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A yen for praise

Professional flatterers are making Japan feel good, one compliment at a time.

What does it cost to feel good about yourself in Japan these days, as this once-proud nation wallows in economic recession and social gloom? About 95 cents, by one measure.

Aware that politeness pays, two young Japanese are turning compliments into cash with a professional flattery service. And in this notably traditional society, it seems to have hit a chord. The two CFOs _ chief flattery officers _ report a steady increase in business, recognition and number of standing ovations since the company's inception a year ago.

On Meiji Dori Street in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya neighborhood, 25-year-old Yuzo Koyama and 23-year-old Keiya Mizuno unpack the tools of their trade: a large signboard ("House of Flattery, 100 yen a minute"), bright red sweat shirts ("Professional Sweet Talkers") and lots of chutzpah.

"Have you been flattered lately?" Koyama calls out to the stream of people rushing by.

"Feel good about your hidden charms," Mizuno adds. "Indulge in a pick-me-up minute."

Taeko Hayashi, a 20-year-old student, sidles up for a try. Koyama and Mizuno compare her to a rock star, admire her great fashion sense and tell her she's stunning. "How many carats in those diamond eyes of yours?" one of them asks.

Combining quick wit, excellent timing, a bit of irony and a ton of praise, the two soon attract a crowd _ all part of a day's work for these aces of adulation.

Behind the joviality, however, customers voice a more serious concern. Many Japanese just don't feel very good about themselves these days as they fret over job cutbacks, rising crime, weak political leadership and a loss of national confidence.

"Obviously you're paying for the compliments, but they still feel nice," says Hayashi, dressed in a jean jacket and slacks. "With all of Japan's problems right now, maybe these guys can help brighten the atmosphere and improve the mood a bit."

Some customers look embarrassed. Others can't seem to get enough. Naoaki Tobe, a 19-year-old student, is told he looks like Tom Cruise, has real presence and a promising future. It's music to his ears.

"I feel so good," he says. "I don't have much confidence. And people rarely compliment you in Japan, no matter how good you look. This feels terrific."

Sociologists say the Japanese are more sparing with praise than people in many other cultures, in part because the society has put a premium on formality and understated communication. Compared with the United States, with its large immigrant population, there's a greater sense here of a homogenous culture where feelings don't need to be stated because people share an implicit understanding.

"I sometimes find I have a difficult time with Western people who immediately say, "You have nice shoes,' " says Mariko Fujiwara, a sociologist with Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a think tank. "If a Japanese did that, you'd often think the person lacked tact or was even insincere."

Explicit compliments can be embarrassing in a Japanese setting, sociologists add. A boss who praises his employee in public, for instance, is setting that worker apart from his or her colleagues in a country where group identity is very important. Co-workers may interpret the boss' action to mean they're not doing as well, leading to division and envy. In extreme cases, being singled out can result in bullying and charges you've become the boss' pet.

On a personal level, of course, social niceties are important and welcome, as they are in any culture. In Japan, however, they tend to be expressed in more formulaic and less personal ways, social scientists say.

But Tobe, for one, believes these traditions no longer serve Japan well. "Japanese hold back their feelings too much," the student says. "It's a real shame. They should express themselves more."

Flatterers Koyama and Mizuno say they got the inspiration for their business while attending a cram school for job hunters. The two realized they had several things in common. Neither could find a job despite attending prestigious Waseda and Keio universities, respectively. And both had a bit of the showman in them and enjoyed making people feel good.

They also realized that their friends who managed to land jobs in such a difficult market often felt lousy, racked by guilt that their classmates weren't sharing their good fortune. If even the winners felt such stress, they reasoned, there must be real demand for some morale boosting _ giving rise to their Flattery Co.

"We especially like complimenting tense salary men and students awaiting exam results," Koyama says. "They really need it. And helping them makes us feel good."

Because flattery in Japanese culture tends to be handled with such delicacy, its misuse has at times served as a weapon. In a practice known as homegoroshi, employed most famously in the late 1980s against former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, political opponents use exaggerated compliments to humiliate a top political figure.

"You are such a good politician, you raise money so well," members of the right-wing Kominto group declared in 1987 over mobile loudspeakers, as part of a "death by flattery" strategy. "You are the No. 1 politician. Please don't quit," they blared, even as the group's banners sarcastically "praised" Takeshita as being incorruptible, sincere and morally upright.

"Death by flattery" works in Japan because it sends a message that the leader can't control the political stage, experts say.

"If the boss of a faction is shamed publicly, then his subordinates might defect," says Masahiro Ueno, a professor with the Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture. "It's almost like a primate social system."

Another corner of Japanese culture where compliments have played a prominent role is a craft known as taikomochi. These professional male entertainers, the less prestigious counterparts of geishas, may be the original professional flatterers.

Taikomochi were generally hired by a host to make sure an important guest had a flawless evening. Their clever conversation, storytelling skills and ability to improvise helped prevent social mishaps.

Compliments, often dished out in very subtle ways, were an important part of the job. This form of flattery was often known as yoisho, which means "heavy lifting." For instance, the taikomochi might speak highly of the honored guest's daughter without ever directly praising the guest.

Ueno sees an echo of the taikomochi tradition in Flattery Co., but with a twist. The taikomochi were known for their discretion and their ability to keep secrets. Mizuno and Koyama have made flattery a form of public entertainment and, the professor believes, are using it to say: We've graduated from the best schools in Japan and still can't get a job because of your generation's mistakes.

Mizuno and Koyama say they're aware of the Japanese traditions but didn't consciously draw on them. They concede, however, that they're pretty worried about their own futures, even as they work to expand the flattery business. They've had several appearances on television, are getting jobs at company gatherings and weddings and they dream, tongue-in-cheek, of someday expanding into flattery e-commerce.

"We're just trying to ease the tension out there," says Koyama. "Even if it's only for a couple of minutes."

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