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The Fine Art of Making a Fuss in Japanese

Whether it’s students, coworkers, children or the person serving you, it’s worth knowing how to call out misbehavior.

By 3 min read

Unsurprisingly, for a culture obsessed with the right way of doing things and keeping up appearances, the Japanese language has many words for socially unacceptable behavior. While a lot of the complaints are things that irk human beings worldwide — such as パワハラ (people using a position of authority to harass us ) or being 意地悪いじわる (mean) — others are things that reveal the subtle differences that make the Japanese culture so fascinating.

Cheeky or rude?

Take, for example, the English word “persistence.” In many countries, this would be considered almost a virtue. Not in Japan. The Japanese word しつこい is definitely negative and could be understood in English as being closer to: “persistent to the point of being rude.”

A similar case is 強引ごういん (pushy), which is often used in a negative way, especially for describing an unsuccessful date: usually as a result of one of the daters attempting to escalate things too quickly!

One of the interesting things that separates 強引 from しつこい is that 強引 can sometimes be considered a desirable trait by especially weak-willed business people. Even a quick search of Google reveals plenty of frustrated people wondering how they can develop pushiness, whereas しつこい is almost never considered anything but a loser’s habit on business websites.

Even a quick search of Google reveals plenty of frustrated people wondering how they can develop pushiness…

Similarly, the words for the sort of childish misbehavior that other countries may overlook can — in Japanese — mean anything from slight naughtiness to mortifying mistakes. For example, わがまま (self-indulgence) can be cute when little children do it, but aggravating when the perpetrator is an adult.

Others in the same category include such horrifying behaviors as 生意気なまいき (cheekiness), 欲張よくばり (greed) and わんぱく (naughtiness). In the highly structured Japanese world, there is a very thin line between a charming and unacceptable amount of these vices.

One unambiguously outrageous sin in these isles is a lack of manners. Deceptively simple words like 無礼ぶれい (rude) and 失礼しつれい (excuse me) are surprisingly strong in the Japanese language. Likewise, 皮肉ひにく (sarcasm) can be considered particularly offensive to the Japanese ear.

While sarcasm is considered grating to Japanese ears, there are other common insults that describe things that are almost universally considered vices. These include being:

  • こころせまい (shallow or narrow minded)
  • 悲観的ひかんてき (pessimistic)
  • 攻撃的こうげきてき (aggressive)
  • ひねくれる (devious)
  • けちな (stingy)
  • 下品げひんな (vulgar)
  • ぼったくり (a rip off)
  • 馬鹿ばか (stupid)

Making a fuss

When you’ve finally had enough and you simply must say something, you will, depending on the situation, voice either a 文句もんく嫌味いやみ (nasty comment), クレーム (claim) or 苦情くじょう [くじょう]. While these are often translated as the same word (complaint), there are significant differences between them.

Generally, a true 苦情 has to be used against an organization or individual where you are giving them the blame for their behavior. I have heard it used for everything from grievances over low-quality goods bought at a store to complaints over that most damnable of sins in Japan: not sorting out your garbage correctly.

A クレーム is usually a complaint over some product that was bought and was low-quality. The fact that it is usually attached to products is one of the differences between it and a 苦情.

There is a common misconception that the Japanese language lacks any strong words for complaining.

Finally, a 文句 tends to be a personal problem. In this case, you are giving your opinion on why you were treated badly — or why someone at work has it in for you.

For more intense grievances, the word will go up from ~をう or ~から(苦情)がた if you are on the receiving end. If your grievance is a really strong one you may even ramp it up to ~をもうてる.

There is a common misconception that the Japanese language lacks any strong words for complaining. In fact, many of these words can be just as effective as swear words depending on how and when they are used. So listen carefully to the correct uses of these words when you come across them and go out there and master the 文句.

Do you have any phrases for asserting yourself in Japanese? Which ones get the best results? Let us know in the comments!

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