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Beyond ‘Kowai’: 10 Japanese Words For When You’re Freaked Out

This Halloween, be more than just scared with these new Japanese words and phrases to express your fear like a pro.

By 5 min read

While summer in Japan is actually the prime time for ghost stories, haunted destinations, and horror movies; Halloween’s popularity means that thrill-seekers and paranormal truthers get to extend their love for the gory, gruesome and grotesque until Oct. 31—with correspondingly awesome costumes.

Whether you are a fan of zombies, the occult or just looking to expand your Japanese Halloween vocabulary, this month let’s go beyond kowai (こわい), the Japanese word for “scary,” to express some of our deepest, darkest fears.

You will find that a majority of these spooky words and phrases are near-perfect translations of their English equivalents, making them easy to remember for future use. 

So note the nearest exit, turn on all the lights and make sure your phone is fully charged and ready to dial 119 because the horror starts now!

1. Kowai (怖こわい) or “scary”

Why is this word on the list? Because there isn’t a person new to Japan who hasn’t committed a linguistic faux pas with kowai, the term for “scary,” and kawaii, the term for “cute.” Semantic mishaps aside, some might argue that this country’s obsession with all things kawaii is downright creepy and kowai, so perhaps it has rightfully earned its place on this list.

Note that interpretations of kawaii and kowai can vary throughout cultures: Overlapping, crooked teeth known as yaeba? Kawaii to some Japanese, startlingly kowai to those who come from countries where perfectly aligned teeth are the norm. That fairy tattoo on your ankle? Grandmas in onsen (hot springs typically don’t allow tattoos) might think you’re kowai, but your friends may think your body art is kawaii.

2. Osoroshii (恐おそろしい) or “devastating”

You may have heard a form of osoroshii when at a bank, government office or retail store. Staff may tell you: “Osore irimasu,” when responding to a request or inquiry that is just not feasible. In this instance, osore irimasu directly translates to, “I’m terribly sorry, but… ” Best used to objectively denote the intensity of a calamity, natural disaster (such as the recent Typhoon Hagibis) or other event; osoroshii denotes something highly destructive or traumatic.

3. Zotto suru (ぞっとする) or “to shudder”

For things that go bump in the night or fill you with suspense and shock, zotto suru is the way to go. Use this for anything from nocturnal screaming to footsteps behind you to the sound of sharpening of knives—any noises of foreshadowing that build suspense before the action even starts.

4. Sesuji ga kooru (背筋せすじが凍こおる) or “spine-tingling”

Sesuji ga kooru literally means “spine freezing” and it’s not hard to imagine when you’d want to use this phrase—footsteps that follow you on your way home or the creepy feeling you get when you walk past a Japanese school after hours.

Alternatively, you can use chimo kooru to indicate that something is “blood-curdling.” This one may be easy to remember as it is a near-perfect translation of the phrase “freeze one’s blood.” The particle “mo” is used to indicate “too” or “as well,” and something so scary that it freezes both your body and blood? Truly frightening!

5. Kyoufu (恐怖きょうふ) or “fear”

For a psychological or irrational fear that cuts to the bone, use kyoufu. Add the kanji 症しょう and you’re well on your way to describing 恐怖症きょうふしょう (phobias) in Japanese. Useful whether you’re afraid of the dark, heights, snakes, or scary Japanese food.

6. Guroi (ぐろい ) or “disgusting”

Short for gurotesuku (grotesque), guroi is best used for things that are so unsettling, they’re downright disturbing. From streams of blood and oozing pus to aliens bursting out of a chest to dismemberment (think Tetsuo’s mutation at the end of Akira), this is the word for you.

7.  Torihada ga tatsu (鳥とり肌はだ が立たつ) or “to get goosebumps”

When something is so kowai that the fear physically manifests itself, getting goosebumps is a surefire way to gauge how scared you are. Modern science will tell you that goosebumps are merely an evolutionary reflex held over from when the body hair of early humans stood up to lock in body heat. But, there is something that modern science still can’t explain: if it’s not cold, why do we get goosebumps when we’re scared?

8. Ashi ga sukumu (足あしが竦すくむ) or “feet frozen in fear”

Fight, flight or freeze in terror—when faced with terrifying events, which option will you choose? People who have felt true fear know all too well that “frozen feet” is more than a cliché, it can be paralyzingly real.

9. Kimo wo hiyasu (肝きもを冷ひやす) or “terrified”

As an organ with an important function, the kimo (liver) is used in many Japanese idioms to express the gravity or importance of a situation. In this instance, when your liver “freezes” (hiyasu in Japanese), it means that you’re so afraid that you’re terrified. You don’t have the courage—or guts —to do anything.

10. Imawashii (忌いまわしい) or “ominous”

We’ll conclude this list with a word that succinctly sums up why Japan does horror better than the rest: the masterful storytelling of vengeful spirits hell-bent on inflicting vengeance upon the living. Imawashii often has the underlying meaning of something unfortunate.

Now go forth and be scared (in Japanese!) Happy learning and happy Halloween!

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