Compared to English, Japanese people’s capacity to use expletives—especially toward other people—doesn’t have the same offensiveness. It’s usually not a single word or phrase that conveys the meaning, but the delivery and tone of speech that reveals one’s intentions.
There are, of course, some words that are considered “naughty” on their own, such as kuso (s*t), chikusho (damn) and you could also call someone baka or aho *(idiot) to curse or use insults. There’s more to Japanese than the vocabulary, however, when it comes to communication, and that is the level of formality in the language used—especially when it comes to profanity.
As a native Japanese speaker, I would say that “watching your mouth” means knowing what type of speech you should use and when it’s most appropriate to use it.
Keigo and tameguchi
There are two types of speech in Japanese: the formal and the informal.
Formal speech, such as keigo (honorific language), is usually what those studying Japanese learn first in textbooks. However, the exaggerated speech they hear or read in Japanese popular culture—like anime, manga or movies—sounds completely different and is rarely used in real life. Thus, it’s hard to get a sense of swearing, or the use of “bad language,” compared to English usage.
Honorific keigo Japanese shows respect and politeness to strangers, seniors and anyone in higher social positions. Age plays a significant role in Japanese society, and you can easily make someone frown by using the condescending tameguchi form, the casual language used among people of the same age.
When tameguchi is used by a person speaking to someone younger, it’s usually considered OK even when they are meeting for the first time, but it’s a big no-no when the situation is the other way around. Some people use a mixture of keigo and tameguchi to express affection or willingness to be closer and more open to the person they’re addressing.
For example, when I talk with my close colleagues at work, I sometimes say things like, “Onaka-suita. Ohiru-ikimasenka?” (I’m hungry. Can we go for lunch now?). My first sentence is a blunt statement, but the second sentence is a question in keigo.
Most people would probably use keigo if they expect a response from the other person, but they might use informal speech to make statements or comments about something. Thus, language varies greatly in relationships depending on how well people know each other and whether each party agrees to be treated in the way they are.
For swearing, the switch between keigo and tameguchi is one way you can make a Japanese person feel uncomfortable. However, when a foreigner uses tameguchi, almost all Japanese people take it as a type of “error” in the use of the language, so it doesn’t give them the intended attitude.
When you take the plain form of Japanese and make it sound a bit vulgar, you might be able to get close to “swearing.”
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