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I am looking for terms in the Japanese language which can describe the act of flirting in a positive light. This probably requires inventing terms to close a lexical gap, because as far as I know, all terms that are related to flirting in Japanese carry a negative connotation.

"Flirting" has a couple of meanings in English. However, here I am speaking specifically about flirting in the sense of when a person shows their attraction to another person. It's a deliberate act, and can range from covert to overt.

The thing is, where I come from, flirting generally is seen as a playful, positive thing. It is flattering to the recipient. It is also can be considered harmless, in that it might be that the person doing it does not necessarily intend to seduce the other, but that they want to test the limits of their attractiveness by provoking a small response.

The only time flirting is negative in English is when a larger context makes it so. If a person flirts with a third person while in a committed relationship, the action of flirting itself is not what defines it as negative, it's that the committed relationship comes with an implication of promises that are being broken.

In Japanese, however, all the terms I know of that approximate the act of flirting tend toward the negative.

浮気する【うわきする】 is all about cheating, so this is clearly the dark side of flirting.

ナンパする I would translate as "to hit on," and it is clearly much more aggressive than "flirting". With ナンパ one necessarily has the goal of seducing the other. The feeling of the word to me is of a meat-market night club, although I know it can be used in much more mild and neutral circumstances.

いちゃつく might be the most mild, and therefor the closest to the English. However, it does seem a bit cutesy, like a child's view on flirting ("... sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g..."). Also seems almost entirely on the overt end of flirting, in that it is more like a public display of affection, like kissing and holding, than it would imply any clever or subtle behaviour or words.

In essence, I want to convey the idea of being at play with showing and getting signals of attraction without it necessarily taking on an aggressive sexuality. Flirting can be a sophisticated interaction between adults.

Is there a way to convey flirting in the positive light I am describing?

Is there a way to say "I'm not really hitting on you, I'm just flirting." Something like:

実際はナンパじゃなくって、ただ___しているだけだ。

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Ahh. The badness of flirting in Japan :) The only way I know to flirt in a socially acceptable manner is to go a gôkon. Or go to a nanpa-bar, but then, it's accepted only very locally… –  Axioplase Jul 29 '11 at 7:44
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@Axioplase: The actual act of flirting is done frequently, and is accepted, it's just the observation of it where negative connotations take hold. –  Dave M G Jul 29 '11 at 8:25
    
Does it still attract the death penalty? –  Andrew Grimm Jul 31 '11 at 12:54

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted
+150

Japanese has negative, positive, and neutral terms for flirting. There's 'husband/wife hunting' 婚活, 'stalking/creep hitting' ナンパ, 'puppy love flirting' 初恋の人の話しをする, and everything in between. What would probably fit best for you is: デートに誘いたいんじゃなくて、友達として本当に可愛かったから言っただけだよ。. This means, in a kind of sweet/genuine tone (thus the ん): "I'm not trying to force a hook up or anything. I say things like 'you're cute,' just as a friend, as free conversation." It's probably something that probably wouldn't come off as offensive.

Just let me know if you have any questions. The natural way to say it is 'just talking' or, 'I was just saying'. It's a natural way to say what you want to say, but without knowing the situation, I think it's hard to be sure.

You can definitely say ただ話したかっただけ. That means: "It was just idle chat," as in, "Don't read so much into it."

There isn't a lot of snarkiness in Japan. So, it's difficult to come off like: 夜を楽しく or ピロートーク without overstepping your bounds. You can say those things if you want and try to be sarcastic, but I'm pretty sure it's going to sound strong. Sarcasm isn't common in Japan.

The strongest thing you can say is likely 仲良くなりたい->"I just want to get along". That's what I would consider the 'upper limit' of "just friends".

-Update-

ツンデレ might mean 'flirting' as a near equivalence of the "innocent" English word, "Flirt". Pretend you have a friend who met a guy she really liked. She then told you about it, but she said, "I was dorky and grumpy," or, "I was obvious," or, "I didn't let on enough/right," or, "I came on too strong...." You would say, 何でそなにツンデレをしました!? Hehe....

