Word of the Week: 褒める

It’s time for Word of the Week again! Last time we looked at a Japanese word or phrase beginning with ‘he’ (へ), focussing on へいき / 平気 (heiki), meaning ‘coolness’ or ‘unconcern’. This week I’m looking for a word or phrase beginning with ‘ho’ (ほ). A big thank you for the suggestions this week:

lovelycomplex22 suggested ‘horeru’ (惚れる), ‘to fall in love’; and Japan Australia suggested ‘hora’ (ほら), an informal term meaning ‘hey!’ or ‘see?!’; ‘honki desu’ (本気です), ‘I’m serious’; ‘honno sukoshi’ (ほんの少し), ‘only a little’; and ‘hontou ni’ (本当に), ‘really?’.

These were some great suggestions, but this week I have decided to write about…

ほめる / 褒める


‘Homeru’ is a verb meaning ‘to praise’ or ‘to admire’. Praise in Japanese culture is an interesting topic. Allow me to share a quote from a book called Japanese Business Culture and Practices: A Guide to Twenty-first Century Japanese Business by By Jon P. Alston and Isao Takei:

US Americans commonly praise individuals while Japanese praise groups. US American commonly praise an individual’s character (“She is hard working”) or belongings (“I like your tie”). Japanese react negatively to such praise by feeling different from others and by becoming uncomfortable that they have been singled out. It is better to be like everyone else and remain anonymous than to stand out. This feeling reflects the saying “The raised nail get hammered down.” Avoid praising individuals and instead comment on groups or teams. Public recognition is appreciative, though public praise gives the recipient the responsibility to work harder.

Japanese offer indirect praise though a foreigner may not recognize it as such. Superiors use the phrase “Thank you for your trouble” to praise someone who has done well or who is working on a project. The foreigner needs to listen carefully for indirect praise.

Japanese supervisors seldom comment positively on their subordinates’ work performance.it is assumed that workers do their best and are motivated to do so. As a result, supervisors correct but seldom praise. A US American once asked why his superior did not praise his work though he had in fact been praised but did not recognize it. A superior might take a subordinate out for a meal or stop to talk to him while he is working at his desk. The superior may even offer his subordinate advice to show he cares enough to offer personal advice.


(Image source)

A lot of what is said above does seem to be true. In my own experience, Japanese co-workers and superiors are much more likely to praise the company or the group than the individual, and it’s true that those less familiar with Japanese culture might not always recognise the disguised praise that is there. However, most foreigners who have visited or lived in Japan will be able to tell you that there is one time when praise seems to flow easily: when you attempt to fit in and make an effort.

Speaking a few words of Japanese or (shock!) attempting to use chopsticks will often get a foreign visitor to Japan heaps of praise. It’s common for the Japanese person in that situation to (almost condescendingly) over praise a simple action, whilst the foreigner happily grins back. However, the best response to such praise (no matter how worthy) would actually be to deny it. Showing this kind of modesty is called ‘kenson suru’ (謙遜する). There’s a great blog post about being humble in Japanese here.

For example, if I’m speaking Japanese and someone says to me “sugoi, jyouzu desu!” (Wow, you’re skilful!) by response would always be: “iie, jyouzu jyanai!” (no, I’m not skilful at all!). Of course, responding correctly like this does usually end in more praise, but this kind of response is appreciated more than just accepting the praise and saying thank you.

So, looking at ‘homeru’ today turned out to be a post about Japanese culture rather than language, but I think language is very important when looking at culture and vice versa. What are your thoughts and experiences relating to praise in Japanese culture?


Next week’s post will be about a word or phrase beginning with ‘ma’ (ま), so please leave your suggestions below. The word can be a verb, adjective or expression, but no nouns please! For example, ‘mazeru’ (まぜる) meaning ‘to stir’ , would be acceptable, but ‘Matsue’ (松江), the place, would not. I look forward to reading your ideas! (*^_^)v

Word of the Week 2014

2 thoughts on “Word of the Week: 褒める

  1. Good job Ali! Just though I’d give you some ‘Homeru’ for all the hard work you do 🙂 A few suggestions for next week are:

    Maamaa (まあまあ) Informal phrase meaning “average” or “so-so” or “same as usual”
    Maji de (マジで) Informal phrase that means “really?” or “are you serious?”
    Mazui (不味い) Informal term that refers to something that tastes terrible or something that sucks


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