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What Does Yabai Mean in Japanese Slang?

Yabai can mean anything from very bad to very good.

By 4 min read

One of the most common slang words is yabai (ヤバい). Like many slang words, yabai is used in so many different contexts that it can be tricky to precisely determine what it means. Watching a rock god perform is yabai, but the most shockingly disgusting hotel room is yabai. Calling a person yabai can be anything from the nicest compliment to fighting words. So, what does yabai mean?

Just some of its common uses include:

English Japanese Romaji
Impressive いんしょうてき Inshouteki
Surprising おどろくべき Odorokubeki
Interesting おもしろ Omoshiroi
Enjoyable たのしい Tanoshii
Delicious おいしい Oishii
Moving かんどうてき Kando teki
Nervous きんちょうした Kincho shita
Disgusting わる Kimochiwarui
Close Call いっぱつ Kikiippatsu
Suspicious うたがわしい Utagawashii

Most learners start by learning formal Japanese language forms like です and ~ます. While these are great for the office, learners soon notice that most people don’t speak that way. Instead, most Japanese people communicate casually, using plain verbs and fun terms such as Japanese internet slang or dating words.

Remember that yabai means good,  yabai means bad, and yabai means everything in between.

Yabai’s ‘Yabai’ Origin

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These guys are definitely yabai.

Understanding the multifaceted nature of a single word requires delving into its origins. In the case of ヤバい (yabai), two main theories trace its roots back to an unexpected source: Japan’s criminal underworld.

When uttered, ヤバい rolls off the tongue effortlessly, making it ideal for discreet communication among criminals to indicate an unexpected turn of events.

One theory suggests that ヤバい originated from the term for a jail cell (, yaba), serving as a stark reminder of the escalating chaos that could potentially lead someone behind bars. Over time, yaba evolved into ヤバい, though you may still encounter やばっ, particularly among men.

Alternatively, another theory posits that ヤバい stems from the middle portion of the verb あやぶむ (ayabumu, to fear), serving as a cautionary signal for impending danger. While considered less probable, this theory underscores the importance of delving into advanced vocabulary.

But Bad Means Good?

Like words like “wicked” and “sick” can convey positivity in English slang, ヤバい underwent a similar transformation. In Japan during the 1980s, alongside Michael Jackson popularizing “bad” to mean “cool,” ヤバい began to encompass both positive and negative connotations.

Common Examples of Yabai

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“YOU ARE THE ONE WHO IS YABAI!”

Like many other words, ヤバい is frequently written with a mix of katakana and hiragana. This blending is a common characteristic of わかものこと (wakamono-no-kotoba, young people’s language), which includes words like:

Japanese English Romaji
ダサい Uncool Dasai
キモい Gross Kimoi
ウケる Hilarious Ukeru
メッチャ Very Meccha
クソ Crappy Kuso
バカ Stupid Baka

Like other Japanese slang, ヤバい can take on various grammatical forms, functioning as an adjective, exclamation, and adverb.

The Grammar of Yabai

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She is internally screaming “yabai.”

Here are some examples:

Grammar Type Meaning in English Example Sentence
Adjective Extreme (More likely to have a negative meaning.)
  • ヤバいせいかくだ  (An extreme personality.)
  • なんてヤバいやつだ  (What an extreme person.)
Exclamation Wow!, Impressive!, WTF!, Uh-oh!
  • ヤバい! あいつはぜったいあやしい!  (WTF! That guy is totally suspicious!)
  • ヤバい! メイちゃんのたんじょうをわすれちゃった (Uh-oh! I forgot Mei’s birthday!)
With an adverb Forbidden, transgressive
  • ぜったいにヤバい (That is totally wrong.)
  • めちゃくちゃヤバい (Things are completely FUBAR.)
After a noun Dangerous, risky, awful, terrible, crap, terrific, amazing, cool, crazy, insane, not normal, unhinged, extreme
  • このゲームヤバい! (This game is great/the worst!)
  • このてんヤバい (This weather is great/awful.)
As an adverb (usually with I adjectives) Extremely
  • ヤバいしい (So tasty!)
  • ヤバたかいのでげよう (This place is far too expensive, run!)
As an adverb with a verb (less common), note that it generally doesn’t take a ~く-ending Very much
  • このゲームはヤバいぐらいれてる (This game is selling so much.)
Negative A forbidden or transgressive act is being acknowledged by the speaker.
  • おなはヤバくない? (Isn’t staying in the same room kinda, you know?)
  • このえいヤバくない? (What is up with this movie? E.g., too violent, sexual etc.)
With hodo (degree, extent) So much, totally
  • ヤバいほどえいらない (I don’t know so much English.)
  • やばいほどいがかなす (My dreams are totally coming true.)

How Often Do Japanese People Use Yabai?

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Winning is always a good time to use yabai.

If this sounds like a lot to remember, don’t worry. The National Institute of Japanese Language and Linguistics and Lago Language Institute looked into ヤバい and found the most common uses (94% of the time) were:

  • as an adjective (49% of uses)
  • modifying a noun (34% of uses)
  •  with an adverb (11% of uses)

Less frequently encountered variations, such as ヤバき (as a noun) and ヤバく (as an adverb), are rarely used, constituting less than 1% of occurrences.

If the multitude of uses for ヤバい seems daunting to remember, fear not. The National Institute of Japanese Language and Linguistics, along with the Lago Language Institute, conducted research on ヤバい and identified its most common uses, which accounted for 94% of its occurrences:

  • 49% of the time, it functions as an adjective.
  • In 34% of its uses, it modifies a noun.
  • It serves as an adverb in 11% of cases.

Variations and Context

There are also numerous variations in how ヤバい is expressed.

Common contractions include:

  • やべー (Yabee), with the final “e” pronounced long.
  • やばっ (Yaba), with the final “a” clipped short.
  • やべっ (Yabe), with the final “e” clipped short.

These variations are often employed to inject a touch of individuality into the often overused phrase.

While grasping the nuances of ヤバい may initially seem challenging, considering the context and manner of its usage can provide clues regarding its intended meaning. Positive uses are often inflected upward, while negative uses are inflected downward for emphasis.

If you still doubt its usage, engaging in enjoyable conversations with Japanese speakers is the most effective mastery method. Before long, you’ll encounter various iterations of ヤバい in natural contexts.

What instances of ヤバい have you encountered? What does ヤバい mean to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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