Language is full of metaphor, and calling someone sweet is a prolific one. But what does it mean? To an American, sweet is perhaps our most cherished taste, so to be called sweet is a compliment. To a Japanese person, on the other hand, sweet might be a taste considered simple and obvious. The word for sweet in Japanese, amai, when applied to a person often means that the person is naïve or unprepared (yatsu wa amai やつは甘い). It can be used to say someone is spoiled or a brat. (amai hahaoya 甘い母親) It is even used to describe a car with bad brakes. (bureeki ga amai ブレーキが甘い) To the Japanese, sweet often carries a negative connotation.
Historically, the Japanese food culture has not focused on desserts. Meals were traditionally ended with a few bites of ripe fruit. Later the wagashi culture developed (pictured above). Wagashi are ornamental sweets served with tea, typically made from plant ingredients. Because of how ornate they are, their price is limiting, so no more than one or two would be eaten in a single sitting.
The Japanese are now making more desserts, beautiful desserts, and still they have a much more balanced flavor profile than the western dessert tradition. They often contain savory ingredients like beans and seaweed.
When Oreo wanted to introduce their product to Japan they were forced to make it less sweet to suit local palates. They created and marketed the Mildly Sweet Oreo.
This highlights one of the difficulties of translating from one language to the next, cultural perception. When an American smiles happily at being sweet a Japanese person may grimace. To paraphrase Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, “translation is like looking at the back side of a tapestry, the images are all there but covered in threads that make them indistinct”.
Tasting food from another culture can be the same. By eating food different than your own you are looking at the backside of that tapestry, not able to see what the natives see so clearly from the front side.