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Thursday, March 27, 2008




You don’t need to live in Japan long to hear the word abunai (ah-boo-NIGH), or “risky,” “dangerous,” “hazardous,” or, as an exclamation, “Look out!”. It is used for:

- (potentially) unsafe situations: Mado kara atama o dasu nante - abunai yo! (“Sticking your head out the window like that is dangerous!”)

or, when followed by tokoro (or, “place”), for:

- “touch and go” situations: Jikan ga sematte kita yo ne. Abunai tokoro da yo! “Time’s run out on us, hasn't it. It’s touch and go if we’re going to make it.”
- “close call” situations: Sono torakku ni ga tsukanakute abunai tokoro datta yo ne! “Not noticing that truck, it was close call, wasn’t it!”, or,
Abunai tokoro desu ga, Tanaka-san wa tsuyoi hito dakara daijoubu desho.
"It’s too early to say, but Tanaka-san is basically strong, so I’m sure she’ll pull through."


A colorful phrase using abunai is abunai hashi o wataru, literally “to cross a dangerous bridge,” meaning to walk a thin line, live on the edge, play a dangerous game, play with fire, etc. An abunai kaisha is a “company on the brink”. Abunai me ni au, literally (but not very usefully) translated as “to meet a risky eye,” means “to be exposed to danger”.

Perhaps abunai is most often heard when kids are around. It is such a stock phrase to use on kids, from toddler-stage to junior high school age, that you will usually hear "Abunai yo!" called out by mom quite languidly without much sense of urgency in her voice whatsoever – more like a way of just reminding the kid that “Yes, I’ve got my eye on you.”

Abunai also has uses beyond its obvious function of alerting people to danger or expressing how dangerous something is. In Japan, perhaps more than in the West, it is the universal fall back, the ultimate means of appeal, a socially acceptable excuse for getting what you want.

For example, this winter, one corner of a Perspex panel on the sides of the stairs up to my apartment came loose and was flapping and banging in the wind, regularly waking me up during the night. I rang up the apartment management the next day to explain. The person on the other end of the phone asked me if it was “abunai.” Being nothing more than a loose corner on a bottom corner on the panel (all the other screws seemed to be tight), I said that, no, it was just noisy. He responded immediately in quite high dudgeon as if I was wasting his time. I should have simply said that, yes, that it was abunai, in other words, a potential threat to the safety of all on my floor, instead of effectively asserting my individual “right” to peace and quiet, like a typical selfish Westerner!

Abunai to chanto iwanai to abunai yo! "You'll put yourself on the spot, you know, if you don't say it's abunai!"

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