What Does Baka Mean in Japanese – and Why You (Probably) Shouldn’t Use It

Posted by on October 23, 2020 – Japanese Study, Life in Japan
what is "baka" in Japanese?

Have you ever heard the word “baka” used in Japanese?  Do you know what it means?  If you are an avid anime viewer or you are living in Japan – you have most likely heard the word the word used quite frequently.  Maybe you’ve pieced together that “Baka” in Japanese is an insult of sorts – but what does it mean and where does it come from?

In this article we are going to look at the word “baka”, what it means, and why you probably shouldn’t say it!

Contents:

What Does “Baka” Mean in Japanese?

The Japanese word “Baka” ばか (sometimes written in katakana: バカ) basically means “fool” or “idiot”. Depending on the nuance, context, and tone of the speaker it can range from a playful “you dummy” – to an offensive insult heaped upon a man and his household.

Baka’s kanji are: 馬鹿. 馬 meaning “horse” (uma), and 鹿 which means “deer”(shika).  The exact reason for why these kanji are used is unclear – but there are some possible origin stories listed in the article below.

The exact genesis or etymology of this term is unknown, but tofugu has an article explaining several possible theories.  One of these suggests that it was used to refer to someone from a bankrupt family.  The implication here is that they are so stupid that they couldn’t NOT be bankrupt.

However, in the modern age, “baka” can also have more lighthearted uses – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be careful.

Next we will look at how and when to use – or not use – “Baka”.

How and When to Use (or Not Use) “Baka”: Examples of “Baka”

Do: Call Your Friends “Baka” Playfully (Sometimes)

OK. Here is an example of a situation where you can use “baka”: with your friends.

For example, maybe your friend is doing something stupid – like trying to catch a fish in a pond.  Ope, he/she slipped, now they are all wet.

ばか!

And then you help fish them out – because that’s what friends are for.  Very playful, very appropriate.

But you don’t want to overdo it.  Calling your friends “baka” too much might not be very nice, so you want to use discretion in how often you use this word.

Do: Use “Baka” Among Your Friends

“Baka” can also be used as a positive descriptor, like the English adjectives “extremely” or “ridiculously”.

For example, ばかうまい (baka umai) which can be translated as “ridiculously good” or “extremely delicious” depending on the context.

To use, just put “baka” ばか in front of a Japanese adjective to make it more extreme.  This is a very colloquial use of the word and should be limited to friends or family.

Don’t: Use “Baka” With Strangers

It probably goes without saying, but this one is an absolute “Don’t”.  Even if you think you are just joking around with someone you just meant – it’s probably not a wise idea.  They might even react with laughter on the surface – but more likely than not, that is merely tatemae. 

It is extremely offensive to use this word with someone you do not know.  So just don’t do it.

Don’t: Use “Baka” With Anyone “Above” You

This goes hand in hand with “Strangers” written above, but you should avoid using this word when talking to people higher up.  This includes bosses, supervisors, teachers, your father in law, etc.

Even if you want to use it as a descriptor, it’s probably better to opt instead for とても or めっちゃ (めっちゃ is the more casual) if you want to emphasize something.

Unless this is someone above you that you are REALLY close to – just avoid it.

What About “Aho”?

The insult “Aho” is similar to “Baka”.  It means “idiot” or “fool” like “Baka” does.  However, the usage actually varies by location a bit.  In the Kansai area (Kyoto/Osaka), “Aho” is used quite a bit – similar to how “baka” is used in Kanto (east Japan).

You can think of them almost like opposites: in Kansai, “Aho” is used frequently, and can be lighthearted or insulting, while “Baka” is thought to be a bit more harsh.

Meanwhile in Kanto (East Japan; greater Tokyo area), “Baka” is used more often and is more nuanced in its usage, but “Aho” is a bit stronger and not so frequently used.

Well that’s all!  Are we missing any details?  Let us know!

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