Be warned: we’re talking rather rude Japanese

Second in a two-part series


In a society like Japan’s, where civility in public requires a high degree of decorous formality, crude language rarely rears its ugly head.

Japanese is, in fact, rich in four-letter words, slang and argot, but such expressions are not normally encountered in public intercourse. One of my slang dictionaries has four pages of entries under “vagina”; and well might you ask who is actually using these words in the first place.

The answer to that question holds the key to understanding the role that “dirty” words play in Japanese society. It is only the rough and rude who seriously swear in Japan. Most upstanding Japanese people consider such language grossly impolite. They tend to use euphemisms (enkyoku na kotoba) and adore circumlocutions: The rule of thumb is, “Don’t call it what it is.”

The most common euphemism for one’s private unmentionables is asoko (literally, there), often written in this context in katakana. If you want to refer to the sex act you can use are (that) or nani (what). And so, “They did what and exposed that” in Japanese may sound ambiguous to a foreigner, but to the Japanese ear it’s as clear as a bell.

Some four-letter words, however, are rather innocuous. Kuso, or shit, is one of these. Even children say it. Ee, kuso is the equivalent of “Bloody hell” or “Dammit.”

This is the tricky aspect of comparative slang. The denotative meaning of a word virtually never translates faithfully from one language to another. You have to look at the kinds of people who are using the word and the situation in which they use it.

Take oppai, for instance. Depending on the speaker and the situation, oppai can mean “breasts,” “boobs” or “tits.” Oppai is heard on the state broadcaster NHK when people are talking about breast-feeding. In a cruder context, it takes on the lowest meaning. But women, too, use this word if talking among themselves about “boobs.”

English speakers today use words like “dickhead” and “prick” without batting an eye. These words, of course, refer to parts of the male body. But it is important to bear in mind that their use as crude insults takes on a different meaning from the body part. Namen ja ne, konoyaro! translates literally as “Don’t think you can make a fool out of me, you guy!” But you would be well-advised to stay out of the way of a character saying this. The actual meaning is akin to “Watch it, you prick!”

Words like “bastard” and “bitch,” so common in English, are now used with meanings divorced from their original denotation of “illegitimate person” and “female dog.” Similarly, the f-word in English appears in a large number of forms and contexts that do not relate to copulation.

Again, the circumstances surrounding the use of these words are critical. If your professor pulls a snap test on you, you might quite casually say, “Screw him. He’s a real asshole.” You have to ignore the denotation of these words to understand their real meaning here. In Japanese, therefore, it might be something like, Fuzakerunjanaizo. Don’t be confused by the literal meaning of this expression (Don’t make fun of me!). It’s pretty strong.

The argot of the criminal and the soldier supplies Japanese with a host of colorful expressions. Lopping off the first syllable of a word is one way to transform it into a slang term. So, satsu, from keisatsu, is the rough word to describe the police, equivalent to “fuzz.” And the leaving of prison by a yakuza boss is referred to as mushogaeri, where musho is the shortened form of keimusho (prison) and gaeri is from kaeri (homecoming).

Japanese soldiers swore a lot. They used the rough second-person personal pronoun kisama when barking orders. On a trip to Jakarta in 1974, I felt sorry for an aging bellhop at the hotel I was staying in. He shouted across the lobby to a Japanese couple whose bags he was carrying, “Oi kisama!” He thought he was saying, “Excuse me, sir and madam!” But what he was really yelling at them was akin to “Hey, you assholes!” Without a doubt, the poor bellhop had learned his Japanese during the war, when his country was occupied by Japan.

Which brings me back to the point about asking yourself, “Who is actually using these words in the first place?” In Japanese, social context decides everything. If you are sensitive to that, you won’t make an ass out of yourself, figuratively speaking, of course.