The One Word to Avoid in Japanese

And the positive result of doing it

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

One of the most common words in the English language is considered very rude in Japanese. Any idea of which one it’d be?

“You”

That simple and extremely useful word is one you never hear in Japanese. Of course, the term itself exists. You can say あなた、君、お前、貴様 or even てめえ. I’ve ordered those in order of how rude they are. The last ones, 貴様 and てめえ, are ones you’ll only see in anime. They are to be avoided above all else.

Yet, the other ones are also to avoid. They are very considered offensive.

Offensive! The action of saying “you” is considered bad-mannered. How are you supposed to talk to others then?

Japanese relies on context

In most situations, the subject is implied. Whether it’s to say “you” or any other pronoun, the context should be enough to understand what or who we are talking about.

However, when you’re starting a conversation, the context may not be well set yet. In such situations, there are pronouns available to use. Don’t use the ones for “you”.

In Japanese, the only solution to say “you” to someone is to say their name. If you are close to them, you may use their first name. If you aren’t you should use their family name followed by a polite suffix like “-san” (さん). Yes, their family name!

If you were to ask me “Where are you going?”, the question in Japanese would literally translate as “Barra-san, where to going?”

バラさんはどこに行きますか。

If you ask me in English “Where is Mathias going?”, I’d wonder for a second, thinking you might not be feeling well. In Japanese, I wouldn’t flinch and reply instantly. If you used one of the words for “you” in Japanese, I’d most likely get offended.

And so would every single Japanese speaking person.

Learning to refrain oneself from using “you” in Japanese is one of the hardest habits to set. After all, it’s such a common word that we don’t even think much before saying it.

The positive result?

Do you have trouble remembering names? Well, that worry should disappear when you start speaking Japanese. You have to use the other’s name instead of saying “you” so often, the simple repetition will help you cement your interlocutor’s name in your brain.

Sure, you can work around it by skipping the subject as the conversation unfolds, but you are bound to repeat it a number of times anyway.

I’ve always considered myself as awful at remembering names. I struggle with this to this day. But I do remember the names of those I speak to in Japanese. The Japanese people I speak to in English, it takes me a long time to remember their name. The others are remembered in no time.

Yet, I’ve noticed learning to use others’ names in Japanese has impacted how much I remember names in general. Overall, I can now remember names better.

Isn’t that a pleasant and weird bonus to learning Japanese?

What do *insert your name* think about not using the word “you”?


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Mathias Barra is a French polyglot, living in Japan, who speaks 6 languages and dabbled in numerous others.

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