The two characters for good and evil (or bad), 良い and 悪 respectfully, are really useful characters.
Give us the bad news first
The 悪 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 which means “to talk badly of someone.” It can also be added as a suffix to make words like:
- 気持ち悪い = A bad feeling
- 具合悪い = (Feeling) under the weather
- 気分悪い = 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 良いお年を which is another way to wish someone a Happy New Year.
The Japanese use いい a lot in their language.
- いい人です = Good guy/gal
- いい匂い = Nice smell
- 運がいい = Lucky
- 頭がいい = Smart
- いいやつだ = A good dude/bloke
- 仲がいい = Get on well with
Another example, いい夫婦 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.
Readers growing up in the 90s will recognize the use of (僕) 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 お前が悪いよ (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.
- 目が悪い = Have bad eyesight
- 仲が悪い = To be on bad terms with someone
- 顔色が悪い = Look off-color/pale
- 天気が悪い = 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 質問していい？ (Is it okay to ask a question) and 失礼してもいい？ (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 寝たほうがいい (It’s best to sleep). Or, if you’re aware that you’ve been spending too much time gaming, you might say 運動したほうがいい (I should do some exercise).
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 or sometimes 善し悪し.
These words are used in sentences that deal with both concepts at the same time such as 彼は善悪の区別がない (He has no distinction between good and evil) and 子供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 悪 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 悪事 (Wickedness), 悪意 (Evil intention) and, of course, the lord of darkness himself, the 悪魔 (Devil).
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