Yamato‐kotoba: The beauty of Japanese

Japan Is indeed a beautiful country with many beautiful places to visit and rich culture. Mountain Fuji and the Sakura are one of the first things that pops up in mind when thinking about what is beautiful in Japan. However, I think that Japanese language is not in any way inferior to represent Japan’s beauty. One of the reasons that make Japanese so beautiful is its richness of expressions. in this article I want to introduce Yamatokotoba (大和言葉)and how it makes Japanese beautiful.

It seems only natural to assume that the vocabulary of a particular language should grow to reflect the culture of the people among whom it developed, as well as the natural environment within which it evolved, for example, Japanese is known to be rich in words that represent seasonal change as seen in Haiku, One is struck by the unusually many different terms which can be used to express different types of rain, with not only intensity, duration and temperature being indicated by each term, but often (and ALWAYS in the case of the HAIKU keywords) a specific time of year evoked.

あめ rain
白雨 はくう rain shower
急雨 きゅうう rain shower
俄雨 にわかあめ rain shower
弱雨 じゃくう weak rain
小雨 こさめ light rain
小降り こぶり light rain
微雨 びう light rain
小糠雨 こぬかあめ fine rain
煙雨 えんう misty rain
細雨 さいう drizzle
多雨 たう heavy rain
大雨 おおあめ heavy rain
強雨 きょうう severe rain

Another example on the versatility of Japanese, is 漢語 (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) which is well known to have a high ability to combine meanings and create it anew. for instance, 「分ける」means to simply divide, however, its variations as a Kango word can represent this action with a lot more different meanings and nuances.

分割 国土・領土・支払い To divide the land, territory and payments, etc.
分担 仕事・家事・役割 To share the work, task, expenses, etc.
分類 動物・植物・図書・語彙 To classify animals, plants, books, vocabulary, etc.
分配 所得・利益・食料 To distribute profits, food, money, etc.
分解 機械・化合物 To disassemble a machine, to resolve a compound , etc.
分断 敵の軍隊・道路 To divide the enemy, road

It is estimated that approximately 60% of the words contained in a modern Japanese dictionary are kango, and they comprise about 18% of words used in speech. Kango gives the ability to convey meaning with more details, some actually conceive them as an intelligent way of expressing something as opposed to just using 「和語」


Wago (和語) is also known as  Yamatokotoba(大和言葉)which are those words in Japanese that have been inherited from Old Japanese, rather than being borrowed at some stage. Together with kango (漢語) and Gairaigo (外来語), they form one of the three main sources of Japanese words (there is also elaborate Japanese sound symbolism, of mimetic origin).


Wago                          (Yamatokotoba)


Kango (Sino-Japanese)


Loan words


Words of mimetic origin

始める 開始 スタート
宿 旅館 ホテル
口づけ 接吻 キス チュー
御飯 ライス

other than the main 3 categories there are also a great number of words of mimetic origin in Japanese, with Japanese having a rich collection of sound symbolism, both onomatopoeia for physical sounds, and more abstract words. A small number of words have come into Japanese from the Ainu language. Tonakai (reindeer), rakko (sea otter) and shishamo (smelt, a type of fish) are well-known examples of words of Ainu origin.

Each of the above variations represents a different nuance, for example, 「宿・旅館・ホテル」all refer to a facility that provides a place to stay the night when travelling for an amount of money, however each word describes a different type of service, in terms of quality, room styles, service types…etc. this shows us how Japanese can be beautiful and difficult at the same time.

In a study made in 2008 by Agency for Cultural affairs in Japan(ぶんかちょう)approximately 60% of Japanese people think that ‘Beautiful Language’ is considerate language(思いやりのある言葉), and Yamatokotoba is known to have the ability to touch people’s hearts, in other words, it can be considered as ‘Beautiful Japanese’.

After fading out in the shadow of Kango(漢語) and Gairaigo(外来語), as Kango can express detailed meanings especially in business where you need to report facts and make sure there are no mistakes, on the other hand, Gairaigo is considered to be trendy and stylish,  However, in recent years Yamatokotoba has started to gain popularity once again, especially after more and more books were published to raise awareness of its beauty and importance.

Yamatokotoba (大和言葉) is special in that it is highly connected with sounds, and Japanese people admit that they feel it is more emphatic than Kango (漢語) and Gairaigo (外来語), for instance, using Yamatokotoba for expressing subtlety of emotion (気持ちの機微),  for example, when you’re moved you say「感動した」,However, that doesn’t convey how you’re moved or to what degree, where as in Yamatokotoba you can. one way to express that is with expressions using 胸(Chest)

「胸に迫る」 Moving, touching
「胸を打つ」 To be touching (Deeper than the above)
「胸に染みる」 Touched the very core of my heart


Another expression using 「胸」is 「胸を撫でおろす」means to be relieved, literally it means to stroke your chest, which is sometimes what you actually do when one is relived after having been worrying about something, and the listener will relate and understand how you feel better than if you said 「安堵した」



Yamatokotoba in business

It’s customary in business scenes such as speeches, emails and letters to use concise language to avoid miscommunication by using kango (漢語) and Kanji compounds (熟語) , However,  using fixed expressions frequently puts a distance between people and take feelings out of the equation, I can clearly see that in the frequent phrase「お世話になっております」in which I can feel almost no feelings in most situations. However, Just by throwing in some Yamatakotoba here and there, we can put some warmth into it and have a zestful communication.