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Please no personal advice. Let's just keep this about language. I am looking for a term to fill a lexical gap. So the sentence you provide is at least on the right track, but it is still a fairly lengthy explanation. I'm looking for something I could at least pitch as a set term, and if the person didn't get it, I could then follow up with explanations. I would also disagree that the other terms you suggest are, in fact, aspects of flirting. They are contexts in which flirting may or may not happen. –  Dave M G Aug 8 '11 at 7:42
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@Dave Took out the personal advise for your liking, too. :) –  千里ちゃん Aug 8 '11 at 8:13
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First, flirting is not reserved for high school students in English speaking cultures. Far from it. More importantly, though, I know that Japanese has a hard time expressing it. That's why I say this is a lexical gap. The only way to close a lexical gap is to utilize a term that is related but uncorrelated with with the undesired connotations, and then put that forward in situations that apply. In other words, participating in a language also involves helping create it. And I want to experiment with that as a learning exercise. –  Dave M G Aug 8 '11 at 8:15
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Thanks for your continued interest in this. I think one of the problems that is common in all the answers and discussion so far is that most of them are focused on the results, not the process. 甘い話, while problematic because of its associations with con-artistry, at least describes the type of speech behaviour. That's what differentiates the English term from a lot of the Japanese terms is that it can describe the way one is speaking/acting without necessarily saying what they hope to achieve. I would have thought that Japanese would be fantastic for expressing that kind of vagueness ;) –  Dave M G Aug 8 '11 at 8:21
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Checked this answer partly because the bounty time limit was about to run out and something had to get chosen. Even though シンデレ is still a little off (it implies a suppression of feelings), it's probably the closest we're going to get. I knew we weren't going to magically discover a word never known before. The discussion, though, revealed many ways of talking about the topic with new vocabulary, and so the main goal of learning was achieved. This answer had the most material, but all the answers contributed to the goal and are much appreciated. Thanks to all for taking up the challenge. –  Dave M G Aug 8 '11 at 23:50

Since no-one else has answered, let me try to chip away at the edges a bit. Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker, not young, not single, and not even an ex-player, so my intuitions might be quite far from those of hip young Tokyoites.

There is the phrase 良い雰囲気になる. It literally translates to something like "arrive at/be in a state such that there is a good feeling in the air", but there is usually an implied romantic nuance. It doesn't correspond exactly to "flirt", but there is overlap. Two people successfully flirting will usually 良い雰囲気になる as a result. If you saw your friend getting along very well with a new acquaintance you might comment later on how 良い the 雰囲気 they なった was. If you saw your husband flirting (again, successfully) with another woman, you might angrily whisper 何いい雰囲気になってんのよ when she goes to get another drink. [Edit: Seems that last part isn't true; see comments.]

However, my non-native intuition is that it would be weird to say "No, baby, this isn't nanpa, いい雰囲気になろうとしてるだけだよ". It would sound creepy and conceited, like you were trying to manipulate something that should arise naturally, and totally confident that you could do it.

I don't know any words that could fill in that gap. My sense is that a more general word would be used like (楽しく)お話する, 遊ぶ, ふざける, depending on how you wanted to frame things. (Afterthought edit:) But, as sawa suggests, I think that at the point you are putting it into words, for cultural reasons it would be difficult to frame things positively.

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+1 for taking a shot at it. I haven't heard that particular use of 雰囲気 before. I agree, that it wouldn't fill the lexical gap, but at least it's something. –  Dave M G Jul 30 '11 at 6:30
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+1. As a native speaker this feels perfect. Also agreed on that it would be weird to say いい雰囲気になろうとしてるだけだよ. いや仲良くなろうと思って could be better. Just one point though, 何いい雰囲気になってんのよ would sound more of an encouragement/compliment :) –  Enno Shioji Aug 8 '11 at 9:19
    
Huh, for real? I better make a note of that. Thanks! –  Matt Aug 8 '11 at 11:37

I know another expression which comes close to flirting:

目が合った。

Which pretty much means what it says: "Our eyes met", and is also used as "we have been flirting", or more broadly "I have met a dark handsome stranger." ;)

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It is usually written as 目が合った. I consider 目が会った as incorrect, but probably not everyone considers so. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 4 '11 at 15:07
    
Nice one. This one might be the closest so far, though the devil would be in the details of how individual people vary in interpreting it. I'm going to field test it a bit and see how it goes. –  Dave M G Aug 5 '11 at 1:27
    
Is it possible to say 目が合っている? If not, then it would seem to be a description of the moment people find an attraction. If it can be in a continuous state, then it becomes more applicable to flirting. –  Dave M G Aug 8 '11 at 1:12
    
Yes, you can say 目が合っている. It's grammatical and sounds fine. –  千里ちゃん Aug 8 '11 at 13:23

