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Mastering the Monku

The fascinating world of Japanese complaining.

By 2 min read 5

In Japanese, the common word for complaining is 文句(もんく). You will probably encounter this word for the first time in the favorite phrase of many an exhausted teacher/ parent 文句(もんく)ばっかり()っている (You are saying nothing but complaints) or 文句言(もんくい)うな (Just stop complaining!).

this is a culture that is typically averse to direct confrontation

However, the problem with directly using the word ‘complaint’ is that it can be very grating to Japanese ears. After all, this is a culture that is typically averse to direct confrontation (Although this can be hard to believe it you have ever seen two Osakan elderly ladies arguing!). Instead Japanese people usually prefer their complaining to be done with indirect phrases to make it easier on their ears.

When Japanese people complain to their friends or their partner, you will often soften what they are saying by adding words like:

ちょっと ー A little bit
とか ー Or something
悪いけど ー Sorry, but
できれば ー If it can be done
たぶん ー Perhaps
気がする ー I feel like

So when Japanese people say things like ちょっとから()いです (It’s a bit spicy) or ちょっと(うるさ)いです (You’re being a bit noisy), it is probably an indirect way of saying that something is far too spicy or far too noisy!

As well as using these indirect phrases to soften their speech, the Japanese are also huge fans of what social scientists call ‘disarmers’. These are phrases that seem to agree with speaker, only to turn full circle suddenly and reveal their true intentions in the second half of the sentence.

Two of the most popular disarmers are ~はいいけど and かもしれない. かもしれない in particular is often partnered with もしかすると (Perhaps) to make it especially soft. Therefore a friend complaining about someone’s television habits might start with テレビを見るのはいいけど~ (Watching TV is good, but~). Similarly, a friend who wants to discuss what she thinks is a lie might start with そうかもしれないけど、たぶん違う (That is possibly true, but maybe not)

Another popular way to make indirect complaints is to use endings that reveal your thoughts. だろう (Right?) is often used for this purpose. A sentence like それは本当(ほんとう)だろう? (Is that for real?) should be assumed to mean that something is not real!

One of the things that can be maddening to visitors to Japan is that the Japanese are traditionally a country that values indirect ways of dealing with problems. These phrases are the very tip of a giant iceberg that will continue to challenge you no matter what level you reach in Japanese.

However, it is a mountain well worth climbing as understanding how to speak in a way that keeps peace at the workplace and doesn’t come off as overly aggressive with your friends is well-worth mastering.

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  • Kira Naru says:

    I lived in Japan for 1 year and, in the beginning, I would always translate “chotto” literally lol so, I misunderstood people sometimes xD like, in a concert, I asked if I could take pictures, and the staff said something like “shashin wa chotto…” and I thought “ok, so I can take just a few pictures…?” hahaha I was really naive lol this happened sometimes, just after a couple of months I would fully understand what they were meaning with that “chotto”. I think that this way of complaining or declining makes conversation quite more difficult, but at least it always sounds really peaceful lol in the other hand, when Japanese said to me a direct “Dame”, it was very traumatizing hahaha

  • Putri says:

    Excuse me…
    ‘ちょっと’失礼\(__)

    ちょっと辛(つら)いです (It’s a bit spicy)
    →ちょっと’から’いです

    つらいmeans ‘hard’
    からいmeans ‘spicy’
    These words use same kanji but have different meaning.

  • John says:

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that about living in Japan after all these years. But nonetheless, I’m a (American) man and most of us Western men are like, ‘if something is wrong, SAY it! Subtle hints don’t work. Obvious hints don’t work. Just say what is on your f*****g mind!’

    I can’t stand when I’m attempting to get an answer to something so I can be on my way and I get some middle, low-grade “manager” salaryman doing that sucking air through his teeth trying to dodge the question. Almost makes me want to reach across and slap some sense and fortitude in him.

    • Shinnokina says:

      it’s a different culture. it’s not gonna change just because you don’t like the way it works. Thousands of years worth of habits are not gonna go anywhere. you either get used to it or can go back to America and work with Americans.

  • Rob Whetzel says:

    This is really interesting. I personally think that I do not complain as much as other people, but as an American I am almost positive that the amount I complain and confront people would be alarming to Japanese people. I even think in American culture that complaining can sometimes be a way to bond with your other friends lol. I will really have to keep that in mind when I am in Japan!

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