“Niko niko” and “niya niya” are used to describe smiling expressions.
However, although they bear a striking resemblance in terms of pronunciation, the underlying meaning is totally different, and I’ll explain why.
“Niko niko” is derived from the word “niko”, which refers to the soft, vulnerable grass that has just sprouted from seeds. Gentle and pure, a “niko niko” smile is the epitome of true happiness, without any trace of maliciousness.
Like an innocent baby’s heart-melting smile when making eye contact with his or her Mother. The excited smiles of children who are waiting eagerly to open their presents on Christmas Day. Or even the beaming smile of an adult who is about to dig into a delicious treat.
On the other hand, “niya niya” is a smile that decorates the face, but doesn’t reach the heart. It’s superficial, as if the person smiling has a hidden agenda. It’s the kind of cunning grin you often see in movies and dramas, when the antagonist is plotting something wicked.
For example, we use “niya niya” to talk about the mischievous smile of a child who deliberately likes to get into trouble, or the leer of a man who harbors ill thoughts towards an attractive woman. It’s exactly the type of expression that makes your blood run cold each time their lips curl up into a ghastly pretense of fabricated happiness.
If you’re told that you’re always smiling in a “niko niko” way, it comes as great praise, so please feel happy that others think you are genuine and sincere.
If you’re told that you’re always smiling in a “niya niya” manner, it might be prudent to check your expression in the mirror and make a conscious effort to feel happy from the heart.
This month onwards, let’s all work hard to give our best “niko niko” smile! – Nishio Sensei
Akiko Nishio is the principal of A To Z Language Centre, with more than 19 years of experience in teaching Japanese.