Take the 2-minute tour ×
Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Warning: This question contains words in both Japanese and English that some might not want to read.

Also: My apologies that this question is lengthy. However, I wanted to take care to express it properly.

When I asked about words that are not permitted on television, I was trying to get at the concept of what makes a word "bad" in Japanese, because clearly the concept is different than in English. However, that question opened my eyes to the connected, but different issues of political correctness and zeitgeist. It was fascinating and helpful, but I'm still wondering about how Japanese handles curse words.

So I am going to come at the question a different way in hopes of getting a definitive answer on something I know plagues many learners of Japanese:

Does Japanese actually have swear words?

We all know the stereotype, which is that when you ask a Japanese person, "what are some curse words in Japanese?" they say, "oh, we don't have those." Then one learns of words which seem to be curse words, and the perception is built that the Japanese language does contain curse words, but a culture that wants to be seen as non-confrontational obscures those words from outsiders. Thus a whole bunch of stereotypes about Japan and Japanese people get reinforced, such as the fact that they withhold things from outsiders, or that they are too shy to speak openly about some things, or whatever else.

I thought `気違い【きちがい】 was one of those words, until I saw it in a book for kids. Now that I've seen the list of words unsuitable for broadcast, I now know that it's offense doesn't lie in its purpose, but its inappropriateness. It's probably best translated as "psycho", which, in English, is still used as an insult, it's acceptable in a wide variety of contexts, but a news anchor wouldn't say, "police caught the psycho late last night."

So one thing one will note about words not suitable for broadcast, is that all of them can, in fact, be on TV, but it's all about when and how.

Surprisingly to me, There are some words that are not on the list that I think might count as "dirty words", such as てめえ, 野郎【やろう】, and くそ.

I've seen these words translated as "motherfucker", "asshole", and "shit", respectively.

However, I've also seen them translated as "you" (although a stern "you"), "rascal", and "damn".

That flexibility is crazy to my mind, because in my culture, the purpose of a word like "motherfucker" is to convey an extreme of passions, or an extreme of comradery. You say it with intent to people you really want to know you are mad at, or people who already know you are such good friends that it's a joke. Either way, it conveys extremes.

Thus the real question, is if there is a concept of words that are on the other side of a line of general acceptability, like George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words.

My concern when I see 野郎 translated as "rascal" is that it's that maybe the word doesn't mean "rascal" at all, but something has been lost in the translation because the context didn't carry over.

Put another way, in English, I can call my friend an "asshole" in a joking way that I can get away with because we're friends. So when 野郎 is translated as "rascal", might that not simply be a case where the translator (in a general sense) was worried that the friendly context that made "asshole" acceptable wouldn't be conveyed?

With all that context in mind, I hope we can answer "Does Japanese actually have swear words?" definitively. I hope an answer can directly or indirectly cover address the following points:

  1. Are there words that are always harsh and insulting, that do not range from "you" to "motherfucker"? Words that are decidedly curse words? (Note I am not asking for a list, I'm asking for an analysis of their place in the language)

  2. Is sometimes translating 野郎 to "rascal" actually a fair translation, or is it a kludge to try and make up for context that is hard to capture in words?

  3. Does the Japanese answer "we don't have those" reflect the fact that Japanese really don't consider any words "bad"? Or does it reflect that they don't want to be involved by proxy in any contexts that call for those words?

  4. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that a word like てめえ is a curse word, and that it's default implication is bad, and that context can make it less threatening? In other words, it's not that its definition ranges from "motherfucker" to "you", it's that it means approximately "motherfucker", but given the right context it is made acceptable, just like "motherfucker" in English.

Please no overly technical linguistic terminology so that answers are understandable for everyone. Thanks!

share|improve this question

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Warning: This post contains objectionable language.

Partial answer, but I know of one word that might actually have the taboo connotation you're talking about. From jeKai:

おまんこ is a vulgar Japanese word that means "vulva" or "vagina."

