Cute and Scary in Japanese Kawaii

OR, how to say “cute” in Japanese without being scary…

かわいい cute; adorable; charming; pretty 【kanji: 可愛い | ASCII fun: カワ(・∀・)イイ!! 】

こわい scary; frightening; dreadful 【kanji: 怖い】

Listen carefully to the difference:


I (Clay) first arrived in Japan in the late 1990s. A friend of mine, another American, told me about a scary experience he had when confronted with a Japanese coworker’s newborn baby. My friend wanted to use the little Japanese he had learned and felt confident he could at least manage a “how cute” compliment. After his attempt, however, his coworker angrily said, “It’s KAWAII not KOWAI!”

Here’s the Ninja Penguin making the same mistake:

To the Japanese ear, these two words are very different, but to the English ear, there is often room for confusion. Try your best to hear the difference.

NOTE: Cute is かわいい. Pay attention to the “ka” sound and the longer “i” sound.

Another tricky one–at least for me–was 座る suwaru (to sit) and 触る sawaru (to touch). I can imagine quite a few instances where this would also result in a slap!


One more potentially confusing word pairing:

おしり oshiri–buttocks
押し入れ oshi ire–closet

Listen to these closely:


WARNING: Be careful with the following

anata no oshiire wa totemo ookii desu ne.
Your closet is very big!

Sounds nice enough when complimenting the lady of the house on her fine closet, but if said without care, it could easily come out as “Your butt is big. Very big.”

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