Ramen. Sushi. Sake.
Some Japanese words are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t speak the language at all.
Others are still heavily used in non-Japanese media but aren’t quite as easy to understand. Let’s look at the Japanese phrase “kawaii desu.”
What does “kawaii desu” mean in Japanese?
The phrase “kawaii desu” （可愛いです） means that something is cute. Because spoken Japanese typically drops the subject of a sentence, the exact thing described as cute needs to be understood from context. It could be a cute puppy, a cute house or someone could even be calling you cute.
The meaning of 可愛い (kawaii)
The word 可愛い (kawaii) is usually translated as “cute” in English. The word can technically mean other things, such as “precious” or “innocent” or even “lovable,” but since the word “cute” implies these things in English, it is a good way to think of the Japanese word 可愛い.
Unlike some Japanese words, which can only be used to refer to specific objects or people, 可愛い can be used to call just about anything cute.
How to write 可愛い (kawaii) in Japanese
There are two main ways to write the Japanese word “kawaii.”
The way dictionaries (and this article) write the word is with the kanji 可愛い. For the curious, those kanji mean “can” (可) and “love” (愛).
Of course, the kanji used in Japanese words don’t necessarily add up to their meaning. In this case, though, it makes a good mnemonic: if you can (可) love (愛) something, it’s cute（可愛い）.
In most cases, however, 可愛い isn’t written with kanji at all. Instead, it’s represented solely with hiragana as かわいい. If you’re trying to write this word out, then, it’s best to stick to the hiragana and forget about the kanji.
With the internet being what it is, you’ll often see this word written out in English characters or romaji as “kawaii.”
The meaning of です (desu)
The word desu (です) is often translated as “is,” but the reality is more complicated than that.
Technically speaking, です is a copula, a word or phrase that links a subject with something describing it. In English, the copula is often the word “is,” but it doesn’t have to be.
There are two ways to think about this in Japanese. The more linguistically correct way is to view any word followed by です as being connected to the subject of the sentence.
If that’s too confusing, you can usually get by with treating it as the English word “is.”
How to use 可愛いです (kawaii desu) in a sentence
When you put 可愛い and です together, you get the Japanese phrase 可愛いです.
Now that we know 可愛い means “cute” and です is connecting the word or phrase it follows to the subject of the sentence, it’s easy to make sense of this phrase as, “[subject is] cute.”
But what is the subject?
In Japanese, the subject of a sentence is often dropped. That means you will need to use context to determine what exactly is cute.
This shouldn’t be too hard. If you’re looking at a puppy and someone breaks out with 「可愛いです！」 they are probably talking about the puppy.
可愛いです can also be used to describe people as cute, including the speaker or the person they’re speaking to.
It’s worth noting that anyone writing “kawaii desu” in romaji is probably a non-Japanese person and may be talking about themselves or being overly fanatical about something.
Because this phrase is common, it’s been picked up online by fans of Japanese popular culture.
“When I was an elementary school student, I said ‘my little sister is cute’.”
“That rabbit’s cute!”
“What do you think of this jacket?”
Although the first two sentences specify the subject of 可愛いです, the third example uses context to make it clear that the jacket is what’s cute.
The correct way to spell kawaii in English
If you’re going to write 可愛い in English, it’s important to spell and pronounce it properly.
There are several other Japanese words that sound very similar, so a misspelling could be the difference between calling someone cute and calling them scary or introducing yourself as someone whose last name is Kawai.
To be clear, the correct way to spell kawaii is just as it’s written in this article: with two letter “i”s on the end.
There are two main ways to mix up this word, described below.
- 怖い (kowai) – This word means “scary.”
- 河合 (kawai) – This is a surname.
For pronunciation’s sake, the word has three distinct sounds: ka, wa and ii
In contrast, kowai and kawai are two distinct sounds: ko (or ka) and wai (sounds like “why”).
Other ways to say cute in Japanese
可愛い is far and away the most common word for “cute” in Japanese. There are many other options, though, several of which are slang or dialect.
Here are some of the most interesting.
キュート (kyuuto) is a na-adjective and a direct transliteration of the English word “cute.”
真ん丸 (manmaru) is a noun meaning “completely round” or “a perfect circle.”
Young children, as well as grown women who want to sound cutesy, also use it to say something is cute. 真ん丸 can be used as both a noun and a na-adjective.
This seems like a weird choice, but there’s also another word meaning “round and cute,” 円ら (tsubura). Apparently, round things are just naturally cute.
The word めんこい (menkoi) is a dialect word for “cute” used in Hokkaido and the Tōhoku region of Japan.
Alternative spellings include めごい (megoi) and めんごい (mengoi).
This slang word for “cute” comes from 良い (yoi), another reading for the word いい (ii, ‘good’).
Because the end of “kawaii” has the same “ii” sound, swapping it out for 良い and saying かわ良い (kawayoi) is a kind of punny way of saying something is “cute and good,” or cute.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.