Warning: We're all adults here, but just in case, this question may contain words, in both Japanese and English, that some may not like to read.

A long time ago, when I was working with a translator, a native Japanese speaker, the term 気違い{きちがい} ("insane person") came up. She told me it was one of the worst insults one can use. So bad, in fact, that you wouldn't hear it on television.

I wasn't clear to me then, or now, if she meant that as her opinion, hyperbole to express how bad the word is, or that there really are some guidelines or rules about words that can be uttered on television.

In any case, I took it to mean that 気違い{きちがい} is much more offensive than, say 「この野郎{やろう}!」, which means "You asshole!"... maybe.

Then, a little while ago, I'm reading a Tintin book, タンタンの冒険{ぼうけん} - 青{あお}い蓮{はす} (The Adventures of Tintin - The Blue Lotus), and on page 13, when Tintin is running away from a sword weilding madman on drugs, he yells 「きちがいだ!」

Since this is a book for young readers, I guess my impression of 気違い{きちがい} is wrong...?

First question is, just how bad is 気違い{きちがい}?

Second question, is there a list of words considered too bad for television? (If so, references please, lets not just speculate.)

(Please no overly technical linguistic terms. Thanks!)

  • I think I understand what @repecmps is trying to get at: "Isn't this question about words that are inherently bad, that anyone will instinctively avoid using them at a public occassion, like on TV?" In that case, it seems correct, since Dave has reframed his question to a similar angle. However, I don't think Rolf's (now deleted) question was treated unjustly, because, from what I remember, it wasn't well scoped and answerable like Dave's questions are. – ento Jul 23 '11 at 9:24
  1. You are right. Using the word 気違い is insulting and is not allowed on mass media. The reason is because its use often means that you are mixing up intellectual disability, insaneness, and other mental diseases, which have nothing to do with each other, and it connotates that they are all harmful. In the old days, mass media would write a news article such as "a patient of a mental hospital escaped and killed someone", and people will discriminate all the people belonging to any of the categories referred to as 気違い, thinking that they may do a similar thing. In the worst case, there are ignorant people who even confuse physically disabled poeple with mentally disabled people and with insane people.

  2. Japanese broadcasting has taboos, on which factors other than political correctness have strong influence. You can easily obtain a list by doing a search with the words '放送禁止用語', so I will not place a link here. You can often see political pressure on them. Among the famous is to mention the nature of the religional sect soukagakkai: video 1, video 2 (Video 1 is already deleted, and I added the link intentionally to show you the political pressure). Another famous taboo word is the female genital. Male genital is not a taboo, and this shows sexual bias.

Edit The original video on youtube came to my attention, which shows the moment of an NHK announcer's mentioning the connection of 公明党 and 創価学会 being blocked probably by a superior in NHK due to a political pressure by 創価学会.

  • Nice answer. While the other answers are fuel for helpful educational discussion, I think this one might be the "right" answer in that it covers all aspects of the original question, and does so concisely. Side note: I'm actually a little embarrassed for not finding 放送禁止用語 on my own. The discussion I had with my translator friend was years ago, and at the time I didn't have the Japanese ability to look for it. Since then, the perception remained in my head that it was "something hard to find out", so I presumed it was not widely available and didn't search. D'oh! – Questioner Jul 21 '11 at 6:56
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    @Dave Ha ha, I do that all the time. It's the linguistic equivalent of thinking of a swing set or something as huge because you last saw it as a small child. :) – Amanda S Jul 23 '11 at 18:27

Oh yes. From what I understand, Japan is overzealous about keeping possibly politically incorrect terms off the air; see the Wikipedia article on "word-hunting" which does indeed mention 気違い. See the main Japanese Wikipedia article on 「放送禁止用語」(un-broadcastable words) for more information; it links to this list of un-broadcastable words.

One thing to note is that the list of words considered unfit for broadcast includes words in common usage that few people find offensive, not just words you wouldn't say in front of your grandmother. The word 「床屋」(barbershop) is a prime example. There was a barbershop in the Edo period that had a tokonoma; people referred to it as 「床の間のある店」(the shop with the tokonoma), and then just 「床屋」for short. However, the kanji「床」can mean "bed," so there are people who think it means that barbershops were fronts for brothels, even though this is not historically true. Thus 「床屋」is on the list of un-broadcastable words, even though it is used in common parlance without raising any eyebrows.

