In my post about Japanese words to express laughter, reader “Taeko” asked how to say 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) in English. I just got around to taking a look – I had never heard that expression before.
This question led me down a fun rabbit hole of Japanese language excitement! So fun in fact, that I thought I’d share…
If you look up 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) in an online dictionary, you’ll get something like “laughing drunk”. I think most will agree that this expression has negative connotations in English.
The meaning of 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) is basically someone who seems to be smiling and laughing all the time. It’s not an inherently negative thing to call someone, in fact the vast majority of the time the phrase is used in a positive sense. Of course, if the person is so jolly that they are incapable of being serious even when the situation demands it, then it could be an insult, but this is type of usage would be a rare exception and not the norm.
If you check a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will see that there is one other definition of 笑い上戸 (warai jyougo) as well.
“To have a habit of laughing excessively when drunk. Or, someone who does so.”
So it seems that the online dictionary creators got caught up in the literal Japanese meaning when trying to find a good English translation.
We’re not done yet!
You may be wondering what the Kanji 上戸, which literally means “up” and “door” have to do with drinking or laughter.
上戸 (jyougo) refers to someone who drinks a lot of alcohol – someone who can hold their liquor if you will.
下戸 (geko) refers to someone who, well, doesn’t. Like the guy who turns bright red after their first few sips of sake. Second sip they’re likely flat out on the table.
I looked up 下戸 on this handy gogen website that explains the roots of Japanese phrases. It explains that there were actually four categories of 戸 in the Ritsuryo system of law in ancient Japan. 「大戸・上戸・中戸・下戸」 下戸 being the lowest class. These “classes” were categories used to classify families for things like tax purposes. Your “class” would be determined based on the value of your assets, and number of people in your family.
Wait. The alcohol connection is coming.
Now, when one gets married, depending on the “class”, they would bring a particular amount of sake to the wedding party. If your house was 上戸, you would bring 8 bottles of sake. If your house was 下戸 you would bring 2 bottles of sake to the party. So, it follows that people who could drink a lot of sake came to be known as 上戸, and those who couldn’t drink a lot were known as 下戸. Makes sense huh?
Learn how to hold your Sake.
<Flaming blowfish sake from an older JapanNewbie post>