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In English-Japanese dictionaries, they are all defined along the lines of "brave" or "courageous".

Japanese dictionaries describe all of them more or less as "not fearing danger", using a phrase similar to「危険や困難を恐れない」for each of them. Adding to my confusion, they seem to follow a circular logic: the entry for 勇気 uses いさましい; the entry for 勇ましい uses 勇敢; and the entry for 勇敢 uses 勇気.

Of the three, 勇気 seems to be the most common while 勇ましい is by far used the least. On 少納言, 勇気 had almost 25 times as many hits as 勇ましい.

Ignoring grammatical differences (I'm aware of their parts of speech), what is the difference between them? And if they really are close synonyms, how come 勇気 is used so much more than 勇ましい?

  • 1
    Circular dictionary entries are unfortunately quite common. – Darius Jahandarie Feb 15 '16 at 21:10
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    What is pretty rare about this trio is that the one that even 4-year-olds use actively is a Sino-loanword whereas in most other groups of synonymous words, the most intuitive word is usually a Yamato. – l'électeur Feb 16 '16 at 1:41
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勇気 is a noun. It's pronounced 'yuuki'
勇ましい is a 形容詞 (an adjective, often called an i-adjective in L2 teaching).
勇敢 is a 形容動詞 (often called a "na-adjective" in L2 teaching but literally an adjective verb). It's pronounced 'yuukan'

"He is brave."
「彼は勇気がある」…He has a 勇気
「彼は勇敢だ」  …He is 勇敢
「彼は勇ましい」 …He is 勇ましい

形容動詞("adjective verbs" or "na-adjectives") and 形容詞("adjectives" or "i-adjectives") differ in grammatical usage.

勇気 is a kind of spirit.
勇敢 has an image of fighting men.
勇ましい shows the state of a person.

I guess 勇気 is used much because it is a noun.

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Did you notice 類語辞書で詳しい使い方を調べる "more usage info on thesaurus" links on the pages you cited? I think it explains everything for you.

I'll make the summary:

  • 勇気 is the noun "courage", while the other two are adjectives "courageous, brave" (勇ましい is an i-adj. and 勇敢 is a na-adj.)

  • 勇ましい is "in a brave manner; making them feel brave" and 勇敢 is "with a brave heart". Here's an excerpt from the thesaurus entry:

    (○ 勇ましい/○ 勇敢な)若者 a — young man or woman
    (○ 勇ましく/○ 勇敢に)戦う fight —ly
    (○ 勇ましい/× 勇敢な)マーチ a — march (song)
    (○ 勇ましい/× 勇敢な)軍服姿 in a — military uniform
    犬が熊に(× 勇ましく/○ 勇敢に)立ち向かう a dog confronts a bear —ly
    (Well, I think I could use 勇ましく if the dog were a Tibetan mastiff...)

Note: 勇敢 also has a noun use "bravery" but it's almost obsolete nowadays. Use 勇敢さ instead.

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Assorted examples:

彼は勇気のある男

勇気を持て!

彼は勇ましい男

彼は勇敢なる[戦士]{せんし}

Personally, I can't say I've heard 勇ましい in a spoken sentence by an actual human. I'm aware of the limits of anecdotes, mind you.

So why the lean toward 勇気? I have some theories:

  1. 勇気 is short.

A word like [忙しい]{いそがしい} is just as long as 勇ましい, but perhaps 忙しい is retained because there is no shorter alternative. We see a number of long words shortened in colloquial speech (難しい→むずい), and we know Japanese tends to be very liberal in dropping words/particles to shorten sentences.

  1. 勇敢 is esoteric. 「敢」 itself is a Level-3 Kanji, meaning it wouldn't be officially learned until middle school. 「気」 is learned in first grade, meaning in terms of word familiarity, 「勇気」 is closer to "normal".

In general, I'm sure some corpus lookups would show 勇ましい and 勇敢 appearing far less than 勇気.

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One of the most popular Japanese language dictionaries 広辞苑, edited by Dr. Izuru Shinmura published by Iwanami Shoten, defines:

  • “勇気” as ①”勇ましい意気” - brave spirit. ②”敵に恐れない気概” – the courage not to fear the enemy
  • “勇ましい” as ①”勢いが強い” – have strong force, ②”勇敢である” - be brave
  • “勇敢” as ”勇ましく、果断なこと” - to be courageous, bold and decisive.

In my understanding, 勇気 (noun) is a spiritual property you own. 勇敢 (noun) is the state of performing 勇気. 勇ましい (adjective) is a style of demonstrating 勇気.

You can say "You have ”勇気” like “君は勇気がある - You have a brave spirit,” but you cannot say you have “勇敢.” You can be 勇敢 and 勇ましい, e.g. 彼は勇敢である。彼は勇ましい。

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