I've looked in many dictionaries, but I can't fully grasp how the word [苦]{く}[笑]{しょう} is used. I've seen it in dictionaries as being a kind of "embarrassed laugh". It appears to be used to deprecate the speaker and others or point out ridiculousness, but I see it used in all sorts of ways that may amount to a kind sarcasm.

Can this word amount to a form of sarcasm, and what is the cultural significance of this word? Is it used in different ways by men vs women? Is it primarily used in the written language, or is it also spoken in conversation?

Also, what's the difference between [苦]{にが}[笑]{わら}い and 苦笑?

Some examples of it being used:

  1. 急{きゅう}に厳{きび}しくなってきた (苦笑)

  2. お迎{むか}え待{ま}ち中{ちゅう} (苦笑)

  3. 外{がい}部{ぶ}被{ひ}曝{ばく}受{う}けてきました (苦笑)
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    I think it means to force a smile because otherwise you'd be in an awkward social situation if you did not smile. That is to say to put on a smile to appear within social norms.
    – Flaw
    Nov 2, 2011 at 2:18
  • @Flaw I think you're right. I not sure it even implies sarcasm as almost all situations seem to fit with your description. "A helpless laugh in bewilderment/discomfort at oneself or ridiculous circumstances" might be a good definition.
    – user797
    Nov 2, 2011 at 6:11

1 Answer 1


Can this word amount to a form of sarcasm?

Yep. Here is a typical use 「中国製2万円ガイガーカウンターの“高性能”に専門家苦笑」. Here is an example in spoken language:

A: これで年金は100年安心なんだってさ
B: ほんと苦笑{にがわら}いするしかないなぁ

Usually in spoken language, you pronounce it as にがわらい probably because it's harder to misunderstand, but the internet abbreviation ((苦笑)) is usually pronounced くしょう. In written language, both にがわらい and くしょう is common. Both have identical meanings unless you are a novelist or something ;). It is commonly used in both written/spoken language.

Women may less frequently use 苦笑 in a way that mocks other people, but this is secondary to a general tendency (due to women being socially expected to be less aggressive) and is not specific to this word. I think it's fair to say both gender use it in the same way.

Social significance... Personally I think 苦笑 is a very "Japanese" word. There is also an extremely common emoticon (^^;) or also (汗) which can be used (almost) interchangeably with 苦笑. As you can see, it depicts a person smiling, but sweating at the same time. According to this undergraduate paper, these kind of emoticon is second most frequently used (most frequent being the simple "smiling" emoticon). So it definitely appears to be a very important emotion in the Japanese language. I myself use this emoticon a lot. Yet when I think about it I can't think of a good parallel in US, Germany. It could be an interesting study.

I think Flaw is onto something with his/her analysis, although I don't think the primarily, intended meaning is "smile to appear within social norms". Perhaps it's more accurate to say that this word is used to appear within social norms.

  • excellent answer! It looks like there was indeed more to this word. Thanks for the emoticons link and info too, I've added the "emoticons" tag again to this question. I originally asked about the emoticons in the question but removed that part because I was unsure whether it was relevant (^^;)
    – user797
    Nov 4, 2011 at 8:57
  • @glacier: lol you seem to have already mastered it ;) Nov 4, 2011 at 14:56

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