Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Let's Enjoy Japanese: きれい, not just a "pretty" word!

Generally the word きれい (kirei) is learned as "pretty" or "beautiful."

(Eg: She's rather pretty.)

While it certainly can be used this way, don't be pigeonholed into using this one function of the word! You may not see it used differently in textbooks often, but actually in real life it quite often is.

I was at the dentist yesterday, and he asked me if I had braces as a kid. I said no and he seemed a little surprised and said:


Though I have no doubt that there must be some dentists out there who can really appreciate the true beauty of teeth, he wasn't telling me that my teeth were really pretty. In this case, きれい meant something closer to "well-ordered" or "neat," though I think it's a little difficult to translate exactly into English. He was telling me I had nice (straight) teeth.

Finally, きれい is also the opposite of 汚い (きたない;kitanai; dirty or messy). So it can be used to mean "clean" or "tidy."

Last week the teachers were cleaning their desks in preparation for moving seats or changing schools, and one nearby guy with a messy desk exclaimed at one point:

"Look, it's finally starting to look tidy!"

*Update: Tokyo Five adds an interesting tidbit in the comment section -

When speaking to small children, mothers will often use the baby-talk and say "Kirei-kirei!♪" ("Clean up" or "Wash up").

You can also verbatize きれいきれいにする - to clean, clear, tidy up.

例: お母さんは来週に来日するからアパートきれいにしなきゃなぁ。
Eg: My mom's coming to visit Japan next week, so I guess I need to clean my apartment.


  1. When speaking to small children, mothers will often use the baby-talk and say "Kirei-kirei!♪" ("Clean up" or "Wash up").

  2. Ooh, thanks T5 - that's interesting to know. I'll add that to the post.

  3. Hope it was enlightening! Thanks for commenting!

  4. Thank you for posting this, I always wanted to know how to say that properly about my teeth (neat) but wasn't sure exactly how. I'm still learning Japanese (sad for as long as I've been living here)...

  5. Elle Marie, it's my pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to comment! I think no matter how long any of us live here we're still learning. The pace just differs by person. Keep at it!

  6. More on the kirei vs kawaii thing more than anything else but:
    I thought I got the hang of it all the other day until, much to my surprise, my friend addressed the sakura we were viewing as "kawaii" instead of "kirei".

    ....I think my heart died a little. :P

  7. Haha... that doesn't surprise me. I don't know your friend, but I suspect that wasn't really a "proper" use of "kawaii." I think a lot of girls just like "cuteness." I could be mistaken, but that would be my guess. I'll ask my girlfriend next time I talk to her.

    Thanks for the comment, Ri!