The most uniquely beautiful Japanese words have a lot of subtext, often with nuance dating back to ancient Japan’s Buddhist roots. These words reflect the central Japanese values of the beauty of gratefulness and impermanence.
One of my favorite things about many words in Japanese is that they communicate a lot of mixed emotions. A core Buddhist value is that life changes and there is beauty in impermanence. You’ll likely notice that many of these Japanese words express a gratefulness, yearning, and wistfulness for people, places, and things as life evolves.
My mom is Japanese and is a Japanese teacher, and she shared some of these words with me as ones she believes have meanings that are particularly unique to Japan and are difficult to translate.
In this guide, I’ll share a list of the most beautiful Japanese words.
What are the most beautiful and uniquely Japanese words?
The most beautiful and uniquely Japanese words are:
- Itadakimasu (頂きます)
- Gochisousama deshita (ご馳走さまでした)
- Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (よろしくお願いします)
- Natsukashii (懐かしい)
- Koishii (恋しい)
- Wabi sabi (侘寂)
- Mottainai (もったいない)
- Shitamachi (下町)
- Otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です)
- Komorebi (木漏れ日)
What does itadakimasu mean?
Itadakimasu (頂きます) is an expression used before receiving something, most commonly before receiving (eating) food. At a meal setting, the word can be likened to “Bon Appetit”, but with an undertone of humility.
“Itadakimasu”‘s origins date back to ancient Japan and the country’s history with Buddhism. Buddhist belief has a deep appreciation for all living things, and saying “itadakimasu” is an expression of gratitude for not only the object you will receive (like food), but everything that went into it (like the animals, plants, and labor for the food). You can use this phrase when:
- You are about to begin a meal, either at home, at someone else’s home, or at a restaurant.
- You receive a physical gift from someone.
What does gochisousama deshita mean?
Gochisousama deshita (ご馳走さまでした) is a very common phrase used after finishing a meal and roughly translates to “thank you for the wonderful meal”. Unlike “itadakimasu”, “gochisousama deshita” is used only for the context of eating.
“Gochisou” means “feast”, “sama” is an honorary term, in this situation meaning “great/wonderful”, and “deshita” is the past tense of “desu” (です, to be).
Like “itadakimasu”, “gochisousama deshita” has Buddhist roots and therefore reflects a deep appreciation for the cultivation and energy spent for the food. Some everyday use cases for this phrase are:
- After finishing a meal, either at home, in someone else’s home, or at a restaurant.
- After eating at a restaurant, say “gochisousama deshita” to the chef and staff.
What does yoroshiku onegaishimasu mean?
Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (よろしくお願いします) is a useful phrase in Japanese with varying nuances depending on the context. Most straightforwardly, it means “nice to meet you”, but it can also imply “let’s work hard together”, “thank you for your time”, and a request for the recipient to take an action.
To mean “nice to meet you”, simply say “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” when you meet someone for the first time.
Additionally, you’ll often hear this phrased used at the beginning of meetings as a polite way to encourage everyone to work well together and also thank people for their time and energy.
Finally, it’s common to see “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” written at the end of business emails or commercial advertisements. In this case, the implication is for the reader to take action (like complete the business request or buy the product/service in the advertisement).
What does natsukashii mean?
Natsukashii (懐かしい) is a uniquely Japanese phrase to express feelings of nostalgia and a longing for the past. Unlike many other cultures where nostalgia is associated with sadness, in Japanese, “natsukashii” reflects a feeling of gratefulness in the current moment for beautiful past experiences. There is an air of melancholy, wistfulness, and bittersweetness to the expression – like a longing for the past, but recognizing that it’s better that life changes and moves forward.
Some examples of when “natsukashii” could apply:
- You smell a dish that reminds you of what your grandmother used to often cook.
- After many years, you visit your childhood neighborhood.
- You see an old friend after a long time apart.
What does koishii mean?
Koishii (恋しい) in Japanese is an adjective that describes a deep sense of longing or yearning for a person, place, or thing that is far away or otherwise attainable.
Often, the word “koishii” reflects an aching feeling or strong desire to be near something, often in the context of an unfulfilled or unrequited love. For example:
- You love someone but can’t be with them because they live on the other side of the world.
- You are homesick and ache to be home.
- You miss somebody (often a romantic interest).
What does wabi sabi mean?
Wabi sabi (侘寂) is a Japanese ideology centered on the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. The philosophy’s Buddhist roots in ancient Japan stem from the belief that life is always in flux and changing, and it’s impossible to try and create or hold on to perfection.
The traditional Japanese art of pottery repair, called kintsugi, is one of the best examples of the wabi sabi philosophy in practice. In kintsugi, broken ceramics are repaired using natural lacquer and gold or silver powder to make something beautiful out of something broken.
What does mottainai mean?
Mottainai (もったいない) is a frequently used Japanese expression that roughly translates to “wasteful”. The phrase applies when something was thrown out that could have been used or salvaged and carries a slightly shameful connotation.
For example, you might hear or say “mottainai!” when:
- Someone doesn’t finish their plate and throws food away.
- You discard a household item or piece of equipment in good condition (like a bicycle).
- It’s possible to repair an item, but instead the item is thrown away.
What does shitamachi mean?
Shitamachi (下町) means “lower town” and specifically refers to the low-lying part of eastern Tokyo, including Nihonbashi, Yanaka, Asakusa, Shitaya, Fukugawa, Kanda, Honjo, Kyobashi, and the surrounding neighborhoods. The term refers to the common people’s way of life in the old parts of east Tokyo before WWII.
Nowadays, “shitamachi” is used to more broadly reference the feeling and aesthetic of “old Tokyo”, which is characterized by narrow alleys, the presence of traditional Japanese foods and craftsmanship, and a peaceful, sleepy ambiance.
In my article about Tokyo’s Best Kept Secrets: Tokyo Off The Beaten Path, I suggest visiting the Yanaka neighborhood to experience shitamachi.
What does otsukaresama desu mean?
Otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です) in Japanese loosely translates to “thank you for your hard work”. The phrase can be used in many settings, but all of them reflect the desire to show appreciation for someone else’s efforts. For example, you can say “otsukaresama desu” when:
- You finish a workout class and want to congratulate other students for their efforts.
- You arrive to work after your colleagues and want to convey appreciation for the work they put in before you got there.
- You leave work before your colleagues and wish to thank them for staying longer and working hard.
What is the difference between otsukaresama desu and otsukaresama deshita?
Otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です) and otsukaresama deshita (お疲れ様でした) mean essentially the same thing, but “deshita” indicates the past tense. So, if you say “otsukaresama deshita” to a colleague, you imply that their hard work is already complete. In this case, unless you were both leaving the office or you had 100% certainty that they were done working, it’s better to say “otsukaresama desu” to be polite and stay on the safe side.
What does komorebi mean?
Komorebi (木漏れ日) is a Japanese word that refers to sunlight filtering through trees, specifically the rays of light created as sunlight passes through the darkness of the branches and leaves.
Like many uniquely Japanese words, “komorebi” touches upon the theme of transience and impermanence. The light through the leaves is particularly beautiful because it is fleeting and will never happen exactly in the same way again.