The meaning of kowai (怖い, 恐い) and how to use it

This article will give you all of the knowledge you need on the Japanese word kowai, including its Japanese definition and translation, example sentences, related expressions and more!

What does kowai mean?

Kowai (怖い/恐い, こわい) means scary or scared of in Japanese. This is a really common word that you will hear all the time in casual Japanese. By the way, don’t confuse kowai with kawaii (可愛い、かわいい) – that omnipresent Japanese word for all things cute!

There is a subtle difference in meaning between the two kanji with which kowai can be written. When written as 怖い, kowai refers to your personal feelings about being scared of something or someone.

Ano sensei ga kowai.
I’m scared of that teacher.

When written as 恐い, kowai stands for something that is inherently scary. In other words, it’s not just your opinion, it’s an objective statement!

Ano sensei ga kowai.
That teacher is scary.

You’ll be relieved to know that there’s no difference between the two in conversation. It’s only in writing where the above distinction comes into play. Knowing the difference would certainly impress a lot of people though (my fiancée didn’t know it!).

Interestingly, a common (but humorous!) mistake I see among Japanese people learning English is saying “I’m scary” when they want to say “I’m scared”. Simply put, this is because kowai can mean both things.

Let’s look at some examples of the two meanings of kowai.

Kowai meaning 1: Scared of

In Japanese, kowai takes on the meaning of both scary and scared of.

To make it easier for you, I have written each sentence in full Japanese kanji in the first line, followed by roman letters (romaji), and hiragana, with the English meaning coming last.

Boku wa hebi ga kowai.
I’m scared of snakes.

Tomodachi no okaasan wa sukoshi kowai.
I’m a little scared of my friend’s mother.

Kanojo wa shi ga kowai desu.
She is afraid of dying.

Iyada. Kowai!
Oh no, get that thing away from me! (Lit: No, I feel scared!)

Kowai meaning 2: Scary

In Japanese, kowai takes on the meaning of both scary and scared of.

Sono eiga wa hontou ni kowai ne.
That movie is really scary, isn’t it!

Kowakatta: I was scared

Kowakatta (怖かった、こわかった) is the past tense of kowai. You can use kowakatta to say I was scared. This is another useful word for conversations with your Japanese friends.

Watashi wa hajimete hikouki ni notta toki wa kowakatta.
I was scared the first time I rode an airplane.

Jishin de ie ga yurete totemo kowakatta.
I was really scared when the house shook during the earthquake.