A reaction is natural and automatic — if someone said something surprising, our first response would be somewhere along the lines of “are you serious?” or “really?” For native and fluent English speakers, we didn’t really need to consciously learn how to react — it just comes out naturally.
The Japanese people have a whole different way of reacting; actually, a couple of ways. If you’ve ever watched an episode of an anime or Japanese drama, you probably have heard at least one on this list. Some of them are pretty unique — so much that it’s pretty much part of the Japanese culture!
So without further ado, let’s dive headfirst into the top 10 common Japanese reaction phrases!
1. “Ehhhhhh?” (えーーーーー？)
I hear this everywhere — on the streets, at a restaurant, even in the ladies’ toilet! It’s pretty much the go-to reaction response to anything. Your friend told you she just got a new dress: “Ehhhh?” Your housemate cooked a big meal for everyone: “Ehhhhh?” You woke up late: “Ehhhh?”
As I said, it’s multi-purpose. It’s kind of like “really?” in English but with a bit of the shock factor — just a bit, like a sprinkle.
2. Uwaa! (うわ〜！)
The next on our list is “uwaa!” (うわ〜！) This expression can be translated roughly to “wow” in English. Unlike the first one, “uwaa” can’t really be dragged out too much — actually, I don’t think I heard anyone drag it out at all, rather the opposite: cut short, like “uwa-!” (うわー！)
Similar to how you would use “wow” in English, this reaction phrase is used when someone told you something surprising or amazing. It’s like you can’t believe what you heard, or something that someone did is impressive.
An example can be of a recent usage personally — when someone told me that they tried surfing for the first time this summer, and I was pretty amazed and surprised that I automatically reacted with “uwaa!”
3. Uso? (うそー？)
It’s a step up from “uwaa!” when it comes to the surprising factor. Let’s say your friend told you that they went swimming with sharks, does that sound believable? In English, you’d go, “nah, that’s not true. That’s definitely a lie.” In Japanese, you cut it short and just say, “uso?”
It’s like calling out someone for lying but in a joking way…in the form of a reaction. I guess that’s the best way of explaining this phrase.
4. Sugoi ne! (すごいね！)
Say “sugoi ne!” (すごいね！) when you feel happy for your friend or find something pretty great. It can be a reaction to someone speaking to you or just an exclamation if you see something randomly that caught your attention. The phrase actually consists of the word “sugoi” (すごい)to mean great and “ne” (ね) as an attachment at the end for a softer tone. You could leave the “ne” out as well.
For example, your friend just found out that she got a whole month off of work so she’s booking a spontaneous trip overseas! That sounds great, doesn’t it? React with “sugoi ne!” Then, she comes back from her trip with a beautiful tan and a new hairstyle — looks so good, right? Tell her that by saying “sugoi ne!”
This phrase can have a less positive impact depending on how you say it. Usually, it’s said with a cheerful tone, but if it’s not with it, it kind of sounds just a little bit sarcastic.
5. Suge! (すげー！)
Yup, you guessed it — “suge!” (すげー！) is the slang form of our previous reaction phrase. It takes the word “sugoi” and kind of change it to have a more masculine tone. Most of the time, “suge!” is used by guys rather than girls as they tend to avoid sounding harsh and risk being less feminine.
The way to use “suge!” is exactly the same as “sugoi ne”, so that’s pretty simple right?
6. Maji?/Majide? (まじ？/まじで？)
This one’s my personal favourite even though I don’t use it as often as I want to. “Maji?” (まじ？) or “majide?” (まじで？) — either way works, there’s actually no difference at all between the two — is kind of like saying “are you for real?” or “are you serious?” “Majika?” (まじか？) works just the same, too.
I’d say it’s a step up from “uso?” — when you really, really, really don’t believe something and is taken aback by surprise, you use “majide?” I feel like it has a cool ring to it — maybe just my gaijin (外人) ears not being used to it.
I was pondering whether this phrase is used by more guys or girls, but at the end of the day, I think it’s pretty much balanced. If it so happens that your guy friends say it more than your girl friends, that’s just coincidence and personal preference for the girls.
7. Honto? (本当？)
Remember out first phrase (“ehhhhh?”) and how I said it sort of roughly translates to “really?” It does, but “honto?” (本当？) actually translates to that meaning better. It’s like “for real?”
You can also say “hontoni?” (本当に？) which is pretty much exactly the same as “honto” — I’d say the only difference is that “hontoni” might have just, ever so slightly, a politer tone. “Hontoni” is like “really?” and “honto” is like “for real?” — see the tiny difference?
If you want to be polite, use the polite form of “honto desu ka?” (本当ですか？)
8. A-! (あー！)
Do you know that moment when you’re trying to remember something or your friend is telling you about something and you’re trying to recall it, and all of a sudden it popped in your head and you go, “oh I know, I remember!” — or somewhere along those lines.
“A—!” (あー！) is pretty much that reaction when you know what they’re talking about or you finally remembered the thing you were trying so hard to recall. Say your friend is going on and on about that one night where you both went out and got dinner: “remember that time when we ate pizza and drank all that beer?” After a ton of racking through the brain, you go, “A—! Yes!”
The “a—” is kind of cut off at the end — no elongation whatsoever.
9. Sounano? (そうなの？)
I feel like “sounano?” (そうなの？) has a polite tone to it as well. It’s like saying “is that so?” In English, saying that doesn’t come as often (or maybe it’s just me), but when it does, it’s usually when you’re speaking to someone who has a softer vibe to them or someone you’re not so familiar with.
There’s another way of saying this phrase and that is “sounanda?” (そうなんだ？) — pretty much the exact same thing; no different for guys and girls.
This reaction phrase is not too polite though, since the polite form of this phrase is “soudesuka?” (そうですか？)
10. Are? (あれ？)
Last but not least is “are?” (あれ？). No, it’s not pronounced like the plural form of “is” — it’s “ah-re”. I would use this when the opposite situation of “a—!”: when I forgot something that was practically at the tip of my tongue.
More commonly used is when you’re confused at what you just heard — maybe your friend is telling you about how much they love cats but you actually thought they loved dogs: “Are—? Don’t you love dogs more than cats?”
Phew — that was a tough one trying to explain the reaction phrases. I hope the examples clarified any confusion, but if not, send our way a couple of “あれ？” so you’re making it clear that you’re quite jumbled up there. Anyway, for those that you did catch, try using them the next time you’re talking to a Japanese friend — or any friend, for that matter!