Japanese word highlight: “katte” (勝手)

By | September 30, 2019

In this article I’d like to go over the Japanese word “katte”, which is almost always written in kanji as 勝手. It’s a pretty common word and you’ll likely hear it once in a while in spoken Japanese, with perhaps a bit less usage in written Japanese (excluding dialogue lines which are essential spoken language). For those interested about intonation, in Tokyo-dialect it is spoken with a rising intonation, and the high intonation bleeds over to the word(s) following it until there is an intonation drop in some word. This is the same pattern as 自分 (jibun).

While “katte” technically has a few definitions as a noun, for the most part you will hear it used as a “na” adjective or together with the particle “ni” (に).

When used as an adjective, it has the meaning of acting so that things benefit yourself (as opposed to others). This meaning is pretty close to the English word “selfish”. Let’s look at an example:

  • 何も手伝ってくれないなんてすごく勝手な男だ (nanimo tetsudatte kurenai nante sudoku katte na otoko da)
  • Not helping me with anything––what a selfish man.

As you can imagine, this word has a pretty negative nuance so be careful when you use it, especially regarding someone nearby.

When used together with “ni” as “katte ni”, this phrase becomes an adverb that describes doing some action in a “selfish” way. This often has the nuance of doing whatever that person feels like (without respect for others), for example performing some action without the permission of another person.

  • 人のものを勝手に触るな (hito no mono wo katte ni sawaru na)
  • Don’t go touching people’s stuff without permission.

While this word is often used to describe a person’s action, sometimes you can hear it used to describe inanimate objects (perhaps with a touch of humor or irony).

  • 僕のパソコンが勝手に直ったよ (boku no pasokon ga katte ni naotta yo.
  • My computer magically fixed itself.

Because “katte ni” generally has a negative connotation, you should be careful when using it for situations that are not negative, for example:

  • 友達が勝手に手伝ってくれた (tomodachi ga katte ni tetsudatte kureta)
  • My friend helped me without asking my permission.

This Japanese sentence sounds odd just like the English translation. There could be some situations where it makes sense, however. For example, if you were taking a test and asked your friend to not help you, but he did anyway.

Often “katte ni” is used with the generic verb “suru” to become “katte ni suru”. This expresses doing something selfishly in a generic sense.

  • そんなひどいことをするなんて信じられない!勝手にしろ! (sonna hidoi koto wo suru nante shinjirarenai! katte ni shiro!)
  • I can’t believe you would do something that horrible. F*** off!

Literally you can translate “katte ni shiro” as “do as you like”, but that doesn’t really capture the feeling of anger in this type of situation. Here, the nuance is more like the speaker doesn’t want anything to do with the listener, something along the lines of “get the xxxx out of here”, where “xxxx” can be your 4-letter word of choice (: As you can guess, this is a pretty strong phrase, so only use it when you really mean it.

I mentioned there are a few meanings for “katte” as a noun. One of them is “convenient”, and you can see that manifest in two compound words that contain 勝手 (the only two I can think of off hand):

  • 使い勝手 (tsukaigatte): user-friendliness, usability
  • 勝手口 (katte guchi): kichten door, back door

Even though “katte” can mean “convenient”, it generally shouldn’t be used as an adjective to mean something is convenient. For that you can use a word like 便利 (benri).

Finally, it’s interesting to note the meaning of the two kanji that make up “katte”, as it might help you remember the above meanings:

  • 勝 (te): to win (a game, etc.), to be superior
  • 手 (te): hand, method, option

While I am not a huge proponent of mnemonics, you can use this phrase to help remember this words’s meaning: “selfish is the winning hand”.

By the way, you can also use the phrase “無断で” (mudan de) to mean “without permission” in a more clear and formal way. This is a word you tend to see used in places like legal disclaimers.

For those of you who have reached this part in the article and didn’t find what you were looking for, “katte” can also be the te-form of various verbs. The most common ones are:

  • 買う (kau): buy
  • 勝つ (katsu): win
  • 狩る (karu): hunt
  • 刈る (karu): reap or gather

(Note: photo of bird taken from Pexels.com)

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