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I will show two examples from Japanese websites.

First of all, from Weblio: 「彼女は私に甘える=She spoils me」

Secondly from some site for Japanese English learners (Gabastyle): 「悲しいことが起きたときには友達や家族に甘えてもいいんだよ=In times of tragedy, it’s OK to lean on friends and family」

As far as I understand these examples, their use of 甘える is totally opposite. The 1st example seems to be showing 私 is the person getting spoiled yet in the 2nd example the に is pointing to the actor doing the spoiling. I understand that the 2nd example takes the second definition but surely the structure would stay the same. Do you have to guess the direction of に ?

I'm probably wrong but I understand 2 weblio 甘える definitions to be basically the same :

1 かわいがってもらおうとして、まとわりついたり物をねだったりする。甘ったれる。「子供が親に—・える」

2 相手の好意に遠慮なくよりかかる。また、なれ親しんでわがままに振る舞う。甘ったれる。「お言葉に—・えてお借りします」

Some sort of selfish action someone takes, hoping for attention from others.

Another possible point of confusion could be from it being intransitive or my knowledge of the English definitions making it seem like it means 2 different(active/passive) things. Just hearing 甘える now makes me wonder to who, by who, is someone being spoilt or doing the spoiling etc. and am completely stuck.

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  • Can you include a link for that Weblio entry? Because 彼女は私に甘える means "she depends on me", "she lets me spoil her", as opposed to "she spoils me"
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 24 at 19:00
  • ejje.weblio.jp/content/…
    – Jack D
    Apr 24 at 19:06
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    Short answer: context is key. Several factors enter into it: 1. Sometimes who does what of whose volition needs to be inferred from context. Other times, we have 補助動詞 やる/あげる/もらう/くれる to help clarify intent and agency. 2. Japanese and English voices don't always accord. Matter of fact, they often disagree. You often need to translate a Japanese sentence in active (passive) voice to something passive (active) in construction in English. 3. Even in English, sentences syntactically passive can be active semantically: I got wasted (I went out and got drunk) vs. I got wasted (jumped) by 2 guys
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 24 at 19:42
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    I don't think you need to close this question. It's a good question. I didn't organize my comments into an answer because I was only addressing one aspect of your question. I think it may be better to wait for more comprehensive answers from people more knowledgeable than me. If no new answers pop up by tomorrow, I will try and write an answer.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 24 at 19:59
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2 Answers 2

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I finally decided to organize my comments into an answer, because it seems to me the crux of your perplexity is the word 甘える. I wanted to put in my two cents and try to leave something more permanent for future reference, because this is a word a lot of us learners struggle with, especially people whose first language lacks a similar concept.

It seems you are having difficulty really because English doesn't have a corresponding word. (Just a note, I do know some words in other languages sharing the same denotations and connotations with 甘える.) And because there's no perfect translation in English, this word may be better explained with examples, which is why your example looks like a perfect one.

Let me give it another crack. Let's say in your example the girlfriend is laser-focused on her job at work and never spends time with her partner. She says the line you quote here 「だから私はその分…二人っきりの時はこうやって…甘えてるでしょ」 because she thinks she's been doing certain things as a way to make it up to her partner. 甘えてる here means more than "give attention". It's a lot of things rolled into one.

Maybe she asks her partner to cook for her, to do her laundry, to give her massages, etc., in contrast to her independence at work. In a romantic relationship, 甘える also means being coquettish, showing her romantic partner her weak side, being willing to get dependent and clingy, and all that.

When I tell my romantic partner もっと甘えてもいいよ—which by the way I literally did a few weeks ago—I'm telling them that I want them to depend on me, let me do things for them, and get closer to me, like couples do.

If a dad tells his kid もっと甘えてもいいよ, he possibly means the kid can ask for things. Maybe the mom doesn't buy things for them, but the dad is willing to spoil the child. For example, the dad is willing to pamper the kid when they want a new PlayStation and the mother refuses.

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  • Thanks a lot. I'm sure I'll be re-referring to these answers very often from now
    – Jack D
    Apr 25 at 21:40
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First, 彼女は私に甘える means She tries to be spoiled by me, sticking to to spoil as translation. So in either case the subject is the one who gets spoiled (=gets some benefits).

The difference of 1 and 2 should be that there is some favor on offer in that context. For the meaning 1, the subject "behaves", just trying to get attention from someone (usually in some relationship with the subject. e.g. kids/parents, kids/teacher, among partners); For 2, the subject takes advantage of favor offered by someone else.

There could be ambiguous cases like 彼は親に甘えて学費を出してもらった. This could mean either 1. He behaved in such a way to get parents' attention on the matter of tuition and persuaded them to pay for it or 2. Parents offered him to pay for the tuition and he agreed. But as a matter of common sense in Japan, reading 2 would be likely.

I have the impression to spoil is not very useful for 甘える. It is more like to get attention from, to take advantage of. 甘やかす may be closer to to spoil (in transitivity also).

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  • Could I just add one more example. This is taken from some fictional story about a couple who work together. The context is that they can't act like a couple at work but only at home etc. The girlfriend says 「だから私はその分…二人っきりの時はこうやって…甘えてるでしょ」 Basically just how am I meant to think about that 私は甘えてる in relation to your answer. I like your idea of not using 'spoil' but then what is she saying? She's getting his attention? Giving him attention sounds more appropriate but that would be 甘やかす wouldn't it?
    – Jack D
    Apr 25 at 19:49
  • @JackD It seems you are having difficulty really because English doesn't have a corresponding word, and because there's no perfect translation in English, it may be better to explain this word with examples, which is why your example may be a perfect one. Let me give it another crack. Let's say the girlfriend is laser focused on her job at work and never spends time with her partner. She says the line you quote here because she's trying to make it up to her partner. 甘えてる here means more than "give attention". It's a lot of things rolled into one.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 25 at 20:45
  • Maybe she asks her partner to cook for her, to do the laundry, to give her massages, etc., in contrast to her independence at work. In a romantic relationship, 甘える also means being coquettish, showing her romantic partner her weak side, being willing to get dependent and clingy, and all that.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 25 at 20:48

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