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Sarcasm does not translate well in Japan!

This entry was posted by on Saturday, 10 December, 2005 at


Sarcasm does NOT translate well in Japan. Be aware of this fact when you venture out in this country trying to be “funny” !! I am not joking when I say this, but deadly serious. There are extremely few situations where you can get away with sarcasm and your intent and meaning actually is understood by the recipient!

Sarcasm illustrated

I will give a very simple example, and I am not kidding around when I write this, even basic sarcasm such as I will display below DOES NOT translate in 9 cases out of 10!

It’s a cold gray day, rain is pouring down outside. You say to your (Japanese) co-worker:

– Oh, LOVELY weather today, isn’t it!? (今日は素晴らしい天気だな~! “Kyo wa subarashii tenki desne!”)
– Huh? What do you mean? I don’t really like rain! (え?どういう意味?僕は雨があまり好きじゃないけど! “Eh? Do yu imi? Boku wa ame ga amari suki janaikedo!”)

he replies while thinking “Strange foreigner…”

– No, no, no. That’s not what I meant, I meant…..ah…forget it!

I kid you not. This is what the conversation would be like. And now don’t get me wrong, I don’t credit this to stupidity, ignorance, or any language barrier. This is simply a cultural wall. The Japanese language, in itself, is so ambigiuous and vague that direct sarcasm simply does not fit. There are lots of situations where Japanese people say one thing and means another, but that is hardly sarcasm – that is simply the way polite conversation works here.

On the other hand, there are a FEW situations where you can get away with sarcasm as I’ve learned recently. However, I think it only works if you’re female! You see, women in general are not really allowed to be rude or angry and can definately not curse in public. So if some rude old “ojisan” (old man) rushes in front of you onto a train or bus or any similar situation where you’ve been blatantly ignored or offended, you may use sarcasm to get back at him – AND IT WILL TRANSLATE FINE! Such is the magic and mystery of the Japanese language! I will give you a quick example:

You are standing on a train platform, patiently waiting in line to get on the train. At the last minute a smelly old man squeezes ahead of everyone onto the train. Then you can say:

ご親切に! (“goshinsetsuni”)
あら~、失礼しました! (“ara~, shitsure shimashita!”)

The first phrase really means “Why, how kind of you” and the second means “Oh, excuse me” but said with a certain dry intonation (very important) and a dry look (also important), you’re meaning will be understood by everyone around you (and everyone except the old guy will chuckle inside).

Hopefully this simple warning and small tips can be of some use to you in your everyday life!!

12 Responses to “Sarcasm does not translate well in Japan!”

  1. stu

    thanks for the tips!
    regards sarcasm, I have had some trouble with coworkers from america understanding me. I’m not sure if it’s the person or the culture.

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