I’ve lived in Japan for several months now, and I’ve been wondering the difference in meanings for 可愛い (kawaii)、きれい (kirei)、美人 (bijin). I know the literal meaning of these words, but I was wondering how they are different in social context and Japanese culture. From what I have heard from some Japanese people, they say 可愛い is preferable than きれい amongst the Japanese people. Other things that you guys know of? This thought just came up to me as I have heard different expressions for beautiful/pretty person.
可愛い = cute
きれい = beautiful/ clean (きれい can also used to describe a clean desk or a clean material after you’ve tidied up.)
美人 = beautiful woman
可愛い is preferable because it implies youth and heart bumping levels of prettiness. きれい is used to mean beautiful, but doesn’t have the girlishness of 可愛い. 美人 implies elegance, a sort of more refined word.
Careful with typos…
I don’t really see any differences between the literal meanings and the way they’re used. It’s not possible to expand from an anecdote to a generalization about how all Japanese people feel about the words, since that covers a huge age range and other demographics.
Ah yes, but きろい is the most feminine and girlish word of them all. I called a girl きろい and she was so floored that she couldn’t even respond.
I would also not know how to reply if that ever happened to me.
Could have been worse … 君はきらい。 だいきらいです〜〜！
I personally don’t hear きれい used to describe a beautiful women often (more used to describe their clothes or make-up).
I always hear 美人 though. 美人 is beautiful in a model-like kind of sense (tall, high cheekbones, elegant clothes), whereas 可愛い women are typically shorter, idol-like women with cute fashion.
美人 women can also be 可愛い, but 可愛い women are often not 美人…
At least that is my impression … so far …
Asked my girlfriend this. Essentially, her reply:
可愛い is generally “cute,” but can be “pretty” in a more girly sense. Has a natural nuance of youth, so can be viewed in a sarcastic sense if used to a more mature woman or in a more mature situation (it would be strange to call your fiancee 可愛い on your wedding day when you see her in her wedding dress). Between girls, very normal usage. For guys speaking to girls, more usual to hear from a guy of same age or older than the girl or if the girl has a more “peppy” personality or flashy fashion style. It has a very subjective feel. She personally hates being called 可愛い in reference to physical appearance or dress, but has no problem if someone comments that a reaction or part of her personality is 可愛い.
きれい is either “pretty” in an objective sense or “beautiful” in a subjective sense. Unlike 可愛い, has no particular attachment to age, but can be heard much more commonly when used by a younger person of either gender referring to (usually) a girl of older age. It’s also the go-to term for those more mature circumstances (such as the wedding example above). As has been mentioned, also means “clean,” so more sophisticated dress warrants きれい over 可愛い. It’s also the safest word to use.
美人, as a noun, is more dangerous to use than the others but less strange to hear than 美しい. Usually used more indirectly (pointed out that a girl is attractive to your friends or talking about an actress, for examples), this can be viewed the most positively or negatively depending on who you are, the girl is, and your relationship. Using it along with too casual speech and behavior can get you called out for sexual harassment, as it has a stronger and more sexual nuance to it (可愛い can have this too, but it’s much more circumstantial, while きれい has a more aesthetic nuance than sexual).
I personally have never used 美人 and probably won’t simply because it’s more of a “label.” 可愛い and きれい are often used to describe the overall ensemble (a girl, her hairstyle, her dress, etc) than the person themselves (phrasing like きれいな人 of course change things) while 美人 is referring more to the person themselves. Apparently 美人 can be used as a な adjective, but doing so apparently makes it even more likely to come out as sexual harassment.
So you’re telling me not to run after random women yelling 凄く美人だよ?
Anyhow, 美人 is more like “babe” as in “what a babe she is” although it depends on the context.
The most common situation for me to hear 美人 is from my girlfriend while watching TV and such, after which she ponders aloud if she’s a weird girlfriend for pointing out beautiful women to me.
She’s only weird if she follows it up with something like “I wish you would dress/act more like その美人, リーボ君 ”
Don’t forget about 美しい, in case you’re writing her poems or whatever :3