I've observed that when someone wants to say 'poor thing', they say something like 'kawaii sonna' and I know that kawaii means cute. Can someone please explain? Thanks.

3 Answers 3


You are mixing i-adjective かわいい (kawaii, "cute, lovely") with na-adjective かわいそう (kawaisō, "poor, pitiful"). These are simply different, although they share the same etymology. かわいい(かはゆし) actually meant 'pitiful' in old Japanese, but there was a shift in meaning many years ago.

We say おいしそう (oishi-sō, "looks yummy"), たのしそう (tanoshi-sō, "looks amusing"), etc., but we don't say かわいそう to mean "looks cute", because it's confusing. Basically whenever you hear かわいそう (kawaisō), that must mean "poor".

For more information, please refer to this question.

  • It really helped but i cant read japanese so could you please write those japanese words in english? Thanks.
    – Natalie
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 2:12
  • I would consider this a duplicate of the linked question. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 6:30
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    I have heard kawaii in the context of "Im scared" or "he's scary". Is that a different word? I joined to ask this and upvote. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 7:32
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    @aitchnyu You're thinking of: kowai.
    – GoBusto
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 9:10
  • kawaii and kowai sound similar but kowai means scary.
    – Natalie
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 17:39

Well, I'm not an expert on Japanese, but as a Chinese who is learning Japanese, I'd like to offer something from this perspective.

The dictionary says かわいい can be written as 可愛い while かわいそう can be written as 可哀相. For a Chinese this seems quite straight-forward. You see, in Chinese, 愛 means "love" and 哀 means "pity", and these two characters have the same pronunciation "ai", except for a difference in tone. Since Japanese doesn't have the tone system of Chinese, it is natural that they are pronounced identically in Japanese.

By the way, 可/か means "-able", therefore 可愛 is "lovable, cute" and 可哀 is "pitiable, poor". 相/そう means "look, appearance".

These two words, in the eye of Chinese people, totally look like loan words / calque / words created by Japanese people using Chinese word roots. But again, I'm not an expert in Japanese etymology. They and their Chinese counterparts certainly could be just false friends.

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    可愛い and 可哀相 are ateji.
    – user4092
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 8:24
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    Yes, maybe. But I still feel too much a coincidence. :)
    – Betty
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 9:16
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    I'm curious, how do we know that 可哀相 is ateji? I mean, I see it in the dictionary, but how do they determine whether something is ateji or not?
    – sazarando
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 14:49
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    @sazarando -- historical use and etymological derivations are the main indicator. The history of kawaii is quite clearly recorded, so we know that this developed as a progression from kahahayushikahayushikawayushikawayuikawaii. We also know that the oldest form kahahayushi was a compound of 顔 kaho, modern kao, "face" + 映し hayushi, obsolete, "florid, flushed". The original meaning was thus "with a flushed face, as if embarrassed" → "pitiable". The ending is a common adjective suffix for "looks like", so we know that 相 is ateji here. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 23:56
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    Whether these classify as ateji is debatable. Based on multiple Japanese dictionary sources, 'ateji' denotes kanji that are used in a way unrelated to their meaning, e.g. 芽出度{めでたし}. 可愛, however, is quite literally a Chinese word for "cute". If this was considered ateji, then it would be easy to argue that all kanji used for wago are ateji as well.
    – VVayfarer
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 18:49

To be specific, what sounds like "Kawaii sonna" is probably acually "kawaisou na". Kawaisou, as explained, means pitiable and na is similar to ne, but is more informal and gives the sentence slightly more of an exclamatory feel.

Compare "atsui na", frequently used in hot weather, and meaning essentially "Gosh, it's hot isn't it".

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    No, that would need a 'da' (可哀想だな). With just 'na' it's describing something (可哀想な子猫ちゃん→a poor little kitten)
    – Robin
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 3:13
  • I think we are talking about two different "na"s here. The one that goes after a na-adjective, as in 可哀想な子猫ちゃん is actually a form of "da", and you are correct in saying that to make a fully grammatical sentence my "kawaisou na" requires "da". Strictly "na-adjectives" always require "da", in one of its forms (da, na, desu or de aru), However the "da" sometimes gets left off in informal speech, especially where the context is an exclamation rather than a full sentence. OP's "kawaii sonna", I would think is "kawaisou na", this "na" being akin to "ne" and not a form of "da".
    – Cure Dolly
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 4:23
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    @CureDolly If you hear かわいそうな on its own, it is never a colloquial form of かわいそうだな; compare other expressions such as 馬鹿な, which is certainly not 馬鹿だな colloquially. Rather, かわいそうな is a truncation of a longer expression such as かわいそうな猫だ.
    – Angelos
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 12:17

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