KY in Japanese: Never Use That Outdated Word

If you’ve got in touch with Japanese people quite a lot, you’ve probably heard the word “KY” before. But it would be best if you didn’t use that word anymore.

Meaning and Origin of KY

KY is an abbreviation for “Kuuki Yomenai (= can’t read the air)”. People use this term to describe a person who:

  • is self-centered
  • have a big mouth
  • behave in an unmannerly fashion
  • say even worse things to someone under depression

The word became remarkably popular around 2007, especially among young people. Reading the air was considered an essential skill to live in Japanese society. Anyone who fell into the category of “KY” was labeled as an outlaw or more strongly a sociopath.

Kuuki wo Yomu (空気を読む)

Why “read the air” became so important in Japan? According to the Japanese critic Shichihei Yamamoto, in his book “A Study of Air” (1983), two major factors came together for the creation of this “air” in Japan. 

Island Country

As an island country, Japan has rarely been under the threat of outside forces. As opposed to continental countries where a quick decision is vital to survive, the people in Japan prefer communication in a roundabout way. This may be related to Japan’s unique ecosystem of the island nation, known as “Galapagos syndrome“.


There are many absolutes in Japan as a polytheistic country, since there is no absolute or only one God. But it means that there is nothing to determine the direction of the group or society, so people need to rely on something else.

The combination of these factors has led to an extremely self-conscious culture in Japan. However, this situation is gradually changing these days. People are tired of reading the air, and more and more people are questioning the act itself. In 2016, the book “Don’t Read the Air” by a professional mixed martial artist Shinya Aoki became a bestseller and numerous similar books came out. And a number of people, especially the younger generation, feel that reading the air is lame.

People Don’t Use It Anymore

Young people are always keen to create new slang. But as soon as they become widely well-known, young people get turned off and stop using them. And for the reasons mentioned above, the idea of reading the air is slowly becoming out of fashion. It’s probably best not to use the word “KY” in Japanese anymore if you want to be a smart person. In fact, I don’t know anyone around me who uses that word.

On an unrelated note, my initials are KY, so people used to make fun of me a bit in my student days.


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