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Both are い-adjectives meaning "small".

From what I gather (though I'm not sure), chiisai is used mainly for specifying objects as 'small'; while komakai can have uses like: "minute differences", "trivial matters", "finer details".

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小さい


小さい = small (not to be big/wide etc.),

小さい部屋 → small room

It can also carry the nuance of:

  • short (small height)

(彼は)小さいです。 → He is small (size/age)

  • young (small age)

(彼は)まだ小さいです。→ He is still young. (まだ gives emphasis on the "small age")

  • trivial (small matter)

小さい話 → A trivial or unimportant story

  • Quiet Voice (small voice)

小さい声 → quiet voice; (quietly)

細かい


細かい = tiny, but also means: detailed;

When 細かい refers to an object, it is something smaller than 小さい,

  • 細かい説明 → Detailed explanation
  • 細かいところ → The details (fine parts)
  • 細かい雨 → Fine rain
  • 細かく切る → To cut finely
  • 細かい話 → A detailed story (see how this differs from the same example above?)

Also 細かい can have a negative nuance: 金に細かい (stingy with money) -> very common expression


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    I really appreciate when posters put in the effort to really break things down. This level of detail is often missing from bilingual resources, and this is precisely where we can provide our readers with good value. 😄 Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 17:48
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    Thanks a ton Eirik! This means a lot comming from you! Its as Ghandi said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." These were the replies I really liked as a beginner, so I aim to answer in the same fashion!
    – 悪戯猫
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 18:49
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    Funny you should say that -- that is exactly where I'm coming from too. 😊 It's a large part of why I got involved over at Wiktionary -- when I was studying Japanese, pretty much all the dictionary materials I could find were targeting Japanese speakrs learning English. For English speakers trying to learn Japanese, you had to read the dictionary in order to read the dictionary, ad infinitum. 😓 My hope is that our collective efforts can lower the barriers to entry for learning Japanese from a foundation in English. Cheers! Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 22:20
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    "low tone" is not appropriate; it sounds like a low pitch (低音). Should be "low voice", but even this is ambiguous; best to use "quietly" or "speak in a low voice". Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 7:12
  • Thats what I had in mind when writing "low-tone", I guess its not really the same eh? Thanks for the input @Brian Chandler
    – 悪戯猫
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 9:09
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There are many differences, but a rule of thumb is that 小さい is about size while 細かい is about granularity. As such, 細かい tends to imply that you are talking about many/repeated small things (of the same kind).

小さい出費 (one small spending)

細かい出費 (small/tiny spendings here and there)

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Adding to 悪戯猫さん's explanation: I've often heard the phrase 「細かいことまで聞いてすみません」 when you ask questions down to the smallest detail and you are worried you would annoy the listener with it.

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Some additional detail, from the perspective of word derivations and related terms. 😄

小さい


Modern ちいさい comes from older ちひさし. This word appears in the 日本書紀【にほんしょき】 of 720, one of the oldest texts to include written Japanese. At that time, ちぴさし was likely pronounced as something like //tipisasi//.

Via that ancient //tipi// root, ちいさい is likely related to various other words:

  • ちび — small, round, and plump
  • ちびる – to wear down and become small and round
  • つぶ — a grain
  • つぶら — a circle, a small round thing
  • つぼ – a round container

細かい


Modern こまかい looks like it ultimately traces back to こま. こま itself is either from 子 or 小 (ko, "small; baby, child") + 馬 (uma, appearing in some compounds as ma, "horse"), or from 小 (ko, "small") + 間 (ma, "space between things").

Via that //koma// root, こまかい is likely related to various other words:

  • こま – the root is also a noun, meaning "a [little] piece", such as a "piece used in a board game", or meaning "a frame, as in a comic or a film". It is also an an adjective, meaning "little".
  • こまごま – an adverb referring to "in a detailed fashion", perhaps from the idea of "piece by piece".
  • こまごましい – an adjective referring to "extremely small; extremely detailed".

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