How to say beautiful in JapaneseJapanese people often use adjectives, “utsukushii 美しい (うつくしい)” and “kireina 綺麗な (きれいな)”, to express something beautiful. Both adjectives correspond well to an English adjective, “beautiful”. However, they are a bit different. In this blog post, I will explain these two adjectives in detail. And also, I will explain their differences through some examples. After reading my explanations, Japanese learners can understand them a bit more deeply.
- Definition and meaning of utsukushii
- Definition and meanings of kireina
- Examples of utsukushii and kireina
- Example 1
- Utsukushii is a more specific word
- Example 2
- Meaning of kireina depends on context
- Example 3
- Kireina could mean something not intended
- And the rest
- Summary of utsukushii and kireina
Definition and meaning of utsukushiiLet me start with the adjective, “utsukushii 美しい (うつくしい)”.
- Utsukushii – 美しい (うつくしい) : an i-adjective meaning ‘beautiful’ in Japanese.
Nevertheless, in this blog post, I will use English names because these names are highly related to what Japanese adjectives look like. In principle, Japanese adjectives end with either the “na な” character or the “i い” character in their plain form. Ones which end with “i い” are classified into i-adjectives and the others which end with “na な” are classified into na-adjectives. So, the English names of Japanese adjective types are very helpful to understand what Japanese adjectives look like.
Then let’s get back to the definition and meaning of “utsukushii”. It is an i-adjective and means ‘beautiful’. It’s a relatively simple word. Then let’s take a look at the other adjective.
Definition and meanings of kireinaPerhaps, you have already realized one big difference between “utsukushii” and “kireina”. Yes. Their adjective types are different. While “utsukushii” is an i-adjective, “kireina” is a na-adjective. Anyway let me show you a definition and meanings of “kireina”.
- Kireina – 綺麗な (きれいな) : a na-adjective meaning ‘beautiful’, ‘clean’, ‘neat’ or some such in Japanese.
Examples of utsukushii and kireinaIn the next paragraphs, I will do line-by-line comparison to figure out the differences between two adjectives.
- kyoto – 京都 (きょうと) : a noun meaning ‘Kyoto’ in Japanese. As you may know, it is one of the most famous Japanese cities.
- wa – は : a binding particle working as a case maker or topic maker. In the example, it is put after the noun, “kyoto”, to make the subject word in a sentence.
- basho – 場所 (ばしょ) : a noun meaning ‘place’ or ‘area’ in Japanese.
- da – だ : an auxiliary verb which is usually put after a noun, verb or adjective to make a simple assertive or declarative sentence.
Utsukushii is a more specific wordWhen Japanese people want to say “kyoto is a beautiful place” in Japanese, most probably they would say “Kyoto wa kireina basho da”. They wouldn’t use “utsukushii”. Why?
This is not because “kireina” fits with more situations, but because “utsukushii” is a more specific and dedicated word to mean ‘beautiful’. Since it has only one meaning, it gives us a very direct and straightforward impression. So it would not fit with situations in which people want to mention beauty in a broad sense. For this reason, Japanese people would use “kireina” in order to mean the beauty of Kyoto city.
However, this doesn’t mean that “kireina” can always be used to mean beauty in a broad sense. Depending on the situation and context, we cannot use “kireina”. I will explain the reason through the example sentences below.
Example 2Below are the next example sentences.
- kokoro – 心 (こころ) : a noun meaning ‘mind’ or ‘heart’ in Japanese.
Meaning of kireina depends on contextThe first Japanese sentence in the above example definitely means “it’s a beautiful mind”, but a translation of the second one would be a bit different. As I explained already, “kireina” means not only ‘beautiful’, but ‘clean’, ‘neat’ or some such as well. Its meaning varies depending on context and words used together. Actually, Japanese people do not always understand “kireina kokoro” as “a beautiful mind”. It could sound like “a clean mind” or perhaps even “an innocent mind”. These expressions definitely mean something different from “a beautiful mind”.
Probably, I need to explain how the meaning of “kireina” is affected by other words used together. Please take a look at another example below.
- yujo – 友情 (ゆうじょう) : a noun meaning a ‘friendship’ or ‘friendships’ in Japanese. It can be used as both the singular and plural. Learn more about Japanese singular and plural.
Kireina could mean something not intendedWhen Japanese native speakers want to say “it’s a beautiful friendship” in Japanese, they would say “utsukushii yujo da”. Its meaning is straightforward and very, very clear. On the other hand, “kireina yujo da” sounds a bit weird. As I already mentioned, depending on context or other words used together, “kireina” could mean something different from what to be meant really. “Kireina yujo da” is one of the most typical examples.
“Yujo”, a friendship in English, could be bad or even dirty. Sadly, this is the fact. So, we usually expect a friendship to be something good and clean unconsciously. Especially Japanese society has this kind of unwritten expectation. Therefore, people living there do not dare to mention cleanliness of friendship. They know that when the phrase “kireina yujo da” is used intentionally, it could imply existence of dirty friendship.
Japanese people usually try to read intention behind more than they are expected to do so. Of course, it highly depends on the situation and context, but this kind of guessing can happen quite often. This is why “kireina” is easily affected by context or other words, and also why Japanese people would say “utsukushii yujo da” to mean “it’s a beautiful friendship”. They want to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding.
As you can see here, the na-adjective, “kireina”, could mean something not intended. So we need to be careful with its use. However, usually, almost all combinations of “kireina” and other words don’t give us bad impressions. So please don’t be nervous with it that much.
And the restA question may come to your mind. When people say “utsukushii yujo da”, doesn’t it imply existence of not beautiful friendship? My answer to this questions is, “yes”. However, fortunately, an antonym of “utsukushii” is still acceptable because its meaning is just, ‘not beautiful’. It’s much better than ‘not clean’ or ‘dirty’ which makes us feel something an illegal or inappropriate relationship.
Summary of utsukushii and kireinaSo far, I’ve explained two adjectives, “utsukushii” and “kireina”, and also their differences. Let me summarize my explanations as follows.
- utsukushii – 美しい (うつくしい) : an i-adjective meaning ‘beautiful’ in Japanese.
- kireina – 綺麗な (きれいな) : a na-adjective meaning ‘beautiful’, ‘clean’, ‘neat’ or some such in Japanese.
- Their adjective types are different. “Utsukushii” is an i-adjective and “kireina” is a na-adjective.
- “Kireina” has more meanings than “utsukushii”.
- Depending on context and other words used together, “kireina” could mean something different from what we really want to mean. We need to be careful with its use.
Engineer, Industrial Translator, Blogger
I am trying to spread the Japanese culture through teaching the Japanese language. One of my goals is to make Japanese learners feel the culture through the language.