All four of these words are read as うまい and have the same meaning in my dictionary so I was wondering, can these four words (上手い, 美味い, 旨い, and 巧い) be used interchangeably?

  • Remember there's only a single Japanese word うまい here. Denoting it with different Chinese characters depending on a context is a later invention and does not constitute the core of the Japanese language.
    – nodakai
    Apr 12, 2016 at 16:19

3 Answers 3


These can be divided into two large categories.

  • 上手い ≒ 巧い ≒ good at something, skillful

    彼女は料理がうまい。 She is good at cooking.

  • 美味い ≒ 旨い ≒ delicious, yummy

    この料理はうまい。 This dish is delicious.

The difference between 上手い and 巧い is much smaller, but 上手い is "good" in general, while 巧い is closer to "technical" or "skillful".

The difference between 美味い and 旨い is even more trivial, and they're basically interchangeable. But I feel that so-called umami tends to be described using the kanji 旨 more often, while 美味い refers to good taste in general. When うまい is used figuratively (eg うまい話 "sweet deal"), 旨い is preferred, too.

Finally, these are all "customary" readings mainly found in blogs, novels and such. They are not "textbook" readings listed in 常用漢字表, so you can (or should) stick to hiragana (うまい) in formal writings.

  • "The difference between 美味い and 旨い is even more trivial": Would you mind explaining it though? In non-figurative use. Apr 12, 2016 at 6:33
  • 1
    @NicolasRaoul Okay, I edited the answer.
    – naruto
    Apr 12, 2016 at 7:44

Naruto's answer covers it well, but it might be helpful to think of these words in terms of their analogues in other uses.

For example, 上手い can obviously be connected to 上手{じょうず}, the basic word for being good at something. 美味い can be connected to 美味{おい}しい, the go-to for delicious." 旨い can be connected to [旨味]{うまみ} and the general sense of savoriness -- you see this character all over in food advertisement. And last, 巧い can be connected to 巧{たく}み and its related words ([巧妙]{こうみょう}, [巧拙]{こうせつ}, etc.), and can easily be connected to the concept of technical mastery.


In the tangorin.com dictionary they are split into 3 groups with their corresponding meanings:

上手い,巧い > skillful;  clever;  expert;  wise;  successful (people)

美味い,甘い > delicious;  appetizing;  appetising (food, taste)

旨い > fortunate;  splendid;  promising

Of course in some situations the kanji's are interchangeable, but this breakdown should help you use them correctly.

Link: http://tangorin.com/general/umai

  • 2
    Despite what that dictionary says, 甘い is almost always read as あまい and means "sweet" (as "sugary").
    – naruto
    Apr 12, 2016 at 6:12

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