厳しい世の中だなあ。

English Translation

It’s a grim world.

When is 世の中 used instead of simply 世界 or 世? Is it simply a synonym, can they be interchangeably used?

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@ericaw
Good question!

Here are situations where 世の中 and 世界 are not interchangeable:

Mary is traveling across the world. = メアリーは世界を旅行中だ。

Tom entered into politics. = トムは政治の世界に入った (or 政界入りした)。

Jane realized that the real world isn’t so fair. = ジェーンは世の中がそこまで公平でもないと気付いた。

There are some people who believe conspiracy theories. = 世の中には陰謀論を信じ込む人もいる。

The first example is “global”. It’s a geographical coverage. If you replace it with 世の中, it sounds unnatural, and it can be even interpreted as “Mary is a hopeless wanderer.”

The second sentence describes a certain field of speciality/profession. In this context, we don’t use 世の中. Other examples in the same category are ビジネスの世界 (or 財界) = business/industry; and 文学の世界 (or 文学界) = literary world.

If you replace 世の中 in the third sentence with 世界, the altered sentence also works but the meanings are different. The original sentence with 世の中 describes the society Jane belongs to whereas the altered one does international affairs in general.

The forth sentence with 世の中 illustrates public opinions that the speaker is directly exposed to. Suppose that the speaker grew up and lives in Japan. The original sentence means there are some conspiracy theorists in Japan. If you replace 世の中 with 世界, however, it implies that the speaker thinks no one in Japan (i.e. her society) believes conspiracy theories, but outside Japan, there are some conspiracy theorists.

Below is my personal understanding and it may not be applied to every situation.

I think 世の中 is the society that the speaker belongs to. In other words, the speakers is PASSIVELY surrounded by the society (and it’s norms, common sense, tradition etc.) You may feel the connotation from the Kanji 中 (inside). And you don’t really care how it is going outside your society when you say 世の中.

Meanwhile 世界 is more like a territorial concept. As the world is divided into several nation states, the professional industries can be. Wherever you are in, you want to describe the whole or a certain territory when you say 世界. The second example sentence, for instance, can be used even when the speaker is not a politician (i.e. the politics is not the speaker’s society).

Back to the lesson sentence. 厳しい世の中だなあ means that the speaker’s daily life isn’t going well. On the other hand, 厳しい世界だなあ is used when you describe other world/society — e.g. You live in US and watch news from Ukraine, and say 厳しい世界だなあ. Or, you are in a financially stable industry and describe the hard-working investment banking industry as 厳しい世界.

Hope this helps!