It's not big news to many of you that the Japanese word "kirei" (綺麗) means both 'clean/tidy' and 'beautiful/pretty'. In many languages, there are such words which have a double meaning. Sometimes they are linked to a particular cultural inclination, and I think this is the case here.

After a few years of living in Japan, I have heard times and again Japanese people exclaiming "kirei !" when seeing something that was new, tidy and clean (e.g. a new house, a newly renovated restaurant...). Yet, in many cases, I'd only agree to say that it was clean and new, but not especially beautiful.

Recently, my wife told me about a girl's face that she was "kirei". I admitted that she had a beautiful skin, very smooth and without a spot or mole. But her features were not really beautiful. This reinforced my impression that the Japanese see beauty is cleanliness, even when something/someone is not esthetically beautiful. That is maybe why they like new apartments/houses and find them "kirei" even when they are absolutely ugly.

When going to Shanghai a few days ago, I was startled at the architectural contrast with Japan. Anything from skyscrapers to old houses or new residential towers were so much more beautiful than in Japan. In my view, there are only a handful of beautiful modern buildings in Tokyo, and they were all built in the last 5 years (Roppongi Hills being the best example), except the "Tocho" in Nishi-Shinjuku. But in Shanghai, the only ugly building is the prominent Oriental TV Tower. There are hundreds of hih-rise buildings, in many different styles, but not only is each very esthetically pleasing, but the local authorities have done a wonderful job of urban planning (each neighbourhood has its own, homogenous style). Contrarily to Japanese cities, there aren't electric lines everywhere above one's head, although China is supposed to be the developing country.

Why am I explaining this ? Not to disparage Japan (everyone who has been there know its modern architecture is ugly and chaotic), but because for many Japanese I know who have visited Shanghai, the city is not as "kirei" as Tokyo, because it is not as clean. It's not that bad, to be frank, but in Japanese eyes, very strangely, beauty comes first from cleanliness, and after from esthetics.

This may be a bit exaggerated, but I think there is some truth in it. There is also the word "utsukushii" (美しい), which only means beautiful, and is used more like the English word. The notion of "kirei" must be a kind of cultural concept not found in the West (and to the best of my knowledge anywhere else).