The Many Meanings of Yabai in Japanese

The word ヤバい (yabai) is used so often by young Japanese people that many of them might struggle to explain what it means in English. While this makes it a volatile and useful word, ヤバい (sometimes written as やばい or ヤバイ) is challenging to translate. In this article, we’ll peek into the word’s history and explore its many nuanced meanings. Let’s get started!

 

When Did People Start Saying ヤバい?A man shot from the waist down. He is wearing a white long sleeve shirt and black pants, and he is holding an samurai style of short sword in his right hand.

Even though the origin of yabai is a mystery, there are varying theories about the history of the word ヤバい. The most commonly agreed-upon explanation is that it originated in Japan’s ancient underworld. That’s right; ヤバい was a word probably created by thieves and scammers in the Edo Period. It might have then moved into the law-abiding vernacular and become a phrase used to warn common folk about thieves and scammers. In those days, “ヤバい” meant ill-mannered, improper, or even unsafe.

ヤバい become a common word used by young people in the 1980s. It had a definitively negative implication, usually meaning bad, gross, or dangerous. However, just like the English expression “bad,” ヤバい also shifted into a word that could be, well, bad and good.

This happened in the 90s when the next generation of young people tweaked ヤバい to mean something more like crazy, awesome, or cool. Either way, it maintained its role in relatively hip and youthful Japanese vernacular; older Japanese people don’t often use ヤバい unless they’re talking about something dangerous.

 

What’s the Kanji for ヤバい?A picture of someone's hand about to take one of two calligraphy brushes resting on a small stand on the table. In the backgroud there is a small white dish filled with black ink and a red paper with Chinese characters written on it.

The word ヤバい is always written in either katakana or hiragana. Unbeknownst to even most Japanese people, however, ヤバい does a kanji! Holding true to its roots, the old kanji for ヤバい was written like so:

危い

That’s the kanji used in modern Japanese for 危ない (abunai), meaning danger. It’s no longer used to write ヤバい, so we recommend avoiding using kanji for this particular word.

 

6 Different Meanings of ヤバい

So, what does ヤバい mean? Let’s look at the different meanings of yabai. The definition will change depending on when and why you say ヤバい!

 

 1.  DangerousA cartoon illustration of a businessman was attacked by swarm of angry bees (to the left of the image). The man is wearing a long sleeve white shirt, black pant trousers, and a red tie.

In line with its original kanji, ヤバい can refer to something dangerous or unsafe. If you’re trying to warn someone about a danger or possible problem, you can shout, ヤバい!

Examples:

  1. “Look out! It’s a hornet!” “ヤバい!スズメバチだ!!” (Yabai! Suzume bachi da!)
  2. “Those waves are dangerous!” “あの波がヤバいぞ!” (Ano nami ga yabai zo!

 

2.  Crazy / Weird (Negative Meaning)A young Asian girl with long purple and blue hair, dressed in a white and blue outfit. The blue part of her outfit has a bow tie by her neck. She has her right hand on the side of her right temple, with her mouth open to express shock or surprise.

Young people like to call things they don’t like or understand “crazy.” It’s the same in Japan! You can sometimes hear kids using this word to talk about their parents or friends—and it’s not always a compliment.

Examples:

  1. “My mom yelled at me today. She’s crazy, man.” “今日、お母さんに怒られた。あいつヤバいよ、マジで。” (Kyou, okaasan ni okorareta. Aitsu yabai yo, maji de.)
  2. “You failed the test? That’s crazy!” “えっ、試験落ちたの?ヤバいじゃん!” (E, shiken ochita no? Yabai jan!

 

3.  OMG! / Oh No!A woman wearing jeans hold a beige bang is seen in the background, walking away from a red wallet left on a bench.

ヤバい is often used as a general expletive (although no particularly foul-mouthed). It usually comes at a moment of unpleasant realization. If you locked your key in the car, stepped in dog poop, or left the oven on back home, you might be saying ヤバい! when you realize what went down.

