Cool Word – 渋い

One winter tradition in Japan is 大掃除 (おおそうじ) – “big” year-end cleaning. Don’t ask me why they do it when it’s cold outside. Doing it in the spring is far more pleasant. My roommates and I cleaned up our place last month on the 23rd. We clean every couple of months or so to prevent the place from getting too dirty. We set バルサン, insect foggers, and go out for a big breakfast somewhere while the smoke dissipates.  This time we went to Coco’s, and for the first time ever I heard a conversation where both meanings of 渋い (しぶい) were used in natural conversation.

I hear it more frequently used to describe a person’s taste in food, music, movies, clothes, bars – anything really. Five of us ordered plain old breakfast sets with Western-style food, but the last roommate ordered a Japanese-style set meal, prompting another roommate to say 渋い!Shochu, bourbon and scotch, high quality enka music, pop from the 70s (especially this super funky version of 東京砂漠), Elvis, drinking tea instead of coffee, tweed – all of these things are 渋い.

A few minutes later another of my roommates was steeping tea. She poured a cup of deep brown tea, took a sip and grimaced a 渋い! The tea was too strong, too astringent. This is the meaning that there is hardly ever occasion to use. Japanese green tea is generally steeped very briefly, but even if it is steeped for a long time, it never produces that astringent flavor present in darjeelings and assams.

Keeping this fact in mind, now we have to figure out a way to use astringent to describe a person’s tastes. Maybe certain senses of the words “strong” or “extreme” would work. ALC provides “refined,” which also works but probably has a different range of connotations than 渋い. It does overlap at points, though. I guess the main difference is that refined in English is generally a positive term whereas 渋い can probably have some negative connotations. The committee of refined and cool works in most contexts, but there is definitely that sense of someone’s tastes being sort of acerbic, different from the mass populous that is hard to get at in English.

3 thoughts on “Cool Word – 渋い

  1. I think a key to the use of “shibui” as a non-literal adjective is that it almost invariably means “stuff only old people like”. That is, stuff that has been around long enough to be canonized w/r/t whatever pop tastes are currently in vogue — stuff that you have to be actively going against the flow to be a fan of. (Elvis was definitely not shibui in his heyday.) Like an “acquired taste”, but with old-fashioned connotations… I guess it is hard to define except in opposition to what is normal, modern, fun, sweet, etc., huh?

  2. I like “acquired-taste” a lot…that’s a really great way to express it. It suggests that while it might be hard to get used to at first, it’s great once you like it.

    And true about Elvis. Although maybe Yujiro wasn’t shibui back then? Nah, he probably was.

  3. Pingback: How to Japonese» Blog Archive » しばらく

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