Japanese people have a reputation for being unfailingly polite, pragmatic, honorable, and so on.
That reputation is partially based in Japan’s guest culture. However, it also has to do with racist stereotypes of Japan and Japanese people that have been given free reign in newspapers, movies and other cultural institutions in Europe and America for decades.
Because of these preconceptions, it might be hard to imagine Japanese people being sarcastic or mean-spirited.
Indeed, people on the Internet can commonly be found saying things like “Japanese people are too polite to understand sarcasm. It just doesn’t exist in their culture.”
You might also see people ask “Why don’t Japanese people understand sarcasm?” or “Why doesn’t sarcasm exist in Japan?”
Let’s bust those myths right now. Sarcasm is definitely a thing in Japan, and being on the receiving end of it can really hurt.
Does sarcasm exist in Japanese?
Yes, sarcasm exists in Japan. Japanese has two words for sarcasm: 皮肉 (hiniku) and 嫌味 (iyami). That alone should show it exists. In Japanese, like in English, sarcasm can be expressed by a mean tone of voice to show that a compliment is actually insincere.
However, Japanese people also use sarcasm by using inappropriate honorifics or being overly polite in an apparently sincere manner. Should you use Japanese-style sarcasm yourself? Probably not. Unless you’re really sure it will go over well, it can be incredibly rude and get you in serious trouble.
皮肉 (hiniku) and 嫌味 (iyami): two Japanese words for sarcasm
There are two words in Japanese which can be used to mean sarcasm.
The first, 皮肉 (hiniku), uses the kanji for “skin” and the kanji for “meat.” All the same, the meaning of the word is “sarcasm” or, in some cases, “satire” or “irony.”
Interestingly, the English word “sarcasm” also has its root in a word meaning “flesh.”
The word comes to us from the Greek “sark,” meaning flesh, and more directly from the Greek word “sarkazein,” meaning “to tear flesh.”
For 皮肉, it helps to realize that another meaning is “surface level.”
Because sarcasm operates in Japanese chiefly by the surface-level meaning of a word differing from your actual meaning, this word makes total sense as “sarcasm.”
The second word, 嫌味 (iyami), is the kanji for “hate” and the kanji for “flavor.”
This one is more straightforward. If the flavor of your words is “hate,” then they are pretty sarcastic.
Aptly, 嫌味 is also used for other types of hateful words, like when someone is being snide or just generally nasty.
皮肉 (hiniku) and sarcasm
皮肉 is used for run-of-the-mill sarcasm, and can also be used to refer to irony and general cynicism, as well as satirical literature.
There is a long tradition of sarcasm in Japanese culture, dating at least as far back as Sho Shonagon’s Pillow Book, a book about the foibles of the imperial court around the year 1000 CE.
Even during the Edo period, which is often described as a time of static social movement and reverence for the samurai classes, immensely popular comedic books like Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (called “Shank’s Mare” in English) ruthlessly tears apart the self-important nature of just about everyone in a very sarcastic way.
There is also a whole class of poetry which is essentially sarcastic haiku, called senryu after their creator Karai Senryu.
Here’s one of Senryu’s own poems:
it’s my own son
How’s that for sarcasm?
As noted above, this word can also mean that something is only on the surface.
嫌味 (iyami): cuttingly sarcastic
Unlike 皮肉, the word 嫌味 refers to truly brutal takedowns delivered in a sarcastic manner.
If you were to ask a teacher about a math question you didn’t understand, and he replies with “I can see why you don’t understand it, since we covered it three times in class already,” that would be a great use of 嫌味.
In short, while 皮肉 can be used for irony, and is the generally agreed-upon translation for “sarcasm,” 嫌味 represents a harsher, more cruel type of sarcasm.
Some other phrases you might use in English to describe 嫌味 include “cutting remarks,” “snide comments,” “mean-spirited” or even “put-down.”
We’ll take a look at some examples of both types of sarcasm, but first let’s take a little digression.
The differences in American-style and Japanese-style sarcasm
A common sentiment expressed by Americans who have tried using sarcasm with Japanese people is that it just doesn’t work.
This is the most likely culprit of questions like “Why don’t Japanese people understand sarcasm?” and “Why don’t they have sarcasm in Japan?”
The reason American-style sarcasm misses the mark in Japanese is not because sarcasm doesn’t exist in Japanese. Rather, it’s because sarcasm in Japanese culture is used for a different purpose.
For example, a consulting firm which deals with Japanese to English interpreting mentions a case where an American man called his Japanese co-worker a troublemaker in a joking tone and the Japanese man was deeply insulted.
A post on Bored Panda, likewise, shows how people’s sarcastic responses to a Japanese artist posting their work on Twitter led that artist to delete their account and start a new one.
Even though the sarcasm was meant in a way to mean something similar to “this is so good!”, that didn’t come through at all.
As those posts say, the reason has more to do with cultural differences than the lack of sarcasm in Japan.
In American culture, sarcasm (and its close cousin irony) can be used to give people a compliment without seeming overly sincere. It can also be used to try and lighten the mood by saying things like “Well, this will be fun” in bad situations.
