As you may know, there are lots of Japanese phrases/idioms that include 気(き, ki), such as 気が小さい, 気になる, 気を使う, 気が重い, 気に食わない, 気が済む, just to name a few. This article explains their meanings and usages in detail!
(See also this post: “Japanese Conversation Practice to Master 気-related Idioms” to learn how those phrases are used in a casual conversation)
(If you’re fond of exploring Japanese synonyms, check my tool: Japanese Synonym Finder)
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is 気 exactly?
Usually, 気 is translated as “spirit” or “mind” in English. However, it has more specific meanings depending on how it is used in a phrase. To provide readers with clearer definitions, this post groups the meanings of 気 into five categories: “Personality“, “Motivation“, “Focus/Interest“, “Care/Concerns“, and “Feeling/Intuition“. These categories are (tentatively) determined by myself and not something official, and yet should be useful to capture the meaning of each phrase about 気.
(To be honest, I hadn’t been aware that there are so many 気-related expressions until recently, and I was very surprised to realise that we (native Japanese speakers) use 気 with so many meanings unconsciously.)
1. 気 as “Personality”
ki ga tsuyoi/ki ga yowai
気が強(つよ)い (ki ga tsuyoi) and 気が弱(よわ)い (ki ga yowai) literally mean “気 is strong” and “気 is weak”, respectively. Figuratively, the former means “strong-minded/assertive”, and the latter means “timid/shy/not confidence in oneself”.
Because she is strong-minded, she never changes her thoughts.
Because I am shy/timid, I cannot say “No” easily.
ki ga nagai/ki ga mijikai
気が長(なが)い (ki ga nagai) and 気が短(みじか)い (ki ga mijikai) literally mean “気 is long” and “気 is short”, respectively. Figuratively, the former means “easy-going/laid-back/patient” and the latter means “short-tempered”. There is also a word “気長(きなが)に” meaning “in an easy-going way/patiently”
Because he is short-tempered, he gets angry very easily.
Because I’m relatively easy-going, I don’t find it painful to wait in a long queue.
We don’t know when the result will be out, so all we can do is wait patiently.
ki ga chiisai/ki ga ookiku naru
気が小(ちいさ)い (ki ga chiisai) literally means “気 is small” and figuratively “timid/sensitive/cowardly”. On the other hand, 気が大(おお)きくなる (ki ga ookiku naru) literally means “気 becomes big” and figuratively “become bold/reckless/cocky”.
* There is also a phrase “気が大きい” meaning “be generous/have a big heart”, but it’s not commonly used.
Some people were talking loud in the library, but I was too cowardly to tell them to be quiet.
I was drunk and became bold, and ended up buying many expensive things
ki ga au
~と気が合(あ)う (ki ga au) literally means “気 matches ~” and figuratively “get along well with ~”. Interestingly, you can also say 馬(うま)が合う(uma ga au) instead of 気が合う, where 馬 means “a horse”. This phrase originated from horse riding; it is extremely important for horse riders to find a horse that 合う (goes well) with them.
I get along well with him.
2. 気 as “Motivation”
ki ga susumu/ki ga noru
気が進(すす)む (ki ga susumu) and 気が乗(の)る (ki ga noru) literally mean “気 goes ahead/goes on board” and figuratively “be encouraged/feel like ~”. Usually, these phrases are used in negative sentences as in the example sentence below.
I was invited to the party, but I don’t feel like going for some reason
ki ga muku
気が向く (ki ga muku) literally means “気 is directed towards ~” and figuratively “feel like ~”. It is often used as 気が向いたら/時(とき), meaning “if/when I feel like ~”.
気が向いた時に課題 (かだい) をやろう
I’ll do my assignments when I feel like it.
ki ga omoi
気が重(おも)い (ki ga omoi) literally means “気 is heavy” and figuratively “don’t feel like ~/feel daunted to do ~”
I “feel heavy” (feel daunted) when I think that I have to do this work for more 5 hours.
3. 気 as “Focus/Interest”
ki ni naru
気になる (ki ni naru) has both positive and negative meanings, as follows:
- “be interested in ~”
- “be distracted by ~”
Is there anyone you’re interested in (romantically)?
I‘m distracted by the noise outside
ki ga aru
気がある literally means “気 exists” and figuratively “interested in someone (romantically)” It is often used when someone seems to be interested in you.
Obviously, he is (romantically) interested in her.
ki ga chiru
気が散(ち)る literally means “気 scatters” and figuratively “distracted by~”, “cannot focus on ~”
あの猫(ねこ)のせいで気が散って勉強 ((べんきょう) に集中 (しゅうちゅう) できない。
Because of the cat, I‘m distracted and cannot focus on studying.
ki ga magireru
気が紛(まぎ)れる means “take one’s mind off” or “be distracted from negative feelings (sadness, stress, etc.)”
I was irritated a while ago, but running distracted me from my negative feelings (anger) and now I feel better.
ki ni iru
気に入(い)る (ki ni iru) literally “enter (one’s) 気” and figuratively “like/find something to be one’s favourite”.
If you find something you like, please tell me
This is my favourite book.
ki ni kuwanai
気に食(く)わない (ki ni kuwanai) means “hate ~/feel annoyed by ~”. Its meaning is similar to that of 気に入(い)らない (= not 気に入る), but 気に食わない contains more negative emotions/feelings.
