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You're so lucky!/ I envy you!/ I'm jealous of you!

As I learned it, 羨ましい as an exclamation does not carry much of a negative context, so perhaps a combination of these three interpretations would be best. However, in Western society, jealousy and envy are generally considered negative. Though this same impulse is also present in Buddhist tradition, I am interested in how this term takes on a (mostly?) positive nuance. Furthermore, are there any opinions as to why this exclamation is so common in Japanese, while an English (semi-)equivalent is not?

As a reference, here is a journal entry written by a Japanese native who is puzzling over how to express うらやましい in english:

日本語の「うらやましい」の中には「ねたみ」とか「嫉妬」の部 分があまりない(全然ないとは言えませんが)ような気がする のです。

だからこの場合、 ’They are lucky to travel to Korea." という軽いあこがれを 表現したかったのです。

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Even though the words are related, even in English, saying "I'm jealous of you" is not the same as "My heart is full of jealousy." "I'm jealous of you" to me does not carry any negative meaning, but "My heart is full of jealousy" does. My $0.02 – istrasci Jan 11 '12 at 23:08
"I'm jealous of you" is sometimes said in a playful, joking manner. However, it does not carry the same nuance of うらやましい, nor is it anywhere as frequent an exclamation. – yadokari Jan 11 '12 at 23:21
why would you want to avoid saying うらやましい? I ask because I don't see it having much of a negative nuance. – yadokari Jan 11 '12 at 23:23
"I'm jealous of you/I'm so jealous" is not a frequently heard english expression. うらやましい is a frequent japanese expression. – yadokari Jan 11 '12 at 23:39
@yadokari san, Well it may be because I, personally, don't like people saying 羨ましい to me, it makes me feel uneasy and I often don't know how to respond. Some ladies I know repeat 羨ましいわぁ~ and flatter people, which often sound annoying or even ironic. – user1016 Jan 12 '12 at 0:11

I think you are mostly answering your own question:

うらやましい does not automatically have a "negative" slant (as in: implying jealousy). A more accurate general translation than "I am jealous" would therefore be:

I envy you!

Which does not have any intrinsically negative meaning (although people might often project one, perhaps for cultural reasons as you point out above).

I guess the gradation could be made between Something good happens to you, I wished it happened to me too (envy) and Something good happens to you, I'd rather it happened to me than you, or not at all (jealous)... but this is more about nuances in English than Japanese. As you say yourself, うらやましい is more toward the former... though it is very possible in some context or with specific intonation/body language, to make it imply jealousy/anger...

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most societies seem to define envy as a negative emotion. I guess I am also wondering why this is such a common exclamation in japanese, though perhaps that question comes from a culturally biased perspective. – yadokari Jan 12 '12 at 4:05
@yadokari I do not see envy as a negative emotion. Rather, I see it as a positive version of jealousy, if that makes any sense... Basically I agree with this answer's differentiation between the two. But of course I can't speak for all societies. – atlantiza Jan 12 '12 at 4:14
@yadokari: I think you are confusing 'envy', the noun: one of the 7 cardinal sins (and therefore culturally negative), with 'to envy', the verb: with a much more neutral meaning. How negatively you perceive 'to envy' is subjective and/or cultural, but not part of the standard definition. – Dave Jan 12 '12 at 4:22
Ok we are getting off topic but that does not make sense. dictionary.reference.com/browse/envy en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Envy I was just interested in a japanese perspective on this discrepancy between the languages. – yadokari Jan 12 '12 at 15:11
@yadokari You have two different people here (me and answerer) saying they don't think envy is necessarily negative, so I think it is safe to assume that not everyone views it as negative. I'm not saying that nobody thinks it is negative, but there are people who think it is not negative. This question is not about the English meaning of envy, so I think the answer that Dave has given is correct, especially since he additionally goes into explaining the difference between envy and jealousy in English. – atlantiza Jan 14 '12 at 0:56

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