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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Not so Secret Secrets of Japanese Language

Learning Japanese is already hard enough with all the vocabulary memorization, the grammar rules and the thousands of kanji characters you'll need to study. But all those things are just what's on the surface of learning Japanese. There's more to the Japanese language that some people may not realize. I'll be talking about those not-so-secret secrets you may hear about that can help you understand Japanese a little better. Many of these are well known but I'm going to talk about them for the people who are studying the language and may not know, and for those who may need a refresher, or for those of you who may know nothing about the Japanese language but are interested in learning.

Here we go!

No Sarcasm

That's right. The Japanese language has no sarcasm, at all. Not even a little. This concept can be hard to understand for English speakers because we always use sarcasm. We even use sarcasm on the internet sometimes, even though that's not the smartest of ideas. The Japanese language is very literal. If they wish to say something they will say it directly, not in a sarcastic way like English speaker are used to. If the Japanese language doesn't use sarcasm you may be wondering how they make jokes. Japanese comedians are like American comedians back in the 80's and 90's. They just think of really clever jokes and come up with really funny skits to perform. Sarcasm is also used for disdain sometimes, and for that you would just have to be straight forward in Japanese. 

No Cursing

This may be hard to believe since one of the first things people like to learn in a new language are curse words, but it's true. Japanese don't have curse words. You may have heard one used in anime called くそ kuso which means "shit." Like I explained in the above section, Japanese is a literal language so kuso means literal poop. Not very threatening, huh? That's why it stays in anime, it's not used in real life Japanese. There are other ways to speak negatively to someone in Japanese besides cursing. The Japanese language is all about formalities. You will learn in your Japanese classes or online courses that there are formal and casual ways of saying something, and using the wrong one on a person can be considered rude. This is true, and that is used by Japanese people when wanting to show negativity towards a person. A popular thing in the English language is to curse when you get hurt, but that concept doesn't exists in Japan either. In Japanese, you would just scream out or say いたい itai which means "it hurts."


This Japanese word has come into the English language as a fun way to say good-bye to someone. In Japanese, さよなら sayonara is not just a common good-bye. Sayonara has an indication of finality, like "that's it for us, it's over." It is used when you will never see that person again, ever. Some examples are: if you were dying, if you were breaking up with a boyfriend, or you would never see your friend again because they were moving somewhere faraway. So saying sayonara is not the greatest thing to do. Use it wisely.


These are two Japanese terms on how to speak to someone. Honne is saying what you really think. Tatemae is what you're actually saying. Remember earlier when I said the Japanese language is very direct in regards to there being no sarcasm? Well this is the exception to that directness I was talking about. In Japanese culture it is a standard to say and do things while thinking of others. This is where honne and tatemae come in handy. So honne is what you feel on the inside while tatemae is what you are saying for someone. Tatemae is for the benefit of others.
Honne is what you can say to people who are close to you. For example, your close friend asks you if her outfit looks good. If you are close enough to be 100% honest you can use honne, say what you're actually thinking. "No, that outfit doesn't suit you. Try another one on."
Tatemae is used for when you are not close to people. You may worry about what they may think of you because of what you said. Tatemae would be used for strangers, first dates and coworkers, people you want to make a good impression on. Same question, how does my outfit look? A tatemae reply would be "You look fine."
These two ways of speaking may come off as Japanese being insincere, but it is actually used to just make a good impression on someone. That is a very important aspect of life in Japan. 

I hope that this was an interesting lesson on the Japanese language for you all. Japanese is way more than just studying from a textbook. If you ever go to Japan you really need to keep these things in mind. Hopefully this was helpful with your Japanese studies, and if you're not studying Japanese then I hope this was entertaining for you.

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Thanks for reading! Until next time!