Is There Really No Such Thing as Swear Words in Japanese?
A. No. There is such a thing as swear words in Japanese, but the “profanity” often heard on Japanese TV isn’t the same kind of profanity as English swear words because they’re not considered “taboo” language.
If you watch a decent amount of Japanese TV such as anime, movies, live-action dramas, etc., you might have noticed that a lot of times subtitles will translate the dialogue to include English profanity or cussing, like the words “shit,” “fuck,” “bitch,” etc.. You might in turn then be wondering if these are accurate translations, because surely the Japanese-equivalent of these words wouldn’t be a part of something like an anime or TV show meant for kids airing in the middle of the day.
This will be the context for this lesson.
Perhaps the simplest way to distinguish between profanity in English and profanity in Japanese is that in English swear words have a double-function of being harsher (or cooler) than normal language and being taboo. And as you can probably already tell, the coolness or the harshness is something that directly derives from the fact that the words are considered inappropriate/taboo. Calling someone “a fucking idiot” as opposed to “a complete idiot”-despite the fact that they both mean the same thing, is way harsher or cooler because the word “fuck” is considered inappropriate/taboo.
Japanese profanity for the most part does not have this double-function. It separates the two functions into two different realms.
It has taboo words but they are scarce, represent a minority of “Japanese profanity,” and you’ll pretty much never hear someone say them in public, even if they’re adults. These will be words such as racially discriminatory terms or perhaps the most infamous example: the Japanese word for vagina. The thing to point out regarding this minority is that they’re typically used for literally cursing someone and do not become flexible like English swear words in which you can say something like “fucking X” or “piece of shit X,” wherein you add on the swear to any given statement to make it sound harsher/cooler overall.
The same pretty much goes for the other way around in that there are also ways the Japanese language makes things sound harsher or more aggressive, but these words won’t be taboo. In fact, most of the time, it won’t even be the actual words but rather the grammar of the entire speech that makes a statement insulting/harsh in Japanese.
If you aren’t a complete beginner of the Japanese language, you’ll know that it has a pretty extensive system of enforcing grammatical specifics like conjugating words a certain way to maintain your speech as-say: polite, formal, honorific, humble, casual, etc. For better or for worse, simply not using polite language to someone in Japanese could be considered insulting enough. This inherent cultural and linguistic difference between Japanese and English in turn influences the way speakers of those respective languages “swear.”
To exhibit this, see the following examples of common Japanese “swearing” and how they are actually words you could perfectly use in formal, real-life conversations, but once you “grammatize” them a certain way they become full-on insulting and frowned upon.
Definition: “feces, excrement, dung, poop, bullshit, shit, damn”
This is considered a swear when it is said alone and likened to the English exclamation of “Shit!” or “Damnit!” But the word itself is not profane at all, as shown by the following perfectly normal compound words that contain it.
“booger, snot, mucus, nasal discharge”
糞食らえ (くそくらえ/kuso kurae)
In this example, it returns to being part of a swear but it still is not because the word 糞 (くそ/kuso) itself is considered profane. Instead, it is the imperative/command form of the verb 食らう that makes this statement insulting.
“piece of shit brat, son of a bitch”
Another example of it being a part of a swear because the overall statement is offensive
ふざけるなよ！ (fuzakeru na yo!)
“cut the shit! stop fucking around!”
This derives from the perfectly normal verb word 巫山戯る (ふざける/fuzakeru), which simply means “to fool around, to joke around, to kid around, to jest, to screw around, etc.”
It becomes an offensive swear not because the word itself is profane but because the casual verb conjugation of it is considered rude. (ふざけんな！ would be even stronger with its even shorter/slang-ish form.)
Alternatively, if we were to conjugate it into the more polite, て-Form + 下さい to mean “please do VERB,” then it would become ふざけないで下さい and would be a perfectly okay statement to say in a real life conversation without insulting someone, translating to “please stop fooling around”
Literal definition: ”noisy, loud“
Likelier English translation (due to how rude it is to be telling someone straight to their face that they are being loud): “Be quiet! Shut up!”
Literal definition of original verb word 退く: “to step aside, to move, to make way”
Likelier English translation (again, due to the imperative command form verb conjugation that expresses aggression): “Get out of my way! Fuck off!”
Literal definition of original verb くたばる: “to kick the bucket, to drop dead, to die, to croak”
Likelier English translation (again, due to the imperative command form verb conjugation that expresses aggression): “Drop dead! Go to hell!“
These word(s) are both insulting/offensive and considered taboo.
Definition: “you” (used when the speaker is extremely angry and implies that the addressee is of an inferior stature, therefore it is usually translated into English to something along the lines of “bastard, motherfucker, etc.” instead)
While there is such a thing as Japanese profanity, it is very different from English profanity. English profanity is more imaginative, colorful, and has something of a subculture to it, in which new profane, slang words are being termed pretty much everyday (e.g. fuckboy, asshat, dickweed, cumswallow, cocknose shitbucket, etc.). Japanese profanity for the most part consistently derives from the technical points of its grammar due to the language being influenced by Japanese polite culture.