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The bittersweet taste of Japanese words

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

A little while ago a friend of mine who’s been living in Japan for few weeks texted me in a bit of a dither, saying, “This guy I barely know said I was sweet! Is he coming on to me?” It turns out the word he used was amai (甘い), which nominally means sweet as in sugar. In English if you call someone sweet it’s a compliment, but not in Japanese. I had to tell her that the guy wasn’t getting overly friendly with her but he wasn’t being too nice either, since amai means someone is being naive or shortsighted.

Japanese is littered with many such food-oriented words, phrases and colloquialisms that mean something quite different from what you may think. For instance, the actor Ken Watanabe is often described as being shibui (渋い). That doesn’t mean someone took a nibble of him and found him bitter tasting. It means he’s cool, handsome without being pretty, and mature — a man who appeals to both sexes.

Another way to describe his rugged good looks would be nigamibashitta (苦みばしった) — laced with bitterness, like a cup of good coffee or dark chocolate. Likewise teen pop star Justin Bieber might be described as having an amai (甘い) face — a sweet, pretty face that appeals to tweens, maybe not too masculine. And an amaenbō (甘えん坊) is someone who relies too much on someone else. It’s usually used to refer to a spoiled child, but an adult can be an amaenbō too, like a man who has to have his tie straightened out for him every morning by his wife, or a girl who expects her boyfriend to pay for every meal and give her lots of gifts.

Japanese people generally love to try new foods, so being a tabezugirai (食べず嫌い), or to decide you don’t like the taste of something even if you’ve never tried it, is not looked upon kindly. The phrase can also mean not liking someone or something without having attempted to get to know it first. If someone says you are ajikenai (味気ない, tasteless), it doesn’t mean they deplore your penchant for loud jackets; they’re telling you you’re dreary and uninspiring. It’s not good to be mizukusai (水臭い, smell like water) either, since that means being distant and insincere.

A menkui (面食い)is not a scary monster that eats faces or men (面); it’s someone who judges a person by their looks rather than their personality or character. A menkui man might not go for a woman with daikon ashi (大根足) or legs like plump, white daikon radishes. Then again, a woman might regard a man who’s that shallow as an otankonasu (おたんこなす), which is someone who is stupid as well as meaning a misshapen eggplant (nasu). But being mame or mamemameshī (まめ、まめまめしい)doesn’t mean you are a bean, it means you are attentive and precise, qualities considered desirable for both men and women in Japan.

There are also a few phrases related to goma (胡麻, sesame seeds), none of them that good for some reason. The term for grinding sesame seeds — goma wo suru (胡麻を擂る) — means to suck up to someone and to pay them false compliments. When you grind sesame seeds in a suribachi (すり鉢), a traditional grooved ceramic grinding bowl, the seeds get stuck to the sides of the bowl and are hard to get off, just like a person who is eager to impress to you is hard to get away from. Gomakasu (ごまかす) means to cheat or fool someone, or to sweep something under the rug. One theory for the origin of this phrase stems from a popular sesame snack in the Edo period called gomadōran, which was hollow in the middle, thus fooling the eater into thinking it was more substantial than it seemed. And someone who’s going grey on top and doesn’t have salt-and-pepper hair, they have a gomashiō atama (ごま塩頭, sesame salt head).

Despite the image the Japanese people have of being hard workers, we like to goof off quite often too. Abura wo uru (油を売る), which means to sell oil, is actually a euphemism for wasting time. Back in the olden days oil was rather unrefined and dorodoro (ドロドロ, or viscous), and to get a portion from the oil seller you had to wait while it was slowly poured from a big container into a smaller one. In the meantime, people sat around gossiping and wasting time. And chakasu (茶化す), which literally translates as “turn into tea,” means to make light of something serious or laugh it off, especially in awkward situations. This comes from the time-honored habit of serving some tea to a guest — toriaezu ocha wo (取りあえずお茶を) — when you aren’t sure what else to do with them.

So the next time someone calls you sweet or bitter, remember that they mean the opposite of what you think they do. You want to be like a bean, but not a sesame grinder. And if your legs are compared to a root vegetable, it may be time to hit the gym.