Examples:

  1. “Crap! I left my wallet at home!” “ヤバい!財布を家に忘れてしまった!” (Yabai! Saifu o ie ni wasurete shimatta!
  2. “OMG, I stepped in chewing gum!” “やべー、ガムに踏んだ!” (Yabee, gamu ni funda!

 

4.  AmazingA girl on the edge of a cliff overlooking the green nature and a body of water below. The girl is wearing a white tank top and jean shorts, and has both of her hands raise up above her head.

On the positive side of things, yabai is often used to describe things that are “Amazing! Super! Great!

Examples:

  1. “This pasta is super good!” “やばっ!このパスタ美味しい!” (Yaba! Kono pasuta oishii!
  2. “Amazing! He just hit a home run!” “ヤバい!ホームラン打った!” (Yabai! Hoomuran utta!

 

5.  Wow!Two young Asian woman looking at a cellphone while holding a bunch of green and pink shopping bags. They looked suprised.

We mentioned before that ヤバいcan be used as an expletive. It can also be used as an exclamation of general delight or a positive surprise. You would be just as likely to say ヤバい!if you found an unexpected 20-dollar (or 2,000 yen) bill in your pocket as you would be if you forgot your homework.

Examples:

  1. “Whoa! I found a four-leaf clover! It’s my lucky day!” “ヤバい!四つ葉のクローバー見つけた!ラッキー!” (Yabai! Yotsuba no kuroobaa o mitsuketa! Rakkii!
  2. “Holy crap! My friend is pregnant!” “やばっ!同級生が妊娠したみたい!” (Yaba! Dokyuusei ga ninshinshita mitai!

 

6.  Crazy (Positive Meaning)A young Asian couple. The man is embracing the woman from behind, holding and showing her a ring in a red box. The woman is holding the man on his shoulder, while smiling at the ring. The woman is wearing a pink outfit and the man is wearing a long sleeve grey shirt.

Crazy is a word that can be good or bad, which makes it a great translation of the word ヤバい. For example, if you got engaged, that would be “crazy” in an ecstatic way.

Examples:

  1. “I got engaged! Crazy, right?” “婚約した!ヤバいでしょう?” (Konnyaku shita! Yabai deshou?
  2. “I got a perfect score on all my tests!” “You’re crazy, dude!” “テストで全部百点取った!” “お前、ヤバいじゃん!” (Tesuto de zenbu hyaku ten totta! Omae, yabai jan.

 

Different Ways to Say ヤバい (Yabai Variations)Three young Asian women sitting at a table eating hot pot. The woman in the middle is holding a smartphone, which all three of them are looking at and smiling.

You may have noticed in some of the examples that ヤバい isn’t always spelled or pronounced the same way. Here are some fun and hip ways to shorten or emphasize the word.

 

1.  ヤバくない?(Yabakunai?)

ヤバくない? is an often rhetorical question form of the word ヤバい. In English, it could be translated as, “That’s crazy, right?”

 

2.  ヤバ過ぎる (Yaba Sugiru)

If ヤバい isn’t strong enough to fully explain how crazy or amazing the situation is, you can say “ヤバ過ぎる!” This means, “That’s too crazy!” in English.

 

3.  めっちゃヤバい/めっちゃくちゃヤバい (Meccha Yabai/Mecchakucha Yabai)

Again, if the word ヤバい needs even more emphasis, this is a good addition. “めっちゃ” means very, totally, or extremely, so saying, “めっちゃヤバい” is the same as saying something like, “Super awesome/crazy!” in English.

 

4.  Shortened/Elongated Versions of ヤバい

These are just vocalized nuances of the word itself:

  • やばっ!(Yaba!)
  • やべー (Yabee)
  • やべっ!(Yabe!)

Saying these forms of ヤバい puts an exclamation point on its meaning (That’s CRAZY! vs. That’s crazy).

 

Thank you for reading!

What’s something that you think is ヤバい right now? Which nuance of the word is it? Let us know what you think. Thanks for reading this article about the Japanese word ヤバい and its many nuances and meanings!

 

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