American sarcasm (and English sarcasm too) serve to build a connection between two people.
Neither of those uses of sarcasm is standard in Japanese, where sarcasm is accomplished in almost the opposite manner: to insult people and show them you think little of them, you shower them with praise in the most formal, polite way imaginable or you use very formal language to sarcastically place them higher than you on the social ladder when the opposite might be true.
These two key differences are a double-whammy when it comes to trying out American-style sarcasm on Japanese people.
Because the cultural experience they have with sarcasm is that it is always used as an insult, they don’t think to look for any meaning other than the surface-level meaning.
Since on the surface the words are insulting or negative, a person only used to Japanese culture is going to assume they are actually intended to convey insult or hostility.
Just to reiterate, though, Japanese people and Japan definitely use sarcasm. Let’s look at some examples.
False praise and sarcasm
The most common way sarcasm is used in Japanese is by giving surface-level praise that is actually insulting.
This is very similar to how sarcasm is used by some women in the southern United States, where “Well, bless your heart,” “Aren’t you just the sweetest?” and other similar apparent praise, delivered in a seemingly polite way, actually means something closer to “I am embarrassed on your behalf that you thought this was a good idea and you are an idiot” or “What is wrong with you?”
In Japanese, you might seem to praise someone by calling them smart (偉い人, erai hito) when you think they are a ridiculous fool, or you might say something is amazing (凄い, sugoi) when you really think it is anything but.
This kind of sarcasm can be delivered in a way that makes it obviously sarcastic by changing your tone of voice, just as in English.
Alternatively, it can be delivered deadpan, especially if you are trying to really show your disdain of someone in a group setting or want plausible deniability.
You will often see this kind of sarcasm used in anime, especially when a character’s thoughts about someone are being used to show a contrast with what they are saying out loud.
“She said her husband is a con artist.”
“Wow, he must be smart.”
“I can’t believe we came here to see something this stupid.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
In these examples, it’s pretty clear that the responses are sarcastic, and not sincere.
These are pretty low-stakes, but it’s easy to imagine a case where the sarcasm might be used to seriously hurt someone’s feelings or otherwise make fun of them. In a formal setting, sarcasm might even have a serious effect on someone’s livelihood.
“Um, teacher, excuse me. You only gave me five points on this test…”
“You’re right, Tanaka. Since you worked so hard, how about I give you a zero instead?”
Unlike the other examples, which might be termed 皮肉, this is probably 嫌味 instead. Ouch!
Sarcasm and honorifics
Another way to indicate sarcasm is to add humble or formal keigo in situations that don’t warrant it.
For example, calling someone 先生 (“teacher,” sensei) or 様 (sama) in a mocking tone might suggest you think they’re full of themselves.
Breaking out the super-formal 「申し訳ございません。」 (moushiwake gozaimasen) instead of 「ごめん。」 (gomen) when apologizing can do the trick.
In fact, you can also refer to yourself in a sarcastically polite way if you someone makes fun of something without realizing you’re the one responsible for it.
“Woah! The artist for this painting is awful!”
“Yes, that would be me…”
“What the… Upper-classman, you got this question wrong.”
“Oh? Then show me how to do it properly, teacher.”
Sarcasm used this way doesn’t have to be insulting. In the second example, it might be light-hearted banter between friends.
But be careful and don’t do this unless you’re really close with someone and know they will expect and appreciate it.
Wait, so is this sarcasm or…?
So how can you tell if someone is trying to be sarcastic?
Just like in English, it’s sometimes hard. Also just like English, there are a couple of hints.
First, check someone’s tone of voice. Studies have shown that people use a lower pitch when they’re being sarcastic and may use other cues like elongated vowels or sighing.
Facial expressions are another good indicator that someone is being sarcastic.
When you get right down to it, though, part of the point of sarcasm can sometimes be that it provides a safe way for people to hide what they really think beneath a veneer of politeness.
If that’s the case, you may never know if someone was being sarcastic or sincere when they said “Good job!”
Why you shouldn’t try to be sarcastic in Japan
To recap, sarcasm in Japanese can be funny, especially in literary contexts like a book or manga.
More often, though, sarcasm is used to put people in their place.
This is why you shouldn’t try to use Japanese-style sarcasm when speaking to people in Japan unless you’re really sure it will be appreciated. Likewise, American-style sarcasm is almost guaranteed to fail.
Think of it like this: In an English conversation with a coworker you don’t know, would you jokingly call them a thief for using the company’s coffee maker twice in one day?
Probably not. That could lead to a huge misunderstanding and even get you in trouble.
Among close friends who all have a shared style of humor, though, it might be interpreted in a humorous way (although it’s still pretty messed up, to be honest).
Sarcasm in Japanese is a lot like that. Unless you really want to signal that you think your coworker is an absolute idiot who you can’t stand, you wouldn’t want to (for example) use extremely polite language while giving them an insincere compliment.
Of course, just like with English uses of mean-spirited phrases, it might be that you have a group of Japanese friends who appreciate this kind of humor.
Unless you know that for sure, though, it’s best to err on the side of caution and show your good humor in other, more culturally acceptable ways.