Nagoya – Most of the time, Japanese learners are more concerned about being able to speak Japanese at all, much less 美しい日本語 (utsukushii Nihongo, beautiful Japanese). As a language learner, though, it’s important to understand what is 荒い (arai, coarse/crude) and what is 綺麗 (kirei, pretty).
Japanese, with its abundant history of poetry and tendency toward polite language, has rich and plentiful expressions of beauty. Words like ときめく(tokimeku, to flutter/palpitate, or to flourish/prosper) and たおやか(taoyaka, graceful/willowy) come to mind.
However, according to Japanese people, 美しい日本語 is simpler than you’d expect. Government surveys have found that people think that the most beautiful Japanese 言葉 (kotoba, words/phrases) are 思いやりのある言葉 (omoiyari no aru kotoba, words of consideration/thoughtfulness), 挨拶の言葉 (aisatsu no kotoba, words of greeting) and 季節の移り変わりを表す言葉 (kisetsu no utsurikawari o arawasu kotoba, words that express the changing of seasons). 謙遜な言葉 (Kensonna kotoba, Humble expressions) and 俳句などの言葉 (haiku nado no kotoba, haiku words and so on) rounded out the top five. That means many people think that the most beautiful Japanese expressions you could conceivably say are as simple as ご苦労様でした (gokurōsama deshita, thanks for your hard work).
In fact, a 2014 survey from NHK showed that the top five most beautiful words in Japanese are thought to be none other than: ありがとう (arigatō, thank you), さよなら (sayonara, goodbye), はい (hai, yes), すみません (sumimasen, sorry) and おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu, good morning). So, if you’ve completed at least one Japanese lesson, congratulations! You already speak the most 美しい日本語.
“It’s difficult to translate these ‘caring expressions’ into English,” says Yoshiro Ogura, a professor at Osaka Prefecture University. “おはようございます is recognizing the other person for their effort in coming early, so it’s natural they have a good, happy feeling attached.”
Compare this to a similar survey conducted among English-speakers: “mother” was the top-voted word, followed by words such as “passion,” “liberty” and “destiny.” The only non-everyday word in Japan’s top 10 was 爽やか (sawayaka, fresh/clear).
But does that mean that おはようございます is the most beautiful Japanese will ever get? とんでもない！ (Tondemonai!, Heavens no!). But it’s worth taking a step back and realizing that the expressions most commonly considered beautiful in Japanese — greetings, thoughtful language, seasonal words — do in fact have a common factor: 大和言葉 (Yamato kotoba).
The term Yamato kotoba refers to a part of Japanese vocabulary: words that derive from the language spoken by the Yamato people, the ethnic group that crossed over from Korea and came to dominate the Japanese islands in the Yamato Period (300–710). Yamato kotoba are defined in contrast to 漢語 (kango, Chinese words) and include native Japanese readings of kanji, or 訓読み (kun’yomi), along with names, particles and grammar. For example, in the kanji 読 (to read) the kun’yomi is 読む (yomu) and makes up words like 読み書き (yomikaki, reading and writing). The 音読み (on’yomi), or kango reading, is どく (doku), in words like 読者 (dokusha, reader) and 朗読 (rōdoku, reading aloud).
Yamato kotoba become the bulk of Japanese grammar, greetings and humble expressions, Japanese names, and words about the landscape and the seasons. Kango, which make up 60% of the words in the dictionary but only 18% of the words used in daily speech, tend to be more precise and academic. Kango are words that combine different kanji together for a nuanced meaning.
“Using kango feels formal, so it is often used in official documents,” says Ogura. “You can use kango to create a formal atmosphere. Think of it as using Latin or Greek-based words in English.”
For example, 開 (open) and 始 (begin) combine in a kango for the word 開始 (kaishi, to open/begin), but there’s the much more simple Yamato kotoba word 始める (hajimeru, to begin). 開始 is for more formal occasions, 始める is for more everyday usage. Sticking with the Latin/Greek comparison, 始める feels like the word “start,” while 開始 feels like “commence.”
That’s why while at work, employees will say 承知しました (shōchi shimashita, understood) when receiving directions, but wouldn’t say it to a friend. The Yamato kotoba word わかった (wakatta, got it) will do.
There is a third part of the Japanese vocabulary, 外来語 (gairaigo), which refers to Japanese that comes from other languages besides Chinese. There’s コーヒー (kōhī, coffee) from Dutch, イメージ (imēji, image/impression) from English, ブランコ (buranko, a swing) from Portuguese, and hundreds more. Certain gairaigo develop connotations of “coolness” with their implication of the foreign and exotic, but they certainly aren’t making the top 10 美しい言葉 list.
While Yamato kotoba aren’t inherently beautiful, their usage aligns with what most people consider to be pleasant Japanese: expressions of empathy and consideration, the language of seasons and poetry.
So what are some examples? For 挨拶 and 思いやりの言葉, Japanese learners can start by mastering the essential and considered-to-be-beautiful ご苦労様です (gokurōsama desu, thanks for your hard work) and お疲れ様です (otsukaresama desu, thanks for your hard work). The key difference between the two is status: ご苦労様です is primarily said by bosses to their subordinates, while お疲れ様です is for the employee.
考え合わせる (Kangaeawaseru, to consider [the matter]) is another good example of a 美しい言葉 in the workplace. It’s still a formal expression, but it’s a Yamato kotoba, so it feels more heartfelt than the kango 勘案する (kan’an suru, to consider).
And what about beautiful words that express 季節の移り変わり (kisetsu no utsurikawari, the changing of the seasons)? It’s now early spring, so for this time of year words like 山覚める (yamasameru, snow melting in the mountains), 麗か (uraraka, bright/splendid) and 玉響 (tamayura, a fleeting moment) are all beautiful and appropriate.
Certain expressions may feel more beautiful to a non-native speaker than a native one. I personally find Japanese’s many words for 雨 (ame, rain) to be charming, 細雨 (saiu, drizzle) and 煙雨 (en’u, misty rain) in particular. And my all-time favorite word in Japanese is 木漏れ日 (komorebi, sunlight streaming through leaves).
But a look at the survey is a good reminder that to most, beautiful Japanese can sometimes be the simplest: a brightly intoned おはようございます, or a thoughtful お疲れ様です.
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