  • Dave is clearly asking for words so bad in any real life that they are forbidden on TV. I don't see real bad words here. – repecmps Jul 20 '11 at 14:09
  • Small aside: I think you might be a little confused about the meaning of "politically correct" here. Japanese regulators are extremely strict about censoring anything they might deem obscene on TV or the radio, political correctness certainly isn't high on their list of concerns. – Dave Jul 20 '11 at 14:55
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    @Dave I disagree; the words listed on the 言葉狩り page and in the 放送禁止用語 list include many words that have been deemed politically incorrect/possibly discriminatory, like 百姓 and 聾. It should be noted that television station often self-censor these words; I don't know if they are officially regulated. – Amanda S Jul 20 '11 at 15:05
  • Wow, 百姓 is discriminatory? I remember learning 百姓 from a Miyazawa Kenji story. I certainly hope the long arm of censorship doesn't start erasing Miyazawa's words like in the recent kerfuffle over Twain's writing. – Derek Schaab Jul 20 '11 at 15:24
  • @Amanda: I don't doubt that some words deemed "politically incorrect" get shifted out (though I strongly suspect it has more to do with self-censorship rather than actual rules). But I still think they are not the majority, and I don't think I need to point out the numerous examples of thoroughly un-PC things that make it to regular programs on a daily basis (whereas obscene, in action or in words, gets chopped off before it even starts). – Dave Jul 20 '11 at 21:33

I prefer this question to the other one because whereas the other was asking for the actual words, I feel this one could evolve into more intelligent discussion on a particular facet of the language.

To answer the question, then: Yes, there are words so bad that (some) networks will censor them. To provide a reference, I recall watching a weekly comedy show on Saturday nights wherein one of the regular comedians had a routine based on drawing storyboards and asking girls (where "girl" means early 20s) in the audience to fill in blanks in the dialogue. The "correct answers" were always innocuous, but the blanks were chosen so that you could easily put in an vulgar word. (This was of course the entire point of the routine, as not only the word itself, which was censored, but also the comedian's exaggerated reaction to such a word coming from a girl, drew much laughter.)

Just as in the U.S., a different network (or a different broadcast time slot) will have different standards for what is censored and what is allowed. A late-night TBS Radio program such as 爆笑問題, which often takes in 下ネタ【しもねた】 from listeners, will censor nothing, whereas a midday show on the same station will be more judicious in which listener mail is chosen for reading on the air.

The most curious thing about Japanese profanity, in my opinion, is that a particular word can receive different English translations based on how and when it is said. For example, 畜生【ちくしょう】 is often used as a generic profanity when the speaker is frustrated by a situation or turn of events. It could be easily translated into English as a four-letter word beginning with F or S (both of which my upbringing has made me embarrassed to type out), but I have heard this word in situations where a "lesser profanity" would be a better translation: many times from people who would never think of saying anything from the list of outright vulgar words, and once even from a father who was playing a game of cards with his wife and two young children. Similarly, constructions which have an "informal variant", such as the ~んではない prohibitive and its ~んじゃねぇ variant, though they sound not much different to the ears of native English speakers, can sometimes be interpreted as particularly vulgar to native Japanese speakers. This illustrates the importance in Japanese of how you say something over what you say.

  • Just the average "bad" language. "I don't think this covers the "finer points" of the Japanese language per the FAQ" (repeating your comment on the other thread.) Why not copy this answer for Rolf to see? – repecmps Jul 20 '11 at 13:26
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    @repecmps: While I respect (and respectfully disagree) with your opinion that this question is the same as Rolf's, I cannot personally see how they are the same. Rolf's question was simply "Give me all the 'bad words' you know" and nothing else. This question, however, touches on the existence of words which seem to be profane in some cases and innocuous in others. Rather than asking for a list of words, Dave is opening up discussion on the Japanese idea of profanity, which is one of the "finer points" of the Japanese language, as it leads to discussions of nuance and context. – Derek Schaab Jul 20 '11 at 15:20
  • Your answer goes in the direction I was more hoping to go in, but it seems that the way this question is phrased lends itself better to the other answers I got. So I branched off another question, which I hope you'll join in on: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/2118/… – Questioner Jul 22 '11 at 9:05

just add two cents on 気違い, I remember from the movie about Yamashita Kiyoshi, when he is being teased for being metally handicapped he yells: 気違いじゃないだな! In this context I saw that it was rude but it did not seem like a terrible curseword.

  • In that situation, he is telling people not to use that word. He is against the use of such word. Thinking it might be rude that he had to say that word to ask people not to use it is missing the point. – user458 Sep 19 '11 at 19:06
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    I'm just saying I saw it on TV and it wasn't censored. – yadokari Sep 19 '11 at 21:17
  • In such meta-usages, of course they can be used. When you want to discuss the (in)appropriateness of the word "fuck" on TV, you need to mention it. – user458 Sep 19 '11 at 22:45
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    Ok I don't mean to antagonize you, as i greatly appreciate the teaching you do here,; all i mean to say is that the character in the movie said the word in a conversational context. It was not a "meta-usage". On American TV during mainstream broadcast even if one was discussing the word "fuck" it would be censored. – yadokari Sep 23 '11 at 3:31

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