Beyond “Kowai”: 10 Japanese Words For When You’re Freaked Out
By Teni Wada
While summer in Japan is actually the prime time for ghost stories, haunted houses and horror movies; Halloween’s recent surge in 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 vocabulary, this month let’s go beyond kowai (怖 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. As a scary bonus, you’ll also find suggestions for kowaii movies that eerily capture the feeling of each phrase or word.
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, or “scary” (怖い)
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? Onsen grandmas might think you’re kowai, but your friends may think your body art is kawaii.
2. Osoroshii, or “devastating” (恐ろしい)
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 or other event; osoroshii denotes something highly destructive or traumatic.
Goes well with: 28 Days Later, Train to Pusan
3. Zotto suru, “to shudder” (ぞっとする)
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.
Goes well with: The soundtrack to The Thing
4. Sesuji ga kooru, or “spine tingling” (背筋が凍る)
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, the creepy feeling you get when you walk past a Japanese school after hours, knowing that you narrowly avoided a tragedy near your office by missing your train…
Alternatively, you can use ちもこおる(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!
Goes well with: The Exorcist, Omen, Poltergeist
5. Kyoufu, or “fear” (恐怖)
For a psychological or irrational fear that cuts to the bone, use kyoufu. Add the kanji 症, and you’re well on your way to describing 恐怖症 (phobias) in Japanese. Whether you’re afraid of the dark, heights or snakes, there’s a movie out there exploiting your deepest, darkest fear.
Goes well with: Arachnophobia, Cujo, It
6. Guroi, or “disgusting” (ぐろい )
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, this is the word for you.
Goes well with: Saw, Hostel, A Serbian Film
7. Torihada ga tatsu, or “to get goosebumps” (鳥肌 が立つ)
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 hirsute 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?
Goes well with: The Sixth Sense, The Conjuring, Insidious
8. Ashi ga sukumu, or “feet frozen in fear” (足が竦む)
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. Rather than relive bad experiences, let’s check out some films where the characters are determined to cheat death and live another day.
Goes well with: It Follows, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre
9. Kimo wo hiyasu, or “terrified” (肝を冷やす)
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. Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that Halloween frightened audiences so much that they literally ran out of theaters and that The Blair Witch Project and the hype surrounding the “mockumentary” provoked genuine fear in viewers.
Goes well with: The Shining, Paranormal Activity, Jaws
10. Imawashii, or “ominous” (忌まわしい)
We’ll conclude list with a word that succinctly sums up why Japan’s horror movies are some of the best: the masterful storytelling of vengeful spirits hell bent on inflicting vengeance upon the living. Imawashii often has the underlying meaning of something unfortunate — and you’ll feel it in these movies.
Goes well with: The Grudge, The Curse, The Ring
Now go forth and be scared (in Japanese!) Happy learning and happy Halloween!
Go beyond the regular Japanese vocabulary and cultural knowledge. Check out our “Beyond” series.