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Cape Fear: Japanese Phrases for Fright

Japanese has many words for fear. By learning them, learners can gain a greater understanding of what makes this nation tick.

By 3 min read

As any fan of Japanese horror will know, the Japanese storytellers of yore were very creative at imagining the frights that drag our darkest fears kicking and screaming into our consciousness. From the cackling 山姥やまうば (mountain witch) to the malevolent おに (demon) and 悪魔 あくま (devil), the creativity of these ancient folk was twisted and brilliant. Unsurprisingly for a country with this kind of maniacal creativity incorporated into its national psyche, the Japanese language has many words for fear and disgust.

The most common word that learners come across is こわい (scary). This term is such a useful word that it is one of the first words that small children are taught, as it has a variety of uses ranging from actual fear to the sort that the rides at a theme park evoke. Once learners have learned the basic form, it is also worth learning the slightly trickier, but related form 怖がる (to be afraid).

A softer way to describe something as scary is 気持きもわるい. This describes the bad feeling that the viewer gets from seeing something twisted or disgusting. One of the interesting things about this word is that — because it describes a feeling that is highly subjective — the definition varies greatly. Googling it brings up everything from bizarre infections to weird bugs, all the way to… cute kittens wearing human clothes.

Perhaps the person who uploaded the kitten that made them feel so 気持ち悪い should have uploaded the image instead with the label キモカワイイ (simultaneously scary and cute), instead. While scary and cute may sound like two words that should never be paired together, googling this term soon illuminates the fascinating way that Japanese people can be content living in a world of contradictions. Cute kittens dressed as vampires with blood dripping from their maws, adorable characters with toothy grins and even Nara’s Sento-kun mascot all come up when you put this multi-purpose word into a search engine.

Unsurprisingly for a country with this kind of maniacal creativity incorporated into its national psyche, the Japanese language has many words for fear and disgust.

Another multi-purpose verb is  おそれる (to be afraid of). This is a fascinating word as it can be used for very real fears and as well as in situations similar to polite English in the form of おそれ (I’m afraid that… ). For example: “問題もんだいきたおそれがあります” (“I’m afraid a problem occurred”).

While it may sound strange to think of a word serving both these functions, thankfully English speakers shouldn’t find it too tricky as the “I’m afraid… “ serves a similar purpose.

Another formal word is 危惧きぐ. People who have progressed far enough in Japanese to read newspapers will be familiar with this word as it is often used to describe things that the writer assumes their readers are worried about. As a result, this word often appears in formal writing and articles, such as in a recent article I read featuring the compound word 絶滅危惧種ぜつめつきぐしゅ that described animals that are at risk of going extinct.  

A relatively uncommon word is 嫌悪感けんおかん. This word is used for things that give you that sinking feeling of horror. It is often used as a kind of all-purpose word for bad feelings. It includes ideas such as disgust, revulsion, aversion and fear. Because of this diverse range of meanings, putting this word into a search engine brings up everything from arguing couples, and unpopular celebrities to grotesque monstrosities.

With Halloween coming up, these words will give you the vocabulary to talk about all the different kinds of horror that you encounter — regardless of whether encountered in the street, in a movie or in an ancient tome. So whether you are planning to dress in a キモカワイイ way or intimidate people in a 恐怖 きょうふ or 嫌悪感 way, you will certainly have the words to talk about it this year!

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