Common Fallacies in Japanese: Oishii means “Delicious”

The feast. Deeply bound up with the concept of oishii.
Gochisou – the feast. Deeply bound up with the concept of oishii.

The translation of Japanese words into English words is often a bit rough, because precise equivalents frequently do not exist. For example, suki doesn’t really mean “like” and wakaru doesn’t really mean “understand”.


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These commonly used “definitions” may in many cases be the word an English speaker would use in the same situation but they don’t work quite the same way grammatically or mean precisely the same thing.

I recently realized that the common translation of the word oishii to mean ”delicious” is also incorrect. Western people sometimes complain about the over-use of oishii in Japan, saying that it is too general and says nothing about what kind of delicious. The reason for this is that it actually does not mean delicious at all. What it means not easily translatable but is along the lines of: “enjoyable – (but only in connection with eating or drinking)”.

One can for example say that a restaurant is oishii. If one translates that as “delicious” it is absurd. We don’t eat the restaurant. But what it really means is “it is an enjoyable eating-experience”. I attended a very formal home celebration in Japan and afterwards said it was tanoshii (fun/enjoyable). A Japanese person who was meue (in a superior position) to me corrected me. I should have said oishii. This is because there is always a right adjective for particular situations. But the reason it was right was, I think, that it was an enjoyable experience involving food – but a little more serious than tanoshii would imply*. In English “delicious” would not only be grammatically and semantically incorrect to describe the whole occasion but would also imply a rather gluttonous attitude to it. But oishii does not mean delicious.

Kakigoori in the rain - still delicious, no longer oishii.
Kakigoori in the rain – still delicious, no longer oishii.

Another example. In Shirokuma (Polar Bear) Cafe a kakigoori (shaved ice with syrup) party that everyone had looked forward to was held on a balcony. It began to rain and although the balcony was covered, it was cold and damp. The characters ate their cold kakigoori but did not enjoy it much and one commented that kakigoori is not oishii on rainy days. Everyone agreed. Of course the rain did not affect the taste of the kakigoori but it did affect the enjoyability of eating it, and of the occasion on which it was being eaten.

Oishii was the right word. But “delicious” would have been quite wrong.

There are, of course, many occasions when the translation “delicious” works – which is how the misunderstanding arose, presumably. We can say oishii ryouri, and it is reasonably translatable as “delicious food/cuisine”. Even then we should be aware that it has a much richer coloring than merely “delicious” and, depending on the context, will imply to a greater or lesser extent “food that will give rise to a wonderful experience in eating it”.

This in miniature shows why translations of Japanese can’t help being “wrong” and why learners need at some point to start learning Japanese words themselves rather than learning the nearest English equivalent


See also:

Urusai: What does it really mean?


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* The non-use of the expected oishii could also have implied under-appreciation of the sekkaku tsukutta cuisine. Again because oishii is not “delicious” it would mean in this context “an enjoyable occasion involving excellent food”, rather than tanoshii which would leave, perhaps rather pointedly to a Japanese ear, the food out of account.unlocking-japanese-ad3

 

9 thoughts on “Common Fallacies in Japanese: Oishii means “Delicious”

  1. Very in depth and thoughtful post!

    I think your description can be backed up with the Japanese definitions as well!

    In some cases, it does mean “delicious” “物の味がよい”, while in others it means the circumstances are good “都合がよい”.

    Another example of how two similar words from two different languages rarely mean the exact same thing. They have different nuances with some crossover.

    I love this post and the example from Shirokuma Cafe!

    1. Ah, correcting my comment: “Another example of how two similar words from two different languages rarely mean the exact same thing.”

  2. I think your asterisk is right on the money. In a situation involving food, it’s polite to give credit to the host who made the food by complimenting it, regardless of what you actually thought.

    But oishii can also mean when something is lucrative which is one of my favorite uses of the word. 🙂

  3. (kanji koohii lead me here)
    You say “the rain did not affect the taste of the kakigoori ” but most Japanese speakers think it affects the taste itself. And, the reason why you can say “oishii restaurant” is not because “oishii” stands for another thing than attribution of food, but because in Japanese you can express things through metonymy, and how nominative case is used is different, in short, you can say “あのレストランが 味が(taste) 良い” or “砂糖が(sugar) ふとる (gain weight)”. English is unique in the point that a nominative case must be the subject of the sentence and it needs logical coherence between the predicate.

  4. I agree that Japanese people think the actual taste is affected by the circumstances and I don’t think they are wrong.

    This is one of the many examples in which language is affected deeply by the philosophy that underlies it. English has been influenced strongly by the “Enlightenment” rationalist view of life. Consequently it assumes (linguistically) that the taste of food is purely a physiological phenomenon, rather than a social or spiritual one.

    In this it is clearly wrong. One proof of this is a study that observed of two groups of people drinking the same wine. One group were told it was regular wine. The other were told that it was a very rare and special wine costing several hundred dollars a bottle. Neuroimaging showed that the pleasure centers of the second group, on tasting the wine, lighted up to a much greater extent than those of the first group.

    In other words, the wine “tasted” better to the second group, but not for any physiological reason involving the taste buds.

    Just as English denies that a whale is a fish because it considers biological classification rather than symbolic perception to define the “truth”, so it regards taste as an isolated physiological phenomenon rather than a complex physiological/social/spiritual one. Consequently “deliciousness” is seen as being unaffected by social circumstance.

    We may or may not agree with this view of life, but we cannot change the fact that it is embedded in the English language in countless ways, and that we have to use many of its assumptions if we want to speak English.

    That is why I prefer to speak Japanese.

  5. I dont think that English makes any philosophical assumptions like that. Literal translation of the Japanese sounds fine to me. Translating it any other way would miss the joke.

  6. I’m not even Japanese (aussie living in Japan with Japanese wife) and even I would find it odd to hear “tanoshii” (or tanoshikatta) after a dinner or some other event involving food. I would presume that perhaps they didn’t enjoy the food, but just wanted to say something positive about the experience… like native English people say “interesting” when they don’t really like the food.

  7. I’ve always seen “Oishii” as “So Good”. I’m not sure if that’s technically correct, but it fits with most statements. Like your examples. The restaurant is oishii (so good). Eating Kakigoori on a rainy day is not oishii (not so good). In some cases it may sound better as just “good”, but only a food related good.

  8. I think the often heard (both in anime and real life) exclamation:

    美味しい!
    Oishii!

    Definitely means “So good!” and in those cases is really referring specifically to the taste of the food.

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