"Kao Ga Koi"
I spent part of last summer staying with a friend of mine in Kanagawa Prefecture, next to Tokyo. On a particularly hot day we visited Shonan, a popular beach area slightly outside the capitol area that has become well known for its abundance of good surf, laid back culture, and its mix of Japanese and foreign influences. After a few hours of swimming and surfing, a group of us sat down at a beachfront restaurant for a drink and a short rest. Midway through the conversation, one of my friends referenced an acquaintance of theirs, mentioning that they had a “thick” face (顔が濃い: “kao ga koi”). I had never heard this phrase before, and chalked it up to a less than polite comment about the person’s weight. This assumption was proven completely wrong when the rest of the group began chiming in, some claiming that the person in question had a more neutral face, and others agreeing that it was on the thick side, but partially “thin” as well.
My literal interpretation was obviously not a correct one, and I asked the group for clarification. Struggling to get the words out through bouts of laughter, one of them that the phrase had nothing to do with weight, nor any intrinsic feature in isolation. Rather, it is essentially the overall impression that you get when you first see a person’s face, the sum of their features. Further complicating matters, another member of the group said that they felt it was a matter of if someone’s features “popped” out or not, adding that it wasn’t necessarily good or bad if they did or didn’t.
Interestingly enough, the group was in near unanimous agreement on how common “thick” and “thin” faces were in each of Japan’s regions, as well as on their prevalence in nearby East Asian or Southeast Asian countries. The more they explained this concept to me, the less I seemed to be grasping it, so I of course asked which camp I would fall under, thick or thin. The consensus was that Caucasians (my ethnicity) simply don’t enter into the discussion, though people from notably far off countries such as India did.
Even more confused (a theme of this conversation), I asked for concrete examples, celebrities or someone else that everyone would know, and also for everyone’s individual definitions of what a “thick” or “thin” face entails. Curiously, each person based their explanation on a specific characteristic, with answers ranging from “The features that pop out at you,” to “The overall balance of features,” and even “The bone structure, basically.” Each explanation made a certain sort of sense while I was listening to it in isolation, but it was a definite struggle to integrate them all into one cohesive definition. I still didn’t fully understand it.
Sensing that the message wasn’t quite getting through, my friends began (discreetly!) pointing out passersby, asking me which camp I thought that they belonged to. I was barely more reliable than a coin toss, and the conversation eventually drifted onto other topics. Everyone now and then, though, when there was a lull in the conversation they would again point to a random person and ask me which word I thought best applied. Surprisingly myself as well, by the end of the day my sense of thick and thin faces began to fall in line more and more with that of the group, and I did eventually feel like I had a handle on the whole idea, despite being no closer to being able to provide a verbal definition of it, let alone translate it into English.
It’s clearly a case of a phrase meaning much more than the simply the sum of its parts, and of a concept that doesn’t exist in my native English. (I am almost certain that this is the case, though I might discover one day that I’m wrong.) A short while later the day came to an end, and I headed home, happy with this new colloquial understanding I had gained. Then again, that satisfaction may have just been a result of a full day swimming and eating under the scorching Japanese August sun.