In my last year at Montana State University, I had an open space in my schedule, and decided to fill it with something that had always interested me but had nothing to do with my chosen major: the Japanese language. This spur-of-the-moment choice resulted in a year of study in Japan, a further year of work as English teacher there, and a continuing fascination with the language (even as my skills atrophy with disuse.) One thing stood out to me in my studies, and I intend to explore it here.
I’m sure that people who study English as a second language are impressed with the florid variety of swear words available. I will refrain from recounting any here, but I’m sure the reader can think of dozens of examples without much effort. Young people garnish their conversations with them, popular movies are filled with them, and skilled use of them can propel someone to a position of prominence among friends. Mastery of swear words is a vital prerequisite to a true mastery of English.
I was surprised, therefore, to learn that there are very few comparable swear words in Japanese. Further, what few swear words exist are mild enough to be said frequently in children’s cartoons. The best example, and one with which students of Japanese are probably familiar, is くそ(kuso), meaning roughly “poop.”
Why so few swear words (especially considering that the similar language Korean is peppered with them)? Allow me the attempt to take you through my theory on the matter.
One thing students of Japanese notice early is the language’s many politeness levels. When speaking to someone unfamiliar, or to someone higher on the strictly regimented social scale, one must speak polite Japanese. Speaking plain, casual Japanese in such a situation would be taken as an insult. When speaking to close friends or family, one must speak casual Japanese. In fact, if the conversation partner is very close, polite Japanese may be seen as an insult, or at least as rather silly.
What cleared up the swear word question for me was the realization that such politeness levels are not unique to Japanese. English has them too, though they may be more subtle. Almost no one speaks to a person they have just met, particularly an older person, or a boss or political leader, the sme way they speak to close friends. And therein lies the explanation.
When speaking to close friends in English, especially among young people, profanity is not uncommon. Use of profanity by close friends is often a way of cementing bonds, of establishing the comfort people within an in-group feel with each other. In this sense, profanity is an important part of casual English.
Japanese does not need elaborate profanity, because its regimented politeness levels provide a casual vernacular for closely-knit in groups to use. English has no such politeness levels, and so profanity provides one way for in groups to express their familiarity.
Finally, this idea raises an interesting question. Many older Japanese people complain that young people are forgetting the traditional ways, and among them the most polite forms of speech. As these forms of speech are forgotten, and the differences between polite and casual Japanese fade, will stronger forms of profanity evolve to fill the void? Time will tell.