japan, and not only directed to foreigners. Many Japanese people won’t hold back when making verbal observations about people having put on weight, losing hair, having acne and other things people can’t fix immediately. Japanese youth and young adults not as much, but children, the middle age and the elderly can be quite brutal. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean every observation is a rude one. 

Here are five common “compliments” that could potentially sound off to those of us from the west. Let’s dissect them and find out what Japanese people really mean by it:

“Hana takai ne (Your nose is so tall)”

Photo: iStock: VladimirFLoyd

Having the shape of your nose pointed out can make anyone self-conscious. What the Japanese mean by this however is that you have a beautifully well-defined nose that protrudes from your face—a perfect side profile. When compared to a typical east Asian nose, where the nose is more often lower with smaller and weaker lateral cartilage, any nose with a nice “tall look” seems more out there (literally), exotic and in this case more beautiful (according to Japanese beauty standards).

It all comes down to people wanting what they don’t have. Just the same way someone with a bigger nose may want it to be smaller, the Japanese, who more often have lower noses, want tall ones! So, when they see a nice tall nose, they can’t help but point it out. You might even get “big nose” or “nose like a tower” however, again, as off as it sounds, they are more often just complimenting you.

“Ashi nagai ne (You have such long legs)”

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