X is for “XXX!” (Swearing)

CAUTION: As a result of the topic, this post naturally contains some strong language, in English and Japanese.

Yeah, okay.  So I’m taking liberties with the X here.  Hey, don’t look at me like that: you’ve seen this kind of thing since pre-school.  Remember how they taught the alphabet? “A is for Apple, B is for Ball…X is for Box? What is useless two-bit effort?  I know a dozen words that begins with X!” (this is a very well-developed and cynical toddler here, evidently).

Anyhoo, I trust you ain’t too worried, anyway.  You just here for the swear words?  Well, let’s take a step back here: first things first, there are what you could call ‘naughty words’ in Japanese, but they aren’t seen in the same way in Japan.  Why?  Well, despite what you may have heard, it’s not that the words don’t carry the same meaning: the word 糞 (‘kuso’), means ‘shit’ in exactly the same way we know it.  So is it the impact?  Kind of, but why is that?

To know that, you have to look at the Japanese language as a whole.  This is a language with a comparatively narrow range of sounds.  Nearly every sentence you hear in Japanese could potentially be a pun, and that’s when all the grammar, particles and bits and pieces in place.  When folks talk casually, you ain’t got a hope of figuring out what a passing group are talking about if you only catch snippets.  What if you heard ‘baka’ (馬鹿), meaning ‘idiot/fool’ but what they actually said was ‘bakari’, which means ‘approximately’?  Or – and this is a classic – you mistake the word ‘hantai’ (反対), meaning ‘opposite’, for ‘hentai’ (変態), meaning ‘pervert’?  This could land you in a whole heap of trouble, if for example, you mistake someone who is telling you that the bank is approximately opposite the station.

So swearing in Japanese doesn’t really stick out that much by nature of the language.  And the censorship is non-existent: children’s anime shows in Japan frequently have their characters kuso-ing and baka-ing all over the place, and in real life I’ve never seen a child explicitly scolded for using such words, as you would expect they would in the West.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: if you want to level-up your swearing impact, you absolutely can.  Let’s return to the word ‘Baka’: now, if you raised an eyebrow when you first read that word and thought “Eh?  Calling someone an idiot or a fool isn’t profanity!”, you’re not entirely wrong, but let me clarify: it is all about context.  How you say it.  When you say it.  Unlike English, where, say, muttering ‘F**ktard’ or yelling it in someone’s face will usually result in the same good-old fashioned street brawl, in Japanese the meaning of the word is all about the context.

For example, if your Japanese girlfriend laughs at you and gives you a playful push while saying ‘Baka!’ with a smile, she is basically saying “Oh, you silly sausage!  You’re adorable!  Now put the paper bag back on.”  (I don’t know, I hear that a lot).  But if some guy gets all up in your space, and drawls at you in a voice as though he was up all night gargling gravel, “Omae!  Baka yaro!”, then that gentleman is essentially saying to you “Hey, f***er, you f***ing b***h, you can s*** my q*********”  Don’t mistake the two.

But for those who are still thinking “Yeah, this is all lovely.  Now, give us the darn swearwords!” stop and think for a moment.  This is where the biggest difference comes in: the usage.  Swearwords in Japan aren’t used as casually as we do, for insults or for turning the air blue when we stamp on a Lego brick.  The Japanese language is layered with honorifics: language for elevating the person you speak to and language for humbling yourself.  Think about that.  In a country that values niceties and honor, what greater insult could there be for not using the language you should be using?  For failing to observe the correct etiquette?  I nearly gasped once when I saw someone take a business card of my colleague’s and write on it – an absolute no-no – and I know for a fact that it was meant as an insult.

So, you want to learn how to slight people in Japanese?  Learn how to be nice to be them, first.  Then forget to do it.

(PS: Don’t do that.  Be nice.  It’s good to be nice.  Not a kuso-head.)

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