According to a recent government survey, 66.7 percent of the Japanese population feel some sort of fuan (不安, anxiety) about aspects of everyday life. The most frequently reported reasons for these angsts were insecurities about later life planning, followed by concerns about health and personal finances. There’s always plenty to worry about, it seems, so let’s take a closer look at how such fears and anxieties are linguistically expressed in daily conversation.
The easiest way to let someone know you are afraid is by using the fit-all adjective kowai (怖い, fearful, frightening). It can refer both to the object one is frightened by, e.g., kowai eiga (怖い映画, a scary movie), and to the person experiencing these fears, as in Watashi kowakatta yo (私怖かったよ, “I was scared”). Momentary fits of fear can best be expressed by interjections using the adjective only, ideally in its clipped and increasingly popular form kowa’ (こわっ) — note the small tsu (っ), which cannot be properly represented in the romanized version.
Another common fear adjective is osoroshii (恐ろしい, terrible, horrible, dreadful), which means largely the same as kowai but is used mainly in the “scary” rather than the “scared” sense, like in osoroshii jiko (恐ろしい事故, a dreadful accident) or osoroshii kao (恐ろしい顔, a frightening look).
The kanji characters of osoroshii and kowai, in that order, combine to form the noun kyōfu (恐怖). The term differs from the above mentioned fuan in that it normally expresses a higher — as it were, more phobic — level of fear. If this should become clinical, the suffix shō (症) is attached. This allows for the description of an almost infinite number of pathological conditions, including not only such well-known anxieties as heisho kyōfushō (閉所恐怖症, claustrophobia) or kumo kyōfushō (クモ恐怖症, arachnophobia), but also more obscure conditions such as sūgaku kyōfushō (数学恐怖症, math anxiety) or tetsudō kyōfushō (鉄道恐怖症, fear of trains).
Since fear is such a strong and universal emotion, angst vocabulary lends itself very well for effects of emphasis and expressivity in other lexical domains. One case in point is politeness expressions; for example, the phrase osore irimasu (恐れ入ります). This is a standard way to apologize for a disturbance about to occur, such as in Osore irimasu ga, mō ichido oshiete itadakemasuka (恐れ入りますが、もう一度教えていただけますか, “I’m truly sorry, but could you explain that again?”). Though the fear element contained in the first part of osore irimasu (it’s the same kanji as osoroshii) has become largely opaque, the phrase originally derives from an expression of fear towards the unmatchable power ascribed to the person spoken to.
A similar case is the nominal expression kyōshuku (恐縮), which combines the osoroshii kanji with one that means “to become smaller.” And this is in fact the original meaning of the phrase, which can be paraphrased as “My fear in the face of your almightiness is so enormous that it makes me shrink before you.” It goes without saying that few people today conceptualize it this way, hopefully, when they conclude their working day’s umpteenth business mail with the standard phrase O-isogashii naka kyōshuku desu ga dōzo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu (お忙しい中恐縮ですがどうぞよろしくお願いいたします, “I know you are busy, but we kindly ask for your cooperation”). There shouldn’t be much more fear involved here than exists in the English expression “I’m afraid,” which has gone through a similar domestication process.
Fear is also frequently invoked in order to raise the expressivity of an assessment. An example is sugoi (凄い), an adjective that originally describes a feeling of a shudder or chill. Today it is mainly used to express the extraordinariness of some quality, like in sugoi bijin (凄い美人, a stunning beauty). Sugoi also has quite sugoi qualities as an adverb, where it tends to behave rather anarchically. If you found something very amusing, you can announce this not only as sugoku omoshirokatta (すごく面白かった), which is according to textbook rules, but also as sugoi omoshirokatta (すごい面白 かった), without appropriate adverb marking. For even more emphasis, try su(n)gē omoshirokatta (す(ん)げー面白 かった).
Finally, there is yabai (やばい) and its quite remarkable journey from being an expression reserved for very chancy, risky, dangerous and thus rather fearful states of affairs to one that is increasingly used for highly positive assessments. In a recent survey by the Bunkachō (文化庁, Agency of Cultural Affairs), 26.9 percent of the respondents (and over 90 percent of the 10-19-year-olds!) said they used yabai also to refer to things they found “yoi, oishii, kakkoii nado” (良い，おいしい，かっこいい等, “good, delicious, cool, etc.”).
So, it seems there’s usually nothing to be afraid of when you hear someone using yabai these days. Or at least, nothing more terrifying than something that might be described as “terrific” in English.