'Kuchisabishii' Is The Japanese Word That Explains Why We're Eating Mindlessly

The term, which means "lonely mouth," speaks to why many on lockdown have been snacking more than ever.

Do you find yourself wandering over to the fridge while in quarantine ― even when you’re not all that hungry? Have you been leaning into your favorite comfort foods a little more than usual lately? Sounds like you have “lonely mouth.”

For those unfamiliar, “kuchisabishii” is a uniquely Japanese word that literally means “lonely mouth” or “longing to have or put something in one’s mouth.”

“People use this word a lot to mean ‘eating when bored’ or sometimes, stress eating,” said Kevin Marx, a language instructor in Japan and the author of “Speak Japanese in 90 Days.”

“For instance, my go-to snack is popcorn so lately I’ve been eating a lot of that,” Marx said. “I might say ′ コロナのせいで最近口寂しい。(korona no sei de saikin kuchisabishii), which means ‘because of COVID, I’m stress eating recently.’”

Given how expansive Japanese snack food game is ― Kit Kat bars in hundreds of flavors, Pringles offered in varieties like fried chicken and squid, the list goes on and on ― it’s no wonder a word like this gets tossed around so often.

How do you say it in English? Koo-chi-sa-bi-shē, according to Vanessa Villalobos, a Japanese instructor in England who runs the site JapaneseLondon.com.

While there’s no true equivalent to the word in English, Villalobos said “peckish” might be the closest fit. (You’re not starving, but hungry-ish enough that you’ll poke around the contents of your cupboard, like some peckish Hot Cheeto-craving bird.)

“Kuchisabishii is similar to peckish in that it’s much more about the actual action, than the feeling of hunger,” she said. “However, kuchisabishii can also be applied to wanting to have a cigarette when stressed, for consolation.”

Villalobos said her own mouth felt lonely (aww) as recently as last week. Her craving? A particular brand of chewing gum that, of course, she had run out of at home.

“I went to the corner shop and bought some watermelon chewing gum for my ‘lonesome mouth,’” she said. “It helped!”

Described that way, it’s easy to imagine your mouth as Pac-Man on the hunt for blinking pellets, looking for anything and everything to keep it sated.

“That’s actually how my husband describes me looking for something in the kitchen!” Villalobos joked. “I’m like Pac-Man: open mouth, cruising around the corners, seeking snack pellets. ‘Pass the power cookies, kuchisabishii desu!” (“Desu’ means “it is” in Japanese and is often used with an adjective to form a full, short sentence, as pronouns are most often omitted, Villalobobos said.)

Shek Matz, an English teacher in Japan who runs a popular YouTube channel about Japanese culture and language, explained why the phrase is particularly popular among those trying to quit smoking.

“I’ve never been a smoker, but they say because there’s nothing there in the spot that used to hold the cigarette, they feel ‘lonely’ in their mouths,” she said. “It’s almost like a baby wanting a pacifier when trying to wean.

There’s often a sense of comfort associated with the word, Matz said

Elena Yoo, a Japanese teacher at Hawaii Baptist Academy in Honolulu, said people might hear the phrase while enjoying kaiseki ryori, a fancy, traditional Japanese multi-course, sit-down meal.

“Your chef may say something like, ‘Here is some pre-appetizer dish to satisfy your kuchisabishii feeling,’ and may serve you something very small,” she said. “That would be a dish to get your appetite going instead of filling in your hunger.”

“It’s a perfect use of the kuchisabishii, actually,” she said, “because you have the expectation of eventually consuming all the courses of traditional Japanese cuisine and satisfying your cravings.”

At a fine dining establishment, the chef might say, "Here is some pre-appetizer dish to satisfy your kuchisabishii feeling," said Elaine Yoo, a Japanese teacher in Honolulu.
d3sign via Getty Images
At a fine dining establishment, the chef might say, "Here is some pre-appetizer dish to satisfy your kuchisabishii feeling," said Elaine Yoo, a Japanese teacher in Honolulu.

Are there are other Japanese words that seem relevant to quarantine life? Yep!

Speaking of cravings, learning about kuchisabishii definitely whet our appetite for more Japanese vocabulary. Surely, given how vast and idiomatic the language, there must be other words we could be using right now to describe our collective quarantine experience?

“Well, we’ve been using ‘corona butori,’ which means getting a bit plump because of quarantine,” Matz told HuffPost.

In that case, maybe we all need to get outside for a walk in nature (while staying six feet apart, of course). There’s a specific term for that in Japanese, too: “shinrinyoku,” which literally translates as “forest bathing.”

“In order to get away from my lonely mouth, I’ve been sure to enjoy shinrinyoku as much as possible,” Villalobos offered as a usage example. “Filling my eyes with trees is way better for the waistline!” (Fun fact: The term shinrinyoku was coined in the 1980s by an official at the Japan Forest Agency who wanted to highlight the health benefits of “soaking in” nature.)

If you’ve been part of an awkward virtual happy hour with coworkers since this all began, you can say you’ve attended a “Zoom nomikai,” Yoo said.

“The government-mandated home quarantine has hit especially hard for the Japanese business people since they can’t go drinking after hours,” she said. “They often conduct unofficial business meetings at the drinking establishments after 5 p.m. In fact, some of the important decisions are made during such unofficial meetings at bars and restaurants.”

The Japanese call those meetings “nomikai,” which can be literally translated as “drinking meeting.”

“So what do they do now? They hold Zoom nomikai meetings nowadays,” Yoo said.

But there’s one Japanese word everyone can probably relate to right now: “hikikomori.”

“It basically means a shut-in,” Marx said. “It’s another popular phrase that has become known by Western audiences lately. It’s used to describe people who have no social life and never come out of their apartment.”

“I think the quarantine has forced hikikomori on all of us,” he joked.

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