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So, I have a general question about the word 人間 (ningen), and it's not about grammar. The most common translation for this word is "human", but I have been noticing that its usage is somewhat different in some cases, and this becomes very evident in works of fiction and fantasy. For example, it seems to be okay to consider some humanoid alien a "ningen", but the same would be inapplicable for a humanoid deity or a common animal (cat, dog, etc...).

Could anyone explain the idea behind the word 人間 for the Japanese people? What is or isn't considered to be a 人間? Thank you in advance!

  • I'm not seeing how this is related to culture... – istrasci Aug 15 '16 at 19:36
  • If it looks like a human, walks like a human, and talks like a human, then it probably is a human. – broccoli forest Aug 16 '16 at 15:15
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    I think this is a great question. I don't know why it was downvoted. – snailboat Aug 18 '16 at 22:45
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    It would be (or could be) a great question, if he/she gave an example or two. – HizHa Aug 18 '16 at 22:56
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    While I agree that this could be culturally rooted, you might also consider that in English we can freely use "person" or "people" to refer to beings that are otherwise non-human---consider usage in Sci Fi. Also, within a Buddhist context there are six different worlds--that of humans, gods, demi-gods, beasts, hungry ghosts, and hell-- @narutokage 's answer touches on this. Within this frame, any being who could be said to dwell in the human world is therefore a "human". Words don't map one-to-one across languages; 人間 has shades of meaning covered by the English "human" and "person". – A.Ellett Oct 11 '16 at 15:34
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To me, the word 人間 brings the feeling of "humanity", i.e., makes me think of human rights, citizenship and things like moral and ethics.

it seems to be okay to consider some humanoid alien a "ningen", but the same would be inapplicable for a humanoid deity or a common animal (cat, dog, etc...).

A humanoid alien community might very well have concepts of morality/ethics as well, so you could sympathize with them similarly as you would with other humans; you could consider these aliens worthy of kindness, respect, and everything else, thus considering them also humans in this point of view. This clearly constrasts with a deity or an animal, since they are usually not put at the "same level of ethics" as humans.

Example: imagine that an alien ship crashed on earth, and there are a few thousand alien survivors. Some researchers want to deeply study their anatomy, by giving them drugs/diseases and see how they react. Then you could say:

They should not conduct these evil experiments in the aliens. They're not lab rats, they're ningen!

To me, this phrase would be completely fine, even though the aliens are not technically humans. I could be completely wrong though, this is just my two cents on this topic. I'm not even a native speaker.

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If you were born in a kanji used/using countries like China/Korea/Japan/Vietnam, it's not such a big deal to understand a kanji itself.

Originally, 人 = Human, 間 = World, so then 人間 = Human World (our current world) which is separated itself from heaven and hell.

But the word has changed into something like 人類 which means mankind--人(man) 類(kind) since Edo period.

人間 doesn't carry a scientific biological definition of human, so you may observed that it is also used to address other human-like entities or human-like behaviors...

Take it easy, my friend. Ancient Japanese didn't even have a trong definition for human themselves. Why Japanese learners like us need to care ?

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I learned in high school. 人間(jinkan) is 人の間, means 人間社会、世間. This word changed to expression of human itself from Edo period. 人間

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He's obviously asking about the usage in Dragon Ball Super. Not sure why he didn't come out and say it.

That series uses ningen to refer to sentient mortals rather than the human species.

  • to be honest I just googled to find this answer after hearing this usage in dragonball. But the question remains valid even if it it specifically just in that one media (I am doubtful) – user2422320 Oct 16 '16 at 10:29
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from what I gathered so far (including the other answers), ningen could be translated into "sentient dweller of the Human world/reality plane) morally compatible with us". it seems to refer to the ascended conscience state, as opposed to an animal which is driven by its instincts. Two other words to contrast with:

The word Hito would then refer to the biological species of Human kind, aka Homo Sapiens, while the word Jin would refer to the people, the congregation of aforementioned Ningens and Hito.

Popular culture example: Saiyajins, the Saiyan People. Note that not all of them act quite like Ningens.

Disclaimer: Not a fluent Japanese speaker.

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