Say you’re watching the sun setting behind Mt. Fuji. How do you tell your Japanese friend that the scene is beautiful? Or perhaps your partner just walked in wearing a new dress. How would you compliment them? Let’s look at how to say beautiful in Japanese.
Beautiful in Japanese: Utukushii (美しい) or Kirei (綺麗)?
The two most common words for beautiful in Japanese are 美しい（うつくしい） and 綺麗（きれい）. Both words mean beautiful in English, but there are subtle differences in how and when to use them.
綺麗（きれい）- Beautiful, Pretty, Lovely, Fair; Clean, Tidy, Neat
Because the kanji 綺麗 is difficult even for Japanese natives, this word is often written either in hiragana (きれい) or even katakana (キレイ). きれい has a broader range of use than 美しい does. Not only can you look at a beautiful sunset and say, “きれい!”, but you can say “きれい” about a room that has been well-cleaned as well.
1. 彼は部屋を綺麗にしました 。 (かれはへやをきれいにしました)
Kare wa heya o kirei ni shimashita.
He tidied up his room.
きれい is used more in spoken situations than 美しい is. It is also a na-adjective, meaning that きれい must always be followed by “な” if used directly before a noun.
2. とてもきれいな靴ですね 。(とてもきれいなくつですね)
Totemo kirei na kutsu desu ne.
Those are some very pretty shoes.
If you want to say that something is not beautiful, you must use “じゃない” or “ではない” immediately after きれい.
3. そのドレスはもう、きれいじゃない 。
Sono doresu ha mou, kirei ja nai.
That dress isn’t beautiful anymore.
美しい（うつくしい）- Beautiful, Gorgeous, Picturesque, Pure
美しい is used more often in written Japanese than its counterpart きれい. Of the two, 美しい might be more suited to complimenting a person. However, in my experience, 美しい considered a bit more extravagant of a compliment than きれい.
Unlike きれい, the word 美しい has only one set definition: beautiful, gorgeous, etc.
1. 友情は美しいものです 。 (ゆうじょうはうつくしいものです)
Yuujou wa utsukushii mono desu.
Friendship is a beautiful thing.
2. 彼女の目は美しかったです 。 (かのじょのめはうつくしかったです)
Kanojo no me wa utsukushikatta desu.
She had beautiful eyes.
While きれい is a na-adjective, 美しい is an i-adjective. This means that 美しい does not require “な” when used directly before a noun. It also has a different conjugation for the negative tense. To say something is not beautiful using 美しい, you must replace the ending “~い” with “~くない.”
3. 今日は曇っているから、空が美しくない 。 (きょうはくもっているから、 そらがうつくしくない)
Kyou wa kumotteiru kara, sora ga utsukushikunai.
Because it is cloudy, the sky isn’t beautiful.
How Do I Tell My Girlfriend That She’s Beautiful?
When I asked my Japanese friends which of these words is best for compliments, they warned that using words like きれい or 美しい too early in a relationship can cause discomfort.
They recommended かわいい (kawaii) instead.
While かわいい is translated as cute in English, it is used in Japan to mean “pretty.” かわいい comes across more casually than きれい or うつくしい, so it’s probably the best word to use if you’re on a first date. Although I’m sure any girl would love hearing that they are かわいい at any time.
If you plan on visiting Japan, beautiful is a useful word to know. Remember that there are different grammatical rules for きれい and 美しい. There are also some situations in which one might be better than the other. What are some things in Japan that you think are beautiful? If you have any photos, feel free to share them with other readers in the comments below! Thank you for reading!