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Strong Arm of the Lawless

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To “strong-arm” someone, we use threats or intimidation to coerce that person into doing what we want. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say “we.” I like inclusiveness, but I’m not sure “we” serves me too well here. (I also like to be a bit more discreet about my use of threats and intimidation.)

Turns out, the Japanese also “strong-arm” people to get their way. That is, the kanji for “threaten, coerce, intimidate” contains a strong arm, or several:

(KYŌ, odo(su), odo(kasu), obiya(kasu): to intimidate, threaten, coerce)

Although (RYOKU, chikara) now means “power,” it originally represented a bulging bicep. Henshall says that in means “strong arm” or “strength.” The tripling of is for emphasis, indicating great force or pressure. (Actually, Henshall didn’t say “tripling.” He said “trebling,” bringing to mind the very unthreatening treble clef.) Meanwhile, means “flesh.” So originally referred to putting great pressure on someone’s body. Now, the associated figurative meaning of “to threaten, coerce” has taken over entirely.

It may seem completely logical that this configuration of components would have a forceful meaning, but just think back to last week, when we saw that (waki) meant “side.” Same components, same radical, but a vastly different result.

Even when you pile three pumped-up arms on top of a flesh radical, you don’t necessarily get just one result. In fact, has three types of meanings:

1. to intimidate, threaten, menace
2. to jeopardize, endanger, imperil
3. to startle, surprise

I have lots of sample sentences to share, in hopes of illuminating these meanings. So where shall we start—by intimidating, endangering, or startling others? I’ll take back what I said about being discreet! I’m suddenly enjoying this sadistic power trip!


Weapons of Intimidation

Remember the board game Clue? Colonel Mustard used the lead pipe in the library to commit the murder…. If we’re going to become experts in intimidation, we need to know which weapons we have at our disposal. Let’s start with this compound, which serves as the basis for several weapons:

(kyōhaku: threat, intimidation, menace)
     to threaten with force + to force

From this word we derive the following tools of intimidation:

脅迫状 (kyōhakujō: threatening or intimidating letter)
     to threaten with force + to force + letter

The last kanji means “situation” in 状況 (jōkyō: situation, circumstances, situation + conditions), so I’m surprised that it means “letter” here. But it can indeed have that meaning, as in 年賀状 (nengajō: New Year’s card, year + to congratulate + letter).

脅迫電話 (kyōhaku denwa: threatening phone call)
     to threaten with force + to force + electricity + talk

Sample Sentence About Telephone Threats …

脅し取る (odoshitoru: to extort (money), blackmail)
     to threaten + to take

Oh, while you’re at it, I suppose you’ll need to embrace your identity as an intimidator. Here’s your new description:

脅迫者 (kyōhakusha: person making threats; intimidator)
     to threaten with force + to force + person


Issuing Threats

Did you notice that I shifted away from “we” again and laid the blame squarely on you? That’s partly because the idea of intimidation, threats, and so on makes me queasy. However, I do like that Japanese sentences about intimidation are fairly simple, grammatically speaking. With just a few additions to our vocabulary, we can speak about all sorts of dastardly deeds. Here’s the main word we need:

脅す (odosu: to threaten, menace, intimidate)

I’ll supply a few more words and then two English sentences. See if you can figure out how to say them in Japanese. Answers are at the link below.

見知らぬ (mishiranu: unknown, strange)     to see + to know

Great word! The (nu) at the end makes this negative. So a stranger is someone you’ve never seen before and don’t know.

Translation challenge: A strange man menaced her with a knife.

火を点ける (hi o tsukeru: to ignite, set fire to)
     fire + to light on fire

Translation challenge: She threatened to set our house on fire.

Answers to the Translation Challenge …

The verb 脅す (odosu) has a noun form, 脅し (odoshi: threat, menace, intimidation). This, too, can be a most useful weapon in our arsenal. Take, for instance, the following sentence:

Kare no odoshi wa tannaru jōdan ka to omotta.
We thought his threat was merely a joke.

(kare: he)
単なる (tannaru: mere, simple)
冗談 (jōdan: joke)     useless + talk
(omo(u): to think)

It’s hard to know with threats, isn’t it? Next you’ll see the opposite situation, where someone perceived a threat in what might have been just a joke:

Watashi wa kare no kotoba o kyōhaku to kaishita.
I interpreted his remark as a threat.

Breakdown of the Kanji


Endangering the Peace

All this intimidation is disruptive, to say the least. But also factors into words that can cause upheaval on a much larger scale. Consider these sentences:

Byōki wa jinrui ni totte kyōi de aru.
Disease is a threat to human beings.

病気 (byōki: disease)     illness + vital energy
人類 (jinrui: humankind)     human being + kind
脅威 (kyōi: threat, menace)
     to threaten + to threaten with force

Both characters here can have the kun-yomi forms of odo(su), odo(shi), and odo(kasu), though those kun-yomi are no longer used for . The compound 脅威 features the on-yomi of both kanji.

Kazan no bakuhatsu ga sono mura o obiyakashita.
The volcanic eruption threatened the village.

火山 (kazan: volcano)     fire + mountain
爆発 (bakuhatsu: explosion, detonation, eruption)
     to explode + to put forth
(mura: village)
脅かす (obiyakasu: to threaten)

The yomi of the verb in the second sentence alerts us to one tricky aspect of ; as 脅かす, it can be read as either odokasu or obiyakasu. There’s an important difference. Obiyakasu refers to abstract or inanimate threats (e.g., a volcano’s threat to a village), whereas odokasu applies when a person threatens another person. Fortunately, people often write obiyakasu in kana, which helps readers know the yomi.


Giving Someone a Fright

Odokasu also figures into sentences about startling people (or cats):

Odokasuna yo!
What a start you gave me!

A more direct translation would be, “Don’t frighten me!” The na is a negative imperative, and it’s a strong one. The addition of yo softens it. Incidentally, I’ve never connected this kind of “start” with “startle,” but I realize now that they’re related.

Kanojo wa neko o odokashite oiharatta.
She scared away the cat.

彼女 (kanojo: she)     he + woman
(neko: cat)
追い払う (oiharau: to drive away)
     to drive away + to drive away

Hope I haven’t scared you away with all these sentences! If you can take one more sentence, check out today’s quiz.

Verbal Logic Quiz …

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