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The difference between 得意 and 上手 (I’m good at) and 苦手 and 下手 (I’m poor at)

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Do you have anything you are good at? or something you are not good at? In Japanese, there are two words that can explain you are good at something and two words that explain you are not good or poor at. In this article, I will explain the difference between 得意/とくい/Tokui and 上手/じょうず/Jouzu which means “I’m good at”. I will then explain the difference between 下手/へた/Heta and 苦手/にがて/Nigate which means “I’m poor at”. In English, there is no difference between 得意 and 上手 as well as 下手 and 苦手, and each of two words are translated into same English phrase so it’s difficult to understand the proper use of each of them.

Difference between 得意 and 上手

Both of 上手 and 得意 are words to indicate to express proficiency. The main difference is that 得意 can be used to explain other person AND can also be used to explain about yourself. However, 上手 can only be used to explain the other person and you will never use it to explain about yourself. 上手 is often used to compliment others.

Here are some examples of 得意 and 上手



Tanakasan, E ga jouzu desune

Mr.Tanaka, You are good at drawing



Watashi wa Basketball ga tokui desu

I’m good at Basketball.



Kare wa E ga jouzu desu./Kare wa E ga tokui desu.

He is good at drawing.

In the first example, you are complimenting Mr. Tanaka so using 得意 makes the sentence a little uncomfortable. The second sentence is talking about yourself, so using 上手 will make it sounds like you are complimenting yourself and that’s a bit weird. Because of Japanese virtue to be modest and polite, you don’t really compliment yourself aloud as it could make you look arrogant and overconfident. In the last example, both 得意 and 上手 can be used as this sentence is just talking about one’s ability to draw.

Main point

  1. Both words are to show one’s proficiency in something

  2. 上手 cannot be used to yourself and is often used to compliment others

  3. 得意 can be used to both yourself and others but if you want to compliment others, you should use 上手

Difference between 苦手 and 下手

Let’s move onto the next topic; 下手 and 苦手. 下手 is used to express a person’s lack of skill. On the other hand, 苦手 include the nuance of dislike, unpleasant. 苦手 has the same meaning as 嫌い/きらい/Kirai/Hate and sometimes 好きじゃない/すきじゃない/Suki Janai/Don’t like.

Example of 下手 and 苦手



Watashi wa football ga sukida. Demo Heta da.

I like football but I’m not good at it.



Watashi wa football ga sukida. Demo nigate da.

I like football but I’m not good at it.



Watashi wa sakana ga nigate da.

I don’t really like fish.

From the first sentence, we can tell that he is poor at football although he likes it.

How about the second sentence? English translation seems fine but this is a little uncomfortable. Because 苦手 conveys the hint of one’s dislike, it cannot be used with the word 好き which has completely opposite meaning. And the last sentence is talking about one's preference and not the ability. Like this, 苦手 can be used to explain not only one's proficiency but also about ones taste.

This article has explored the meaning of 得意, 上手, 苦手 and 下手

Here is the summarised list of them with the main difference.

上手: To compliment one's ability or proficiency

得意: To explain or state one’s own or other’s ability or proficiency

苦手: To show one is not good at something and imply that one does not really like the thing they are talking about

下手: To simply explain that one has the poor ability and does not take ones feeling into account

Momoka Yamaguchi

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