Don’t worry, we’re going to tackle all of it.
Let’s start simple…
What’s the meaning of ara-ara in Japanese?
Ara-ara is a type of interjection, primarily used by youngish females to express some curious surprise and/or amusement. You could translate it as, “Oh-ho,” “tsk-tsk,” or “Hmm?” Another word with the same pronunciation means rough, rude, or harsh.
The meanings of ara-ara in more detail
So, there’s three words that share the same pronunciation of ara-ara in Japanese.
They also share the fact that they can be broken down into single utterances of “ara.” So, let’s take a look at each one, what it means, and how to write it.
We’ll end up exploring six very different words that are all pronounced “ara” inside the Japanese archipelago.
First, an interesting outlier!
The not-Japanese “ara” used in Japan!
Many people think of Japan as a wholly homogeneous society—same culture, same religion, same race, same language. But this assumption falls wide of the mark!
There are several different languages (including highly divergent dialects of Japanese) native to the lands that currently make up the nation of Japan.
One of those languages is Miyako, a linguistic offshoot of the Ryukyuan languages.
Ryukyuan languages are still spoken to some extent (over one million native speakers!), and mostly in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan.
In the Miyako language, ara is written in hiragana as あら and refers to the husk of a fruit.
A singular fish!
The niphon spinosus, aka the Sawedged perch is a fish that swims the waters from Japan all the way to the Philippines. In Japanese it’s known as ara. This word can be written in either hiragana or katakana as あら or アラ, respectively.
It’s also written in kanji as 𩺊.
That kanji is convenient for us, because it’ll lead us into our next word. Let’s break it down real quick first. The left side is just a squished 魚, the character for “fish.” The right side is 荒, a character that can mean “rough,” “rude,” or “wild.”
One word, two kanji
So, for our next “word,” we end up with a few different definitions. However, they all fall under the pronunciation ara and can be written with 荒. They can also be written with the kanji 粗.
粗 is a “phono-semantic” kanji, meaning the component parts add up to give you meaning and pronunciation. The right side is 且 which gave the pronunciation in Old Chinese (it’s no longer relevant). The left side is 米 which means “rice.”
粗 and 荒 mean a few things. It can mean “the bones from a filleted fish,” “a personal defect,” or “rice chaff.” It can also be used as a prefix to mean “rough” or “natural/wild.”
Ara as interjection
Ara is used by women to express surprise. It translates well as “oh!” or “ah!”
Ara as a surname
Ara can also be found as a surname in Japan, though how common it is I’m not sure. Sources suggest that when written as a name, the characters used are either 荒 or 新 (which means “new”).
Doubling up! Ara-ara!
Here’s what happens when these get doubled.
粗粗 (alternatively written 粗々) is an adverb that means “roughly.”
荒荒 (alternatively written 荒々) is always followed by by a little grammatical add-on. 荒々しい is pronounced ara-ara-shii and is an adjective meaning “rough,” “rude,” “harsh,” or “wild.”
If you write it 荒々しさ it’s pronounced ara-ara-shisa and is a noun meaning “roughness,” “rudeness,” “harshness,” or “wildness.”
Second, we can double the whole thing to become ara-ara, which is a stronger sense of surprise and curiosity. It can also have a bit of a teasing effect.
This interjection can also be written and pronounced as are-are (あれあれ), arere (あれれ), or arya-arya (ありゃありゃ).
A word of caution
“Ara-ara” as a feminine interjection has some, uh, connotations that you’ll want to steer clear of if you use it in polite company, and especially around otaku.
In certain forms of “mature” Japanese media, ara-ara will be said by a somewhat older female in a sort of teasing way to a younger male.
As a disclaimer, I know that this word has become somewhat “memefied” in the English speaking world.
I know that it primarily carries these “mature” implications in English, but I’m not 100% sure how it’s viewed in Japan. It may carry little, or no, strange connotations.
Either way, I’d use caution with this word until you feel wholly confident in your how you will deploy it.
Ara!? We’re all done already? This was a short one, but now you’re totally equipped to start using the word and recognizing it when it’s used. Good luck out there!
“I’ve lived in Japan on-and-off for the last five years, travelling to (almost) every corner of the Land of the Rising sun. I’ve deepened my love of the language with big hauls from Sapporo book stores, by chatting in Shinjuku coffee shops, drinking in Osaka “snack bars,” exploring distant Okinawan islands, and hitching rides with monks in Aomori. Japanese is a wide and deep language, and I’m always eager to dive in deeper.”