How to use じょうず, へた, and うまい to Express Good or Bad (at) :We love complimenting others on their strengths and skills. It makes them (and us) feel good on the inside. However, there are also times where we point out the weaknesses of others—or even ourselves. Today, we’re going to learn how to use じょうず (jouzu), へた (heta), and うまい (umai) to say someone is good or bad at something.    

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How to use じょうず, へた, and うまい to Express Good or Bad (at)

Jouzu is often written using Japanese kanji. It looks like this:


The first kanji means “up,” and the second one means “hand.” Therefore, if we put the two together, it means having the “upper-hand,” or that someone is good at something.

Jouzu is a naadjective, and it usually appears at the end of a sentence to express someone’s exceptional ability at doing something.

Heta has the opposite meaning of jouzu. It is also usually written in kanji and looks like this:


The first kanji in this pairing means “down.” Therefore, you could think of it as having the “lower” hand in a situation, or being bad at something.

Like jouzu, heta is also a na-adjective and often appears at the end of a sentence to express that someone is inadequate at doing something.

Umai is similar to jouzu and is written like this in kanji:


(BE CAREFUL!: Don’t confuse the readings of these similar words! If you see 「上手」it is read as “jouzu.” If you see「上手い」 it is read as “umai.”) 

Umai has the same meaning as jouzu, but it is an i-adjective. Therefore, different grammatical rules apply to it.

Let’s explore these words in more detail below. 

じょうず (Jouzu):  

Jouzu is mostly used to express that someone is skillful at some kind of act. We can form a simple sentence by stating the act first, following it with ga, and then saying jouzu. Take a look at the example below.

Kare wa e ga jouzu da. 
(He is good at drawing.)

“E” means “picture” in Japanese. Since pictures are what “he” is good at, we follow e with ga, and end it with jouzu. Notice that in Japanese, we don’t need to include the word “drawing” because it is implied. Therefore, translated literally, it sounds more like “He is good at pictures.”

Now, let’s take a look at a more complicated version of the sentence where we include the verb “draw.” In here we want to say, “He is good at drawing pictures.” The Japanese verb for “draw” is kaku, but we want to change it into a noun (or, more specifically, a gerund) in order to make the sentence work. In order to do this, we take kaku and simply attach a no to the end. Take a look at how it works below. 

Kare wa e o kaku no ga jouzu da. 
(He is good at drawing pictures.)

Let’s look at two more examples.

Takahashi-sensei wa ryouri ga jouzu desu. 
(Ms. Takahashi is good at cooking.)
Takahashi-sensei wa ryouri o tsukuru no ga jouzu desu. 
(Ms. Takahashi is good at cooking.)

The first example translates more literally to “Ms. Takahashi is good at food.” In the second example, however, we use the verb tsukuru (make) and attach no to the end, turning it into a noun. Therefore, it translates more literally as, “Ms. Takahashi is good at making food.” Both sentences are correct in Japanese. The reason I have included them is to illustrate how verbs in jouzu sentences can be turned into nouns.

When you first practice your Japanese with Japanese people, often times you will hear them say this:

Nihon-go wa jouzu desu ne! 
(Your Japanese is good!)

You can respond to this with the humble, “iie,” (no) which is a common response to compliments.

へた (Heta):


Heta—in this style of sentence—abides by the same grammatical rules as jouzu and functions within the sentence the same way.

Watashi wa supootsu ga heta desu. 
(I’m not good at sports.)

The word “supootsu” (sports) is a noun, so we follow it with ga, and then our na-adjective heta.

Watashi wa kanji o oboeru no ga heta desu. 
(I’m not good at memorizing kanji.)

Oboeru (“remember,” or “memorize” in this case) is a verb, and by adding no to the end, we turn it into a noun. We can then follow it with ga, and then our na-adjective heta.

(BONUS: If you’re really bad at something, and you’re talking to friends, you can add kuso [the Japanese word for “excrement”] to the end of heta, making it heta-kuso. This is common slang to use between close friends as a joke—akin to “I’m absolute crap at (something).” However, be warned, never say this to a stranger or someone with a higher rank than you, as it would be inappropriate.

うまい (Umai):   

Umai has the same meaning as jouzu but is an i-adjective rather than a na-adjective. Be that as it may, they both function the same within “good at” sentences with no changes despite being two different types of adjectives.

Kanojo wa piano ga umai desu. 
(She is good at the piano.)
Anata wa eigo ga umai! 
(You’re good at English!)
Jeff-san wa supiichi o suru no ga umai desu ne! 
(Jeff is good at giving speeches, isn’t he?)

Complimenting people on their skills and strengths is something that brings joy to the people around us and ourselves as well. However, there are times where we feel the need to mention that others/we aren’t so skillful. Therefore, we use adjectives like jouzu, heta, and umai. 

Remember, just reading this article isn’t enough to master the skill of Japanese. You must get out there and practice the things you learn everyday! Learn from your mistakes and relish in your victories. Get out there and practice, practice, practice

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