Does Japanese really have no swear words?

Are English and Russian different? Well, I believe most people from Europe or America would say “Yes”. To me, from a Japanese perspective, they are very similar. Grammatically they are pretty similar. They have singular and plural. We don’t. They have prepositions. We don’t. Some words even sound similar: water and voda, day and den. In Japanese these are mizu and hi.

When you study foreign languages that are “totally different” from yours, you usually find both similarities and differences. When you compare English and Japanese, you find only differences. The cultures are so fundamentally different that you cannot find some of the most common words and phrases of English in Japanese.

Japanese has no swear words?

Let’s be honest,ne of the first thing many people want to learn is how to say the curse words in a foreign language. However, in Japanese they may find themselves disappointed. There is no “f word”, so to speak. The closest equivalent is “stupid”. Even a less vulgar swear word like “shit” only appears in the context of “shit happens”. You can walk around the street and not hear any obscenities at all, even in the streets of Tokyo. To be fair, we have swear words but, the only place you might come across one is in the red light district, Kabuki-Cho or in Japanese cartoons called “animes”, so they are not really equivalent of English swear words.

Japanese people don’t say “bless you” when they sneeze

Unlike in English there is no phrase that everyone says when someone sneezes. One might say, “Are you ok?” “Do you have an allergy?” “Did you catch a cold?” But you could just as easily say nothing. There’s nothing like “bless you” that everyone is expected to say.

Japanese people don’t ask each other “How are you?”

Similar to “bless you” they don’t say, “How are you?” If it’s someone you’ve seen recently there’s no need for small talk to ask them about their wellness. On the contrary, for someone you haven’t seen in a while, for example, for a year, it is possible to say, “How have you been?” The answer to this would be “genki”, which means physically and mentally well. It’s not just about health. If you are tired or sad, you wouldn’t be “genki”. Additionally, when asking someone if they are well, the subject is omitted and the interaction looks something like this: “Genki?” “Genki.”

Japanese doesn’t have words for “Yes” or “No”.

Lastly, Japanese don’t say yes or no. Japanese say hai and iie, and they are not equivalent of yes and no. To answer a question you say “right” and “wrong” or “true” and “false”. “You’re not a musician?” “Hai (True), I’m not a musician.”

Japanese have so many words for “I”

On the contrary, we have so many words that do not exist in English.
We have “Watashi”, “Atashi”, “Boku”, “Ore”, “Watakushi”, “Uchi”, and “Jibun” which are used in ordinary situations, as well as “Shokan”, “Chin” and more.

Normal Jibun, Boku, Ore, Watashi, Washi, Atashi, Atai, Wate, Wai, Uchi, Oi,
Business Touhou, Honkan, Shoukan, Honshoku, Shoushoku, Toushoku, Heishoku, Gusou, Gutoku
Organization Tousha, Heisha, Toukyoku, Kochira
Old-fashioned Wagahai, Soregashi, Chin, Maro, A, Wa, Yo, Shosei, Gojin, Gusei, Asshi, Achiki, Warawa, Sessha, Midomo, Temae, Yatsugare, Watakushime

How do you translate words that do not exist?

One obvious question is “How do you translate movies and novels?”

We cannot really translate those things.

Some translators don’t care about nuance and context and just translate literally which results in “translationese”, weird phrases or out of place words that make you want to shout, “Who says that? Nobody says that.”.

Some translators care about the quality of the translation so much and are creative, thus they can TransCreate (translate + create) a text in order to make it sound natural, while also ensuring not even the most miniscule details get lost in translation.

This article covered only a few examples of cultural differences and their impact on language that I can articulately put into words. However, there are many more differences and many of them are very convoluted and hard to explain.

A good translator must be able to take all of these nuances into account. As a result, a translator’s task can be likened to hopping between two contrasting frames of mind, hardly an easy task. A majority of translators, unfortunately, will fall short of being able to translate at this level and although programs such as Google Translate have made many improvements, they still lack this ability, too.

Edited by Christopher Manning.

 

6 thoughts on “Does Japanese really have no swear words?”

  • Great insight! Thanks for sharing. I have 2 questions:
    1. How important is context when you translate from Japanese or into Japanese?
    2. Are other Asian languages similar to Japanese, or is Japanese quite unique among other Asian languages?

     
    • Thank you for comment 🙂
      >1. How important is context when you translate from Japanese or into Japanese?
      From English to Japanese, it’s extremly important.
      I don’t know how to translate “I” when I don’t have context.

      >2. Are other Asian languages similar to Japanese, or is Japanese quite unique among other Asian languages?
      Honestly, I don’t know 😀 It’s probably quite different.

       
    • According to most language family classifications, Japanese is considered an isolate language on its own, i.e. being no part of the many existing language families (see for reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_family).
      However, for me who am a native Swahili-speaker, the Japanese language shares some strange similarities with some Bantu languages, like Swahili or Tshiluba (languages spoken respectively in Southern and Central Congo DRC). Of course my Swahili which is spoken in southern DRC is different from the commonly-known Swahili of Tanzania or Kenya.

      Speaking of similarities, look at these few examples (Please note that I only have a few basics of Japanese):

      – Imoto (Jap): Young sister; vs. Mutoto (Swh): Young person, child
      – Anasemasu (Jap): I/You speak; vs. Anasema (Swh): He speaks
      – Jii (Jap): Hour (Time); vs. Jiiba (Tsh): Hour
      – Ni: Japanese particle expressing destination, like Tokyo-ni ikimasu: I go to Tokyo. This particle is exactly the same in Swahili. E.g: Nahenda soko-ni. Translated: I go to the market (soko). “Ni” also means “at” in Swahili. Eg. Nyumba-ni (At home).
      – The “P” line in Jap has the same characters as the “H” line.
      は ha, ひ h, ふ fu, へ he, ほ ho – ぱ pa, ぴ pi, ぷ pu, ぺ pe, ぽ po
      This closeness of P and H sounds in Japanese (Ni-hon; nippon) is also the same in Tshiluba, where a word with a P sound can be substituted with a H sound without problem. E.g. Lupepela (wind) can be indistinctly uttered as such or as luhehela. A word like Kapya (fire), can be pronounced with the “P” taking on the same sound as the FU in “ふ”;
      – Same with the K line and G line. In fact, many Tshiluba speakers are known for confusing these two sounds in speech; for instance, they’d pronounce ‘KARE’ instead of GARE (French for railway station); or
      – Nan or Nani: Japanese for who, what, which. Similar to “nani” (Swahili for who) or “nini” (what);

      There are yet other similarities I would discover. It is weird how such distant languages can have resemblances. But it’s also a proof, if need be, that all men come from the same source.

       
  • There are many similarities between Korean and Japanese, some also with Chinese. Things like language for men and women, the lack of articles, and much more. Japanese in particular relies heavily on context, which is why it can be barely comprehensible to non-natives. I always thought it was a nation of mind readers!

     
  • I wonder why you say Japanese swear words are not really equivalent to English swear words because there is such a very limited sphere in which one would hear them. Might that merely suggest a stronger taboo against using such words in “polite” circumstances (or a larger sphere that is considered polite for such purposes)? If someone *were* to say such words on the street, would passers-by be shocked or uncomfortable? I would say I am surprised by the combination of the red-light district and anime comprising the spaces where such words can be heard. Are they the same words that could be heard in either sphere but nowhere else? Thank you very much for what you’ve told us and for any answers to my questions you may provide.

     

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