Sometimes, the Japanese language is a pain in the butt. Seriously, how is it that in the millennia over which it evolved, no one ever said, “Hey, guys, why don’t we come up separate words for ‘leg’ and ‘foot’?”, which are both ashi in Japanese?
But speaking Japanese isn’t all frustrating head-scratchers. As we’ve talked about before, it also has some handy, expressive terms and phrases that don’t have direct English equivalents. So today we’re dipping back into our Japanese dictionaries for another batch of words we’d love to import into English.
1. Shibui – The old-school brand of cool
Let’s take a look at two cars, Mazda’s 110S Cosmo Sport, from 1972…
…and the same company’s fourth-generation Roadster/Miata/MX-5, scheduled to go on sale soon.
With sporty lines and performance-oriented packaging, both cars are cool, but only the Cosmo is shibui.
Shibui literally means “stimulatingly bitter,” and it can be used to talk about flavors. But it also describes a sort of understated, classic, and often masculine coolness. Like a cup of strong black coffee, shibui things are things that adults can appreciate and enjoy, but that wet-behind-the-ears kids aren’t quite ready for. So while an ultra-lightweight nylon running parka, catchy pop song, and the new microbrew pub with the gleaming glass and stainless steel interior are all definitely cool, they’re not shibui like a vintage leather jacket, vinyl jazz album, or hole-in-the-wall bar where customers have been setting their glasses of bourbon down on the same countertop since the place opened in the 1940s.
2. Charai – The new-school brand of uncool
Charai is the polar opposite of shibui on both points. But while all sorts of things can be called shibui, charai is narrower in application, and is generally used to talk about a man’s personality or fashion sense.
A guy’s look is charai when it’s simply trying too hard to be cool, almost as if he’s checking off every single box from this week’s men’s magazine list of recommended designers and hairstyles, and ending up looking a little silly in the process.
Like the fashions that are just too new to have really earned much credibility, charai can also be used to describe a guy whose flirtatious friendliness towards a girl he’s just met is a bit too soon and showy to feel genuine or anywhere near exclusive to her. There’s even a name for this type of dude, chara-o (from charai otoko, or charai guy), and coming off as one is a fast way to ruin your chances with a woman who’s got discerning taste in romantic partners.
3. Sunao – Not in the mood to fight, even with yourself
Unlike some of the other words on this list, sunao does have a pretty commonly used one-to-one English translation, which is “obedient.” Things get a little more complex, though, when you look at the many situations for which that translation doesn’t really work.
A better translation of sunao might be “without resisting.” Sure, if someone says, “Sunao ni kite,” or “Listen in a sunao way,” they’re saying to be quiet until they’ve finished what they have to say, implying that they’re not in the mood to entertain any interruptions or arguments at the moment.
But you can also be sunao to yourself.
▼ Dammit, me, just do as I tell you! Wait, I mean, as you tell you!
Jibun ni sunao ni naru (being sunao to yourself) means letting your emotions take their natural course. When you’re feeling happy, you let your smile shine instead of putting up a stoic front. If everyone else at the table is ordering after-dinner cocktails or coffee, but you want a strawberry parfait, you go ahead and ask the waiter for one. There’s even the phrase sunao ni hanasu, to talk in a sunao way, which implies that you’re speaking from the heart, being completely open and pulling no punches so that the listener knows exactly how you feel.
On the flipside, some people are not sunao with themselves. Do you really want to call up that attractive guy or girl you met last night and talk to him or her again, but you force yourself to wait at least three days? Not sunao. Not sunao at all.
4. Iyasu/Iyasareru – Emotional cleansing and/or psychological recharging
Let’s say you’re feeling irritated and unhappy. Maybe you got stuck at a party that was wall-to-wall chara-o, or maybe just the day-to-day stress of not being sunao with yourself is starting to pile up. In any case, what you need is something that will iyasu.
You could translate iyasu literally as “heal,” but like with sunao/obedient, that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Iyasu is generally used not for physical healing, but for whatever helps alleviate or eliminate your emotional distress.
Sometimes iyasu works like the word “soothe,” and it’s not uncommon for someone to murmur iyasareru (“I’m being healed”) while sipping a cup of green tea of soaking in a hot bath after a long day at the office. But iyasu isn’t just for relaxing things. If you spend a half-hour squealing with glee as you watch cute cat videos (or wander around Rabbit Island), or a few minutes cracking up at your favorite comedian’s latest routine, then find that all the negative thoughts and energy that were surrounding you have floated away and been replaced by a warm, fuzzy feeling, you too can say iyasareru.
5. Tekitou – Whatever’s best…You know what that is, right?
Finally, let’s keep the good vibes going with tekitou, which some dictionaries translate as “appropriate.” That’s about as good a transition as any, but whereas “appropriate” usually means there’s a right, and therefore also a wrong, course of action, tekitou doesn’t always mean your options are so limited.
Tekitou can be used to express “whatever/however the situation calls for,” so if you’re sorting laundry, you’ll want to put everything in its tekitou place. But tekitou can also mean “whatever/however the person doing it thinks is best.” When used with a verb, tekitou becomes tekitou ni, so if you trust someone’s judgement, you might tell him to “Tekitou ni yatte/Do it tekitou-style.” The meaning ends up as essentially “Do it in the manner of your discretion,” but with a much less formal air than that implies in English.
Similarly, if you don’t feel like going out to pick up groceries or grab dinner in a restaurant, you and your housemates can tekitou ni taberu, eat tekitou-style by making a meal out of whatever leftovers, ingredients, or instant foods you happen to have in the kitchen. Are you running late to meet up with a friend? Send him a text telling him tekitou ni jikan wo tsubushite (jikan wo tsubushite being Japanese for “kill time”). That means that you’re cool with whatever he decides to do, whether waiting at your original agreed-upon meeting place or going someplace else and having you come there.
That wraps things up for now, so thanks for reading! As always, if you head down a bit more, you’ll find some other articles you might be interested in. Also, if you scroll way back up to the top, you can check out our top stories, listed along the right side of the page. And of course, you’re welcome to reread this article, too, if you feel like it. It’s up to you.
You know, tekitou ni.
Top image: Girls Channel, Excite Woman, Wikipedia/MartinHansV, RocketNews24 (edited by RocketNews24)
Insert images: Wikipedia/MartinHansV, RocketNews24, Girls Channel, Shukatsu Note, RocketNews24, Excite Woman
Mazda Roadster and Rabbit Island images ©RocketNews24