If you go to Japan and someone sees you eating with chopsticks then sometimes you'll hear:
Translation: You're better with chopsticks than a Japanese person!
And, if you have studied your Japanese diligently then a Japanese person might say this about you:
Translation: You speak better Japanese than a Japanese person!
Both statements are quite odd to hear. Chopsticks are, after all, easy to use with a little practice and Japanese is one of the hardest languages to speak and to learn. If you said the statements in English then it would be a joke. "You speak better English than a American!" is just making fun of Americans* and "You use a knife and fork better than the British!" is just impossible as everyone knows they eat everything including hamburgers with a knife and fork**.
The sincerity that any Japanese person can say it with, however, leaves no doubt that they giving you an honest compliment.
If you receive a compliment in Japan then you've most likely surpassed the expectations someone has for you or people in general. Japanese culture has many situations where expectations matter a lot. Underperforming in areas like gift giving, being polite and using respectful language leaves a bad impression and overachieving is bad too. Going the extra mile leaves the impression where the other person's actions are inadequate.
So, do the above statements literally mean every Japanese person is worse than you? No, they could just be calling attention to your unexpected skill or they think you've demonstrated skill equal to what they expected from a Japanese person.
The correct way to respond to a compliment in Japan is to find a way to self-hammer yourself back down into the crowd. Nobody is looking for confirmation that you are incredible in every way. You may think that you're Superman or Wonder woman but even they would respond to, "My, your stronger than 100 men!" with "Yes, but, saving children is just a hobby for me. Firefighters are real heroes."
Submitted by mbystedt on Sat, 04/09/2011 - 21:19