Swearing in Japanese

Posted on 13. Aug, 2011 @ 2:17 pm by in Culture, Language Views: 13,252

Come on, admit it. The first time you started learning Japanese you wanted to learn all the swear words. There’s no shame in that, I did too. But now that you know a few, and you’re a bit more geek, you want to know what they really mean and where they came from, right!? Maybe you already know this stuff, but for the sake of writing a somewhat informative blog post, I’m gonna tell you again.

First, let’s look at a particularly “bad” Japanese word, 畜生 (chikushou). This is normally translated as “DAMN!”

So where does this term come from? Let’s break down the characters first.

The first character 畜 means “beast” literally. As in, a bird, or some beast that crawls on the ground. It is used in some regular Japanese words, like 家畜 (kachiku) which basically means “cattle.”

The second character 生 literally means, “to be born.” This character is used in the verb 生きる (ikiru) “to live” (like the Kurosawa movie of the same name) and in 生まれる (umareru) to be born.

So, “beast” “born” … Hrm, curious, what is this about?

First of all, let’s talk about the afterlife.

In Buddhism there are basically six worlds that you can be born into in the afterlife. The term for these six paths is 六道 (rokudou). The six worlds are as follows: 天道 (tendou), 修羅道 (shuradou), 人間道 (ningendou), 畜生道 (chikushoudou), 餓鬼道 (gakidou), 地獄道 (jigokudou). I’m no scholar of religion, in fact I have never really studied it, so I’m not going to get into the details of each level. Just know that 天道 (tendou) is basically heaven which is the ultimate goal, and each place gets progressively worse as you go down the list – all the way to 地獄道 (jigokudou) which is hell.

The 5th stage, 餓鬼道 (gakidou), is pretty interesting so I’ll share what I know about that.

My chinese teacher told me that in this 餓鬼道 (gakidou) stage (pronounced eguidao in Mandarin), you are born as a hungry ghost. The ghost has a thin neck and a huge stomach. So even though it is always hungry due to its huge belly, it can’t eat much because its neck is so thin. To make matters worse, everything it puts into it’s mouth turns to ash. Sucks to be a hungry ghost.

Hungry Ghost image, originally found here: http://pds.exblog.jp/pds/1/200706/27/14/c0111414_17354552.jpg
Hungry Ghost

Here is another image from the hungry ghost world. I found this image on this Japanese blog. Apparently this image is unique because it shows the hungry ghosts acting in the same world as the humans, which is uncommon as they are supposed to be separate worlds.

Hungry Ghosts

But you know what, being born into 畜生, the animal realm, isn’t half as bad as it is to be born as a hungry ghost. Hungry ghost is level 5, only one step away from hell itself, and the beast world is level 4.

When I told my Chinese teacher about 畜生, she was surprised and said. “Wow! Japanese are relatively considerate!” This is because 畜生 isn’t even the worst of the six levels. Why not curse people to be a 餓鬼 (hungry ghost) or just go all the way and wish them straight to hell?

Good question! I don’t know the answer!

Here is a definition of 畜生 from the 大辞林 iPhone Application. Also available for iPad btw… Highly recommended.

From 大辞林 for iPhone
From 大辞林 for iPhone

Well, now you can swear in Japanese a bit more knowledgeably!

If anyone has any further information about this topic, please share in the comments!

If you’re not sure how to pronounce 畜生, you can watch the video below… over and over again.

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  • Alexanderlastresort

    This is a very informative post*・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・’(*゚▽゚*)’・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*

  • http://asthebrushmoves.blogspot.com/ Richard

    From reading JWiki I think originally 畜生 meant something more like “You animal!” or “You beast!” which I think is slightly different (more direct) than damning someone to become an animal like you might damn them to hell. Later it changed from a specific swear word to a more all-purpose swear word, which is probably why it’s translated as ‘damn’.

    That article also says 畜生道 is another name for incest, which might also be mixed into the insult.

    It’s Wikipedia though, so not guaranteed to be true!

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%95%9C%E7%94%9F

  • Agnieszka ‘Mizuu’ Gorońska

    I’m gonna teach it to high school classes and up this year. Thank you very much!

  • Luke Schoen

    wait, am I reading this wrong? “being born as a hungry ghost isn’t half as bad as it is to be born into 畜生, the animal realm.” So it’s worse to be born into the beast realm than it is to be a hungry ghost? Doesn’t sound right…

    • http://twitter.com/JapanNewbie Harvey

      The hungry ghost is next to hell, so it’s worse than the animal realm. Did I write that backwards? Gonna check! – yup, I fixed it, I wrote it backwards. Thanks for pointing that out!

  • What_is_an_email

    I’ve seen/heard this word and other seemingly “bad words” used on broadcast TV on a regular basis. The only words that seem to bleeped over are the more vulgar words to describe the male penis and female vagina. Are you familiar with what can and cannot be said on broadcast TV in Japan?

  • BenjaminMartin

    Pretty interesting.  Since I don’t study Kanji as much as I should, I usually figure out the meanings of the individual Kanji faster than the reading/ meaning of the whole word.  Its a fun way to look at things.

    @morethingsJapan:disqus 
    http://morethingsjapanese.com

  • pandapants

    Im a buddhist and the realms are a little more complicated..some of these terms would be consider extremely rude and hurtful to alot of japanese people..especially buddhists. Maybe not so much as an actual swear word in english but etiquette and being polite is considered a given when in Japan. Along those lines, telling a Buddhist to be born in an animal realm or as a hungry ghost could blow over equally as dropping the F-bomb. Specially throwing religion into the face of someone by conversation would show how ignorant you are, wouldn’t advise you to say it to a monk. This article was helpful…but not exactly what everyone is most likely looking for.

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