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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.

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