Most people learning Japanese have ever wondered what was the difference between JOUZU (上手) and TOKUI (得意), and their antonyms HETA (下手) and NIGATE (苦手). The first two are used to express the fact of being gifted, and the last two to express the idea of not being good at something.

In many situations, 上手 and 得意 can be interchangeable as well as 下手 and 苦手, without really changing the meaning. However, there exists a slight nuance that will make it possible to prefer the use of one and not the other in certain contexts.

As you can read it in the other document about JOUZU and HETA, 上手 (clever, good, etc.). is used to express a talent for something. Therefore, it shouldn’t be used to talk about yourself. Exposing your ease and expertise in a field might sound like bragging, which goes against the social behavior required by Japanese culture. Using it to talk about another person is consequently very common, even if that person is not particularly gifted. The most striking example is a Japanese who compliments a foreigner after a conversation limited to only a few words.

We use TOKUI (pride) to express the same idea, except that it appears to be the speaker’s strong point. You can use it to refer to yourself or to others. Of course, this can also be considered boastful to some extent, depending on the context and individual interpretation.

The examples below are translated so that you can better understand the nuance.

Kare wa uta ga jouzu da yo.
He is good at singing.

Kare wa uta ga tokui da yo.
Singing is his strength.

In the first sentence, it’s stated that he/she is skilled in this specialty. In the second sentence, it’s stated that singing is his/her strong point, his/her pride. If we take the example of a video game: with JOUZU, he/she does very well, with TOKUI he/she is unbeatable.

Kare wa uta ga heta da yo.
He’s bad at singing.

Kare wa uta ga nigate da yo.
He’s not cut out for singing.

This is the same between HETA and NIGATE. The first example affirms that we are not good at something, we give our opinion, and the second that we are not made for that, that we don’t have the faculty to do that.

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