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Spot the Kanji for Good and Evil in Everyday Japanese

良 and 悪 are really useful characters. Here's where to watch out for them day-to-day.

By 3 min read

The two characters for good and evil (or bad),  and わる respectfully, are really useful characters.

Give us the bad news first

The kanji, for example, can also be added as an adjective to the front of many words to mean an unpleasant version of that.

Take, for example, 悪口わるぐち which means “to talk badly of someone.” It can also be added as a suffix to make words like:

  • 気持きもち悪い = A bad feeling
  • 具合ぐあい悪い = (Feeling) under the weather
  • 気分きぶん悪い = Feeling sick

良い/いい, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and describes a particularly pleasant or nice example of that thing. Generally, いい is more common in spoken Japanese with the exception of 良いとし which is another way to wish someone a Happy New Year.

Positive perspective

The Japanese use いい a lot in their language.

  • いいひとです = Good guy/gal
  • いいにお = Nice smell
  • うんがいい = Lucky
  • あたまがいい = Smart
  • いいやつだ = A good dude/bloke
  • なかがいい = Get on well with

Another example, いい夫婦ふうふ which we mentioned in our Japanese Words for Weddings article, uses Japanese number code to interesting effect, too.

So far, so simple, right? However, from here things get a little more interesting. Both 悪い and いい/ 良い have some fascinating grammatical usages that all learners should be familiar with.

MC Grammar

Readers growing up in the 90s will recognize the use of (ぼく) が悪い as similar to that old stalwart of 90s-ness: the saying ‘”My bad’… presumably with a “dude” not far behind. While this may sound a little dated in English, it’s still a beloved expression among Japanese people.

This phrase is mostly used to admit a mistake, but it can also be used alongside certain disrespectful pronouns, as in sentences like まえが悪いよ (You are wrong!) and だれが悪いのか (Who is at fault?).

~が悪い is also used in some other forms to create descriptions of things.

  • が悪い = Have bad eyesight
  • 仲が悪い = To be on bad terms with someone
  • かおいろが悪い = Look off-color/pale
  • 天気てんきが悪い = Bad weather (in case you were needing to generate some small talk in Japanese)

Back to いい. This is also used in a number of important grammar forms. ~していい? is a common way to ask casually if you have permission to do something. Daily use examples include 質問しつもんしていい? (Is it okay to ask a question) and 失礼しつれいしてもいい? (May I be excused?).

Another common grammar form is ~ほうがいい which is used to state a preference between different options.

Up late playing video games with a Japanese gamer who asks you if you want to play another? You might say たほうがいい (It’s best to sleep). Or, if you’re aware that you’ve been spending too much time gaming, you might say 運動うんどうしたほうがいい (I should do some exercise).

Who’s bad?

While in English, the words good and evil are rarely found together, Japanese is a little freer, allowing contradictory concepts to be combined to make hybrid words stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Good and evil can be combined to make 善悪ぜんあく or sometimes .

These words are used in sentences that deal with both concepts at the same time such as かれは善悪の区別くべつがない (He has no distinction between good and evil) and 子供こどもは善悪の区別がつかない (Children can’t distinguish good from evil).

Finally, it is worth adding in the あく-reading of the kanji. Despite 悪い being a beginner/intermediate learner’s word, あく is usually used in really advanced words.

This is also often added as a prefix to make complex words such as あく (Wickedness),  (Evil intention) and, of course, the lord of darkness himself, the  (Devil).

For more on learning Japanese

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