おまんこ is perhaps the most taboo word in Japanese. That is, it is widely known, but its use is severely restricted. In this regard, it is similar to the English synonym "cunt." ...

The word おまんこ does not appear in the broadsheet newspapers or on television or radio, and when it does appear in print and on the Web it is often partially blacked out. According to a citation in 性語辞典, the word is even censored from the soundtracks of pornographic videos, and if the word is spoken on-camera by a performer it is bleeped out...

share|improve this answer
1  
Yes, I think that might fit the bill. I think this is potential evidence that Japanese does in fact have words that reliably create a context of extremes, and not merely follow contexts. Thus, at least on one of the points I'm addressing, that the Japanese claim, "we don't have those," can be countered with, "well, you have at least one." –  Dave M G Jul 23 '11 at 3:31
    
I gave this answer the check over rintaun's because while it didn't quite hit all the points I hoped to address, it was at least concrete about answering some. I'm still a little fuzzy about some aspect of the place of curse words in Japanese, but after much consideration, I'm not sure I'm asking the right questions. I know I don't get something, but I don't know what. –  Dave M G Jul 28 '11 at 6:02
2  
I haven't previously seen the prefix used here... it seems somehow sarcastic... –  Karl Knechtel Aug 21 '11 at 9:24
    
@KarlKnechtel: お is sometimes used to soften words, and is sometimes used before anatomy (sexual and non-sexual). More details at japanese.stackexchange.com/a/3331/91 –  Andrew Grimm Jan 22 '12 at 11:29

I don't know if I'm writing the right kanji, but doesn't the rude word for a deaf person, 唖, usually get censored? I recall there were a few words like this that wouldn't be a swear in English but were usually censored in Japan; though of course one wouldnt really use them as an invective like sh*t or fu*k. I saw this word censored on tv but it was used a lot in the kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人 Kakushi toride no san akunin).

share|improve this answer
    
sorry the poor answer, maybe I will edit it later. but if anyone wants to compile a list, I think 気違い might fit the bill as well as a censored word (though I might have spelled it wrong) –  yadokari Jan 2 '13 at 21:28

Swear words are "swear words" because they are considered so impolite that you would never speak them in a polite setting. There is nothing inherently bad about them, they're just words... But they low, crass words, and would upset genteel ears to hear them.

With that in mind, I'm sure you can already think of some words that fit the bill.

share|improve this answer
    
Wow. I have been spelling that word wrong for years. -boggle- –  William Jul 22 '11 at 12:53
4  
I don't think anyone can deny that there are some genteel gentiles, but I'm pretty sure you meant the former. :) –  Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 18:50

Be advised that this post contains language which some may not find acceptable.

I think the problem here is that the definition of "swear word" is not by any means static or universal. Is there a Japanese equivalent of "shit"? Well, in so many words, not really (though there may be words which are used similarly). But then, I don't actually think that's what you're asking.

So what is a swear word, anyway? When you get right down to it, it's a word that is on the extreme end of impolite. Traditionally in English, these generally tend to be words referring to bodily functions, usually of Anglo-Saxon origin (piss, shit, and fuck being primary examples). However, what is impolite in one situation may not be so in another -- this is why you can get away with good-heartedly calling your friend an asshole, most of the time (but not in church): politeness is contextual.

The result of this is that with continued use, we become desensitized as a society to them, and they lose their shock value. Eventually, they're replaced with other impolite words. This has been happening in the United States quite visibly in recent years, where the traditional "four letter words" are not considered "bad" by the younger population, and are being replaced by (for example) racial slurs -- the power of which is evident in that I am hesitant to write them even in a scholarly discussion on the matter.

The important take-away is that it's all about context. Are there words that are impolite in most contexts in Japanese? Well, sure. In most contexts, てめえ is pretty impolite and insulting. But in all? I don't think such a thing exists in English, either. Even "motherfucker" isn't always harsh and insulting.