Like all the responses so far, I don't have a good concise answer - like you said, such friendly flirting is accepted, but maybe it's just not culturally acceptable to express approval of it, thus no positive language exists. Just a thought, but maybe you want to use being friendly or sociable instead of flirting: 実際はナンパじゃなくって、ただ社交的にしているだけだ。

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+1 for finding a viable candidate to put in the blank. I think this works to a certain degree, but I fear it might come across as a denial more than a distinction, which lands us with the concern that sawa brought up in comments that it seems like one is trying to excuse the behaviour. In other words, I wonder if saying one is merely being "social", that it would be like saying in English that I was merely being "friendly" in place of "flirting". –  Dave M G Aug 5 '11 at 1:31
    
No doubt it could be interpreted as an excuse. That's why it's so hard to find a good way to express this - culturally excuses are more acceptable than being direct. –  Samurai Soul Aug 5 '11 at 2:22
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セツナイ!!! 何で祖言うことすんの? 絶対に切ないよ。 –  千里ちゃん Aug 8 '11 at 13:24
    
@千里ちゃん - I admit, that was a little cruel. +1 for calling me on it. But I do think that the fact that in English 'flirt' can have positive connotations but it's hard to find an equivalent Japanese word with positive connotations reflects cultural differences to some degree. –  Samurai Soul Aug 8 '11 at 17:49

How about 甘い話し

Not nearly as sexually driven as the other terms, just a little sweet talking if you will!

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I think one of the alternative meanings for this is to "sweet talk" in the sense of trying to seduce, scam, or pull a con. So, unfortunately, it veers back to the negative. –  Dave M G Aug 7 '11 at 0:20
    
Oh, that sounds nice. In the situation you were talking about, where you're trying to confess to someone, though, they would probably take it that way. So, there's potential 否定的な意味合い, like you say. –  千里ちゃん Aug 8 '11 at 13:22
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I think you could say it rather light-heartedly and get away with it, but yes it does have negative connotations. It's a bit 古い.. A dashing young bubble era salaryman might say it with a wink and grin over his highball down at the yokocho.. –  minikomi Aug 8 '11 at 22:04

I know I missed the bounty party, but let me leave a scribbling on the napkin lying on this table here.

I'm going to take the path of concocting a new word or phrase to express the idea of flirting. I know I'm quit a newbie in this particular area, but I'm taking a shot nevertheless.

I've seen all the translations offered by dictionaries but (1) some of them have negative connotation and (2) some of them imply that the participants intend to go all the way beyond talks and winks if they get the chance. ex. いちゃつく モーションをかける 流し目を送る 秋波を送る..

To really say "we're not serious, just blahing" and cut off the negativity attached to the act, something more abstract is called for, like

ナンパじゃなくて、大人のやりとりをしてただけだよ

  • 大人の grownup-
  • やりとり exchange of words, signs, etc.

It's substandard usage, but 大人の have multitudes of implications already, from simply "adult" to a clean way to say "dirty", so no one will complain if you slip in a new sense.

Alternatively, you can go the other extreme to make it clear you're not going for a serious relationship.

ナンパじゃなくて、発情してただけだよ

  • 発情 in estrus, in heat

Lastly, you can coin a new word to mark that it's a new concept.

ナンパじゃなくて、色気ニケーション {いろけにけーしょん} (色気 + コミュニケーション) だよ

  • 色気 romance, sex appeal
  • Note: there's already another word that uses a similar compound formation: 飲みニケーション (the kind of interaction only possible under the influence of alcohol)
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Nice work! You're definitely in the right spirit of the question. I particularly like 大人のやりとり. –  Dave M G Aug 9 '11 at 17:39

I don't see any mention of 口説く in the previous answers, but it seems pretty close to what you want. The connotation can be negative or positive depending solely on the individual's outlook:

*同じ口説き文句*でも好きな人から言われれば天国に行った気分になるし、嫌いな人から言われれば吐き気がするものです。 "Even if the words are the same, if they're said by someone I like, it feels like heaven. But if they're from someone I don't like, I feel like throwing up."〔【出典】Hiragana Times, 1994年3月

デートならどんな場合でもロマンチックな意味があるはずだから、男性が女性に言い寄って*口説き落とそう*とするはずです。 Any date probably has a romantic connotation attached to it and the lady should be wooed and swept off her feet.〔【出典】Hiragana Times, 2003年1月号◆【出版社】株式会社ヤック企画 〕

More at alc.

It's worth mentioning that there's a distilled alcohol with the playful name くどき上手. If it were only looked on negatively, I'm sure sales would be poor :)

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