Tag Archives: meaning of oishii

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?


* 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