So the question as I see it, is what does Japanese consider "impolite"? This is something we learn very earlier in Japanese, since it's so heavily represented in the grammar. Calling your teacher お前, then, is quite impolite, while doing the same with your best friend is almost explicitly not. The disconnect occurs because of the thought that it only means "you" -- well, sure, but that's just because Japanese measures politeness so differently than English. In Japanese, it's more about station than about vocabulary (i.e. even more explicitly contextual). If I use words that raise myself up (or lower you down), when I should be doing the opposite (i.e. with a student-teacher relationship), it becomes impolite. That it is "just a pronoun" is entirely irrelevant; English having only "you" just confuses this.

The problem with translating these words, then, is that in English, we have to use different words for different levels of politeness, while Japanese is more heavily contextual. So is translating 野郎 as "rascal" sometimes acceptable, even arguably correct? Sure. You could argue that it's a kludge, but really, in my experience, translation is always a kludge. You always lose something in translation (though where you lose it is a different question).

I think the statement "we don't have those" reflects all of this as well; it's not that they don't have impolite words, but rather that what is primarily considered impolite is so different. Just like you, they see our four letter words and say, "oh yeah, we don't have those" -- all the while ignoring words that are, in many situations, extremely impolite.

You could probably say all of those things about てめえ and nobody would ever sincerely disagree with your intent, but the problem is that its definition isn't "motherfucker." Its definition also does not range from "you" to "motherfucker" depending on the context. てめえ is a second person pronoun which means "you." Period. There is no arguing that fact. But contextually, I would agree that its primary use is just as you've said.

So, to tie everything back all up together nicely in a bow... There are no inherently bad words in any language, Japanese included. What makes them bad is always the cultural context surrounding them. I think we can all agree that the cultural context in which Japanese primarily exists is significantly different than the neighborhood English grew up in, so it's not at all odd that what we consider rude or insulting is so different.

share|improve this answer
2  
You raise some interesting points, but alas, I'm just not with you on your idea that there are no inherently bad words in any language. As a native English speaker, I can concretely identify a handful of words that are codified by convention as "bad" words. I don't think kids are perceiving them as less bad, I think our society just permits more outlets. The fact is, every generation essentially wants them to retain their purpose, so that one has somewhere to go in order to express extremes. Racial slurs are an entirely different ilk. No one would say, "nigger this!" in place of "fuck this!" –  Dave M G Jul 22 '11 at 10:13
2  
@Dave M G: I think "inherently" is the key to rintaun's statement. A word's inherent spelling or definition alone does not make it bad, but the cultural associations with that word do. Otherwise, why wouldn't words such as "excrement" be considered bad as well? What makes "excrement" safe for airing on the 6:00 news and other words not? Our culture has created these arbitrary associations, which, I feel, is what rintaun is getting at here. –  Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 12:37
    
@Derek: No argument that which words fill the role of swear words is arbitrary. But I believe that there is a desire, if not a need, in a culture to have a way of expressing extremes. So some words will get chosen to fill that role. Which words and why isn't as important as the fact that the category of extreme words does exist, regardless of how it gets made. The idea of rintaun's that I don't accept is that the words are always made bad by context and nothing else. In English, now that the words are delineated, however that happened, they no longer require context to be understood. –  Dave M G Jul 22 '11 at 14:33
    
@Derek: Sorry to go a bit at length with a second comment, but I felt it necessary to add that I'm not saying swear words are now carved in stone, never to change. Just that while some words are buffeted by culture and come and go out of favour, other words are like boulders in a stream that are much harder to shift. A little web searching indicates the word "shit" (including variant spellings) is many hundreds of years old. –  Dave M G Jul 22 '11 at 14:39
1  
Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist, linguist, writer) has studied swearing and written about it in popular science books. Here is a version of it as a presentation on YouTube –  hippietrail Jul 22 '11 at 19:52

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.