Japanese Slang

The spread of Japanese slang

Japanese culture is best known for its quiet politeness and strict adherence to tradition. From the proper way to wear a kimono to the manner in which one offers even a simple “thank you,” there is a strong sense of structure and ritual that seems to be part of every aspect of Japanese society.

And while that is often very true, there are nevertheless many layers to life. We don’t always speak or express ourselves in the grammatically perfect or polite ways that language textbooks like to promote. In fact, the Japanese are particularly fond of playing with language, in large part thanks to the versatility and nuance that their writing systems naturally provide. Very often, this results in clever and playful combinations of kanji, kana, and English, where a conventional phrase is twisted wryly or turned entirely on its head in a way that captures contemporary social attitudes. And as a form of expression, Japanese slang has proven itself to be incredibly dynamic and adaptable.

As social media and digital messaging platforms have gained an unprecedented level of popularity and engagement across all sectors of our increasingly global society, the changes to language have been rapid, and what would have remained isolated pockets of slang within one community have instead crossed over cultural, linguistic, and national boundaries and reached people they never would have in the earlier days of social media.

Of course, this hasn’t happened without causing a lot of problems.

A dictionary for the digital generation

With the anonymity and social distance that comes with communicating online—from sending tweets and sharing memes to posting comments on video-sharing sites like Niconico Douga and Youtube—has come a rise in many people’s unfortunate confidence to use offensive and derogatory phrases in public spaces. Naturally, racism and sexism are not exclusive to the internet or social media, but these are the places where such language is now most commonly encountered. And that is why this dictionary exists: to help learners of Japanese to better understand the context of what they hear and read, especially in informal spaces where slang is the dominant form of expression. And with this knowledge, perhaps those learners will be more mindful of the language they use and share themselves.

To be honest, Japanese Slang contains a lot of really awful words. And with it comes a responsibility for the reader to treat this knowledge with maturity. The words we use have consequences: they can anger, disparage, upset, or worse—they can cause all sorts of real harm, and often with alarming ease. We live in an age when the whole world is intimately linked through our personal devices: our words can travel around the globe at the press of a button, with the potential to be read by millions of people. By providing this vocabulary as a resource for learners of Japanese, the intention isn’t to encourage the reader to use these words. A lot of them should never be used by anyone: some are racist, some are sexist, and some are just extremely rude. But they do exist, and I think that being aware of them is more constructive than quietly turning a blind eye or leaving students to parrot words that they read online and think are funny, many of which would raise eyebrows in broader society—if not tempers.

Luckily, not everything is doom and gloom. While some of the slang contained here is derogatory or rude, the rest of it is a normal part of casual Japanese, overflowing with charm, cultural insights and snarky takes on popular culture. These phrases are fascinating, fun, and often extremely eye-opening for students whose exposure to Japanese has been limited to the classroom and to nice, polite grammar books.

The language here is not polite, and you won’t be taught it in a classroom. It’s raw Japanese that lives in the wild, and I hope you find it valuable.

– Maki Hayasaka

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4 thoughts on “Japanese Slang

  1. Avatar
    Kayla says:

    I was in Tokyo earlier this year, and the subcultures were really cool and interesting, especially in some of the more alternative areas. And the language often felt so different from what I learned in class.

      • Avatar
        Kayla says:

        A bit of everything, but particularly the alternative scene really interested me. It’s such a contrast between ultra-modern and super traditional fashion. Enjoy your visit – I’m sure you’ll love it. Spend some time in Harajuku if you can!

        • Avatar
          Danielle J. says:

          Thanks! I’m super excited to finally go there. I’ll be in Tokyo for about a week, so I’ll check out Harajuku, for sure.

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