Japanese and Sarcasm

So, this morning I learned the word 皮肉, which means sarcasm or irony.

My question is this, Why is there a word containing Kanji for sarcasm or irony? From what I’ve researched, in general, the Japanese have no concept of irony or sarcasm. It doesn’t translate well and, as a whole, their country isn’t completely engulfed in a sarcasm cloud like ours is. They will take it seriously or literal, so you have to be careful what you say so you don’t confuse them or even worse upset them!

Why is this word not in Katakana? It just is a little confusing that this word is in Kanji and not foreign in any any way? Do you guys see what I’m saying? :woman_shrugging:


That word is also used in reference to cynicism. Presumably that’s why there are kanji for it? I’m not sure. I’m sure Japanese understand the concept of irony, anyway.

I’m sure someone else has a better explanation than that, though…


I haven’t researched it in depth, but the main issue in my experience is context. Japanese people don’t expect a sarcastic remark out of nowhere in normal conversation. If ironic or sarcastic humor is used in a comedy show, that’s another matter entirely.


I don’t know. I would be in a lot of trouble either way!

Sarcasm might not be as prevalent as, say, in the typical British comedy, but Japanese know what sarcasm is, and also make plenty of use of it.

Japanese are not aliens after all, and one should not think of them as being different when one is trying to understand their culture.


That’s all fine and well, but like I said, most Japanese don’t pick out sarcasm or irony well in the context of everyday conversation. There have been a number of misunderstandings between my girlfriend and me because of that :sweat_smile:


Most times these misunderstandings are due to a language barrier, rather than a cultural barrier.

And also not all people are the same. I have plenty of British friends who don’t get sarcasm.


Sure it depends on the individual too. But it’s just a well-known fact that Japanese tend to handle irony and sarcasm poorly - which is why basically ALL sources about Japanese culture warn foreigners about it.


They are not aliens and I am in no way implying that they are… But in every article I have read about communication, it has stated to stay away from it for the reasons I mentioned. In GENERAL, as a culture, it is not prevalent. It would be different, if you made some friends who possibly had the same sense of humor as you, but not with the average person.


Now that I think about it more, I think the main problem might be that “Westerners” are often not signalling irony or sarcasm very well… we can be pretty deadpan about it. That might be why Japanese tend to take us seriously by default.


Maybe they understand the concept of irony and sarcasm but the nuance in usage is different than in English. People are probably told “Japanese people dont understand sarcasm” because if you use it in a English translated into Japanese way (which is possibly an inaccurate translation to begin with) then everybody will take you literally because they are already trying to guess at what youre saying.

People in generally have the tendency to take everything said by someone non native literally unless theyre able to mimic a specific usage.


Yeah we are pretty deadpan. What I was reading said that Japanese view Americans as telling things honestly or how it is or being pretty straight forward which is true. I could see that being confusing…


We can agree to disagree, but for me this is another one of those “Japanese myths”, that I heard many times from foreigners, but not as much by japanese people themselves.

There’s a thread I saved for times like these. You can see it here. (https://www.reddit.com/r/japan/comments/7c2axa/do_the_japanese_have_irony_and_sarcasm/)

In particular, this is a link to an essay which examines how (what we perceive as) sarcasm is found in abundance in classical japanese literature

Anthony Chambers


If the delivery is the source of the confusion, I don’t think we necessarily disagree :wink:
That would certainly explain the warning to be careful as a foreigner.


Agreed to agree! :smile:


This thread you mentioned doesn’t really answer that question, though. I know they know what it is, but that doesn’t mean they use it in every day language or really at all. The question or discussion I wanted to have was about the origin of the word and its use of Kanji and not Katakana. Everyone knows what a phone or computer is, but it is still in Katakana. I’m not sure, maybe the history or explanation of the word? It’s hard to say.

Are those articles intended to be tips for communication for foreigners? Conveying humor in any second language is not easy, so its often easier to just suggest to avoid it.


There are words for computer and phone in Kanji though

That’s interesting, I havent seen those, but maybe they’ll be in WaniKani. I know in other places it is in Katakana.

The question is very interesting. Using the kanji for skin/hide and meat doesn’t really feel intuitive for me atm. It could also be that they’re used phonetically; there doesn’t necessarily need to be a connection via meaning.

That said, I don’t really understand why the word ‘should’ be in katakana. As was explained before by other users, the idea of irony/sarcasm is present in historical texts. So the idea that sarcasm is a newer concept in Japanese seems to be not as definitive as you may think. If anything, I would be surprised if there was only a katakana expression, based on history.

Btw, for phone, I believe there are multiple non-katakana words:
携帯電話, 電話 and 携帯 can all be used to describe some version of (mobile) phone.