I don’t like/am quite annoyed by the government response.
ki ga kawaru
気が変(か)わる (ki ga kawaru) means “気 changes”, i.e. “change one’s mind”.
I thought I’d do my homework but I’ve changed my mind.
ki o torinaosu
気を取(と)り直(なお)す (ki o tori naosu) literally means “take/collect 気 again” and figuratively “reset my mood”. It is often used as “気を取り直して” as in the example sentence below.
The breakfast I ate this morning was not very tasty and that turned me off, but let’s reset my mood and focus on my work.
4. 気 as “care/concerns”
ki o tsukeru
気をつける (ki o tsukeru) means “be mindful/careful/make sure/pay attention”
Make sure this never happens again.
Be careful/Take care!
ki ni suru
気にする means “mind/worry/care about”
I can’t help but worry about how people see me.
ki o tsukau
気を使(つか)う (ki o tsukau) literally means “use 気” and figuratively “think about someone/something thoughtfully”. In particular, it often has the following meanings:
- “try to be nice/attentive/considerate/polite”, “be mindful of one’s needs”
- “care about ~”
When I’m with my sepnai, I feel tired since I’ve got to be polite/mindful of their needs.
As he seemed busy, I tried to be considerate and didn’t speak to him
もっと健康 (けんこう) に気を使うべきだ (≒ 健康を気にするべきだ, 健康に気をつけるべきだ)
You should care about your health more.
ki ga kiku
気が利(き)く (ki ga kiku) literally “気 is effective” and figuratively “be proactive/attentive/thoughtful”. It sounds a bit judgemental, so you shouldn’t use it to describe your boss/senpai/someone not close to you.
You: As it’s getting cold, I made coffee for you!
Your boss: ありがとう！気が利くね！
Your boss: Thanks! You’re proactive/thoughtful!
ki ga mawaranai
気が回(まわ)らない (ki ga mawara nai) literally means “(one’s) spirit/attention doesn’t reach” and figuratively “not considerate/thoughtful/attentive enough ~”. It is often used when you apologise to someone politely for not being attentive enough.
(* Usually, 回(まわ)る means “spin”, “turn”, “go around” etc., but in this phrase, it means “reach“.)
あ、もしかしてコーヒーより紅茶 (こうちゃ) の方(ほう)がよかった？そこまで気が回らなくてごめんね
Ah, do you actually prefer tea to coffee? Sorry, “my spirit didn’t reach it (your preference).” (= I wasn’t attentive enough to consider your preference).
ki no doku
気の毒(どく) (ki no doku) literally means “spirit’s poison” and figuratively describes the situation when you feel empathy for someone (because they are faced with serious and unfortunate events/incidents/circumstances). Such a situation is “poison for one’s spirit” because you feel – unless you are a psychopath – pretty bad for them. When you express to someone your empathy for them, you can say “お気の毒様(さま)です”.
ki ni kakeru
気にかける (ki ni kakeru) means “care/worry/think about someone”
A: 最近(さいきん)疲(つか)れて見(み)えるけど、大丈夫 (だいじょうぶ)？
A: These days, you look tired. Are you OK?
B: Yea, I’m fine! Thanks for worrying about me!
ki o yurusu
気を許す literally means “allow one’s 気” and figuratively “open up your heart/let your guard down (to someone)”. Here, 気 refers to the state of feeling concerned/worried about someone’s mood/feelings, and 許す means you let those vigilant feelings go away and open up to them. Its meaning is similar to that of 気の置けない (see the next entry).
Since I totally open up my heart to her, I always get very drunk whenever I have a drink with her.
ki no okenai
気の置けない (or 気が置けない) literally means “(you) cannot put 気” and figuratively “(someone is) very close (to you)”. In this phrase, 気 means “care/concerns” as in 気を使う, and hence 気の置けない means you don’t feel you need to be very polite or cautious, and you totally open up to the person.
It is often used in the phrase 気の置けない仲, meaning “a very close and relaxed relationship (which doesn’t make you behave in a very polite or reserved manner)”; its meaning is similar to that of 気を使わない仲. Note, however, that even some (or actually many) Japanese people misunderstand it to be a bad relationship, misinterpreting its meaning as “you cannot open up your heart/let your guard down” — to be fair, this expression is confusing enough because, as explained earlier, 気 can also mean “one’s interest”.
Because he and I are very close, I can talk about anything with him.
ki ga sumu
気が済(す)む (ki ga sumu) literally means “気 is completed” and figuratively “feel satisfied/accomplished”. It is often used in a phrase “気が済むまで”, meaning “until you feel satisfied/accomplished”.
I explained idioms containing 気 until I felt satisfied/accomplished.
5. 気 as “intuition”
ki no sei
気のせい (ki no sei) literally means “because of (one’s) 気” and figuratively “just one’s imagination/not real”. It is often used as “気のせいか”, which is translated to “maybe it’s just me” in English.
I thought someone would be standing there, but maybe just me (just my imagination).
ki ga suru
(~な)気がする (ki ga suru) means “feel/have a feeling that ~” and is used when you are not completely certain about something.
I feel it’s hotter than yesterday.
I have a feeling that it’d be probably better to choose this one.
気まぐれ (ki magure) means “on a whim” or “be fickle”. Some restaurants have シェフの気まぐれ(サラダ, パスタ, etc.) on the menu, meaning “a (salad, pasta, etc.) dish chosen by the chef’s mood.”
I often cook on a whim.
She’s fickle and often loses her motivation suddenly.
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