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Swearing in Japanese: Why Formal and Informal Speech Is Important

It’s not a word, but the delivery of the language that makes for insulting and derogatory speech.

By 4 min read

Compared to English, Japanese people’s capacity to use expletives—especially toward other people—doesn’t have the same offensiveness. It’s usually not a single word or phrase that conveys the meaning, but the delivery and tone of speech that reveals one’s intentions.

There are, of course, some words that are considered “naughty” on their own, such as kuso (s**t), chikusho (damn) and you could also call someone baka or aho (idiot) to curse or use insults. There’s more to Japanese than the vocabulary, however,  when it comes to communication, and that is the level of formality in the language used—especially when it comes to profanity.

As a native Japanese speaker, I would say that “watching your mouth” means knowing what type of speech you should use and when it’s most appropriate to use it.

Keigo and tameguchi

What’s the best way to tell off your boss in Japanese?

There are two types of speech in Japanese: the formal and the informal.

Formal speech, such as keigo (honorific language), is usually what those studying Japanese learn first in textbooks. However, the exaggerated speech they hear or read in Japanese popular culture—like anime, manga or movies—sounds completely different and is rarely used in real life. Thus, it’s hard to get a sense of swearing, or the use of “bad language,” compared to English usage.

Honorific keigo Japanese shows respect and politeness to strangers, seniors and anyone in higher social positions. Age plays a significant role in Japanese society, and you can easily make someone frown by using the condescending tameguchi form, the casual language used among people of the same age.

When tameguchi is used by a person speaking to someone younger, it’s usually considered OK even when they are meeting for the first time, but it’s a big no-no when the situation is the other way around. Some people use a mixture of keigo and tameguchi to express affection or willingness to be closer and more open to the person they’re addressing.

Girls are far more likely to be frowned upon than boys if caught using this kind of language.

For example, when I talk with my close colleagues at work, I sometimes say things like, “Onaka-suita. Ohiru-ikimasenka?” (I’m hungry. Can we go for lunch now?). My first sentence is a blunt statement, but the second sentence is a question in keigo.

Most people would probably use keigo if they expect a response from the other person, but they might use informal speech to make statements or comments about something. Thus, language varies greatly in relationships depending on how well people know each other and whether each party agrees to be treated in the way they are.

For swearing, the switch between keigo and tameguchi is one way you can make a Japanese person feel uncomfortable. However, when a foreigner uses tameguchi, almost all Japanese people take it as a type of “error” in the use of the language, so it doesn’t give them the intended attitude.

Vulgar adjectives

You’re more likely to hear tameguchi around your friends.

When you take the plain form of Japanese and make it sound a bit vulgar, you might be able to get close to “swearing.” You can play with this switch mainly with adjectives, which you hear a lot in everyday conversation but can’t find in educational content.

For example, in adjectives ending with “ai,” change “ai” to the long “ee” sound:

  • umai (good or delicious) → umee
  • abunai (dangerous) → abunee

You would most likely hear these forms as an expression of one’s reaction to something.

When the response is reflexive, people don’t have time to put the word in the appropriate form (or they don’t care to). When used in quarrels, it sends the message that the speaker is extremely mad.

My generation

One of the most talked-about songs of this year in Japan is called “Ussee-wa,” by Ado. Ussee wa is the vulgar form of the adjective urusai, meaning “loud” or “annoying.” In effect, it means: “Shut the hell up!”

The song’s chorus, which angrily repeats the phrase “ussee-wa” over and over again, is not what makes it such strong language. The fact that a modern teenage girl sings it in response to an older (mostly male) generation probably has a lot to do with why it got so much attention in the first place.

While these conjugations are not profanity per se, you hear them a lot in quarrels, especially by guys

Girls are far more likely to be frowned upon than boys if caught using this kind of language. There is a sense of taboo in a song sung by a young female who keeps saying something or someone in her life is annoying in one of the most insulting ways possible.

While these conjugations are not profanity per se, you hear them a lot in quarrels, especially by guys. This is probably the closest I can think of as to how Japanese people make their language insulting.

Offending someone in Japan can range from using the simple tameguchi form of Japanese with someone you randomly meet on the street to shouting “ussee-wa” to your boss (don’t do this!).

Have you heard rude Japanese before? Do you use it when talking with your friends? Let us know in the comments!

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