Here are some examples:


Each of two parties have their own opinion, and they try to accept each other and compromise and reach an agreement, that’s basically the meaning of 「折り合う」, Where as 「妥協する」has the image of losing to the other party which implies a negative nuance.



「勘案して」「思い合わせる」To consider:

In a situation where you have multiple conditions you need to think about to come up with a decision, the phrase 「諸々のことを総合的に勘案して~」is frequently used, instead, using 「思い合わせる」makes the feelings behind the words much more vibrant. It is a considerate way to say “We will consider”



「心待ち」Looking forward to:

When writing emails, even in English we frequently write “I’m looking forward to…”  when discussing some important business and we are waiting for a reply, in Japanese, 「心待ちにしています」will do a better job at expressing your anticipation than the dull「お返事をお待ちしています」, And if you want to go beyond that you can use 「嬉しいお返事を心待ちにしています」

Yamatokotoba for peace of heart

Look at the following Yamatokotoba and see if it can touch your heart. to me it feels like the words are made of just the right sound to pierce through the heart and deliver meaning in an emotional way. I had this feeling for Yamatokotoba long before I knew about its existence, and now I have a feeling I understand it better. And I hope I can use it in communication, writing and work.

I will add the Japanese definition as well, as I find the English translation insufficient.

<しらべ  調べ> Tone
ねのひびき。 (音の響き。)     おとのふるえ。 (音の震え。)


<こころくばり  心配り> Thoughtfulness
まわりとわれのきもちのゆきき。 (周りと我の気持ちの行き来。)


<たおやか  嫋やか> Graceful, willowy
しぐさがゆっくりしていて、しなやかでやさしいかんじ。 (仕草がゆっくりしていて、しなやかで優しい感じ。)


<おくゆかしい  奥床しい> Humble, modest


<しなやか  撓やか> Supple, flexible
うつくしく、たおやか。 (美しく、嫋やか。)     やわらかく、はりがある。 (柔らかく、張りがある。)


<きらびやか  煌びやか> Gorgeous, gaudy
きらめくほど、ひかりかがやきうつくしい。 (煌めく程、光輝き美しい。)


<さわやか  爽やか> Refreshing, Invigorating
すがすがしく、こきみよい。 (清々しく、小気味よい。)
ほどよいあたたかさのなかにひそむすずしさ。 (程良い暖かさに潜む涼しさ。)


<すこやか  健やか> Vigorous
からだもこころもともにすがすがしい。 (体も心も共にすがすがしい。)


<すがすがしい  清々しい>Refreshing
さっぱりしていて、ためらいがなく、きもちよい。 (さっぱりしていて、躊躇いがなく、気持ち良い。)


<ときめく> To flutter, to palpitate
よろこびもえいで、むねがドッキンキューン。 (喜び萌え出で、胸がドッキンキューン。)


<ときめく  時めく>to flourish, to prosper


<しおらしい>Meek, modest


<けなげ  健気>Brave, gallant, manly
☆ 男の中の男?  今は?、昔から?、女の中の女かしらん。


<しとやか  淑やか>Graceful




<うるわしい  麗しい>Beautiful, lovely


<うるおい  潤い>Moisture, warmth, gain
ややみずをふくんだかんじでしっとりとしたおもむき。 (やや水を含んだ感じでしっとりとした趣。)
ゆたかなめぐみ。 (豊かな恵み。)     ふところのゆとり。 (懐のゆとり。)


<おもむき  趣>Tenor, taste, refinement, charm
ものごとのようす。 (物事の様子。) きもちのありよう。(気持ちの有り様。) ただようかんじ。 (漂う感じ。)


<やわらぐ 和らぐ>To soften, to be mitigated
こころのもちようが、おだやかになる。 (心の持ち様が、穏やかになる。)
けしき、もようが、ここちよくなる。 (景色、模様が、心地よくなる。)


<はぐくむ 育む>To raise, to bring up


Share the Yamatokotoba you know in the comments, and let me know what you think of it.


2 thoughts on “Yamato‐kotoba: The beauty of Japanese

  1. Wow, great well-though post with alot of interesting words I’ve never come across before! I particularly like the words about rain. There was a good one I read along time ago which means “rain scene” (something line 雨の景色) but I can’t remember it now. 雷雨 and 風雨 are some other nice ones.

    I think you have a typo in one or two of the furigana for the Kanji here. Very minor, but just wanted to point them out:

    急雨 => きゅうう
    煌やか => きらやか


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