Japanese words in English

2 Aug

Often words or expressions from one language become part of another language. And sometimes the meaning of the word gets changed.

In Japan, alot of words of foreign origin are used in the Japanese language. Many are used quite differently in Japanese than they are in their country of origin.
For example, パン (pan) is Japanese for bread. It came from the Portuguese word “pão“, which means “bread”. And 「カステラ」 (Kasutera) is the Japanese word for a type of cake that was introduced from Portugal called “Castella“.

There are many others. From English, Japan uses words like 「アイスクリーム」 (ice cream) and バスケットボール (basketball)*.
*(Foreign sports usually keep their original name in Japanese. An exception is 「野球」 (“Yakyuu“) for “baseball”. (lit. “field globe (ball)), which isn’t called by it’s English name because it was introduced to Japan during WW2 when America was considered an enemy.)

Some words are shortened. Such as テレビ (Terebi) for “television”. And some words have morphed into something unrecognizable to English-speakers, such as 「スキンシップ」 (skinship) for “bonding”.

But it works the other way too.
America (and other countries as well, I’m sure) have adopted Japanese words into the English language. Some have retained their original meaning. But others are used with totally different meanings than the “real” Japanese meaning.
And many “Japanese words” in English are pronounced so differently that a Japanese person wouldn’t recognize it.
For example,
★ 「アニメ」 (anime: Japanese animation)
★ 「マンガ」 (manga: Japanese comics)
★ 「オタク」 (otaku: is used as “fanatic” overseas, but “a Trekkie” is closer to the Japanese meaning)
★ 「カラオケ」 (karaoke)
★ 「さようなら」 (sayonara: farewell (not used in Japan in cases when you’ll be seeing the person again before long))
★ 「台風」 (taifuu: in English, the pronunciation morphed to “typhoon”)
★ 「きもの」 (kimono)
★ 「寿司」 (sushi: isn’t “raw fish” (that’s sashimi). Sushi is vinegared-rice with a topping (such as sashimi))
★ 「(お)酒」 ((O)-saké)
★ 「すき焼き」 (sukiyaki)
★ 「相撲」 (sumo: Japan’s national sport)
★ 「芸者」 (Geisha: aren’t prostitutes)
★ 「歌舞伎」 (Kabuki)

A promo poster for a Kabuki show

A promo poster for a Kabuki show

★ 「班長」 (hanchou: morphed into the English “(Head) honcho“)
★ 「津波」 (tsunami)
★ 「人力車」 (jin-riki-sha: morphed into the English “Rick-shaw“)

I’m sure there are more. This is all that I could think of off the top of my head.
Do you know some other instances of Japanese words being popularly used in English (or another language)?

30 Responses to “Japanese words in English”

  1. Futon Company June 2, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Here in the UK people buy futon beds for many reasons, for many it’s all about making best use of available space, for others it’s all about style and the futon is used in the same way as a traditional sofa.


    • tokyo5 June 3, 2011 at 12:50 am #

      I looked at your website. Are those called “futons” in the U.K.?
      Japanese futons look quite different.


  2. joe August 16, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    hey bob… took the baby to see Up! such a good movie… i’ve seen it twice now! and then we went to Ybor and rode the trolly to downtown Tampa and went to Channelside and had iced creme at this place called the Cold Stone… Today were heading out to Orlando… We might go to Universal to ride the new Simpsons ride and then check out Cirque Du Soleil… Oh! I let her drive me around yesterday!


    • tokyo5 August 16, 2009 at 12:37 am #

      Sounds like you and your daughter had a good time.
      When does summer vacation end in American schools now?
      My kids go back to school on August 24.

      >I let her drive me around yesterday!

      She has a driver’s license now? How old is she? 17?
      My oldest is 16…but in Japan, you must be at least 18 to get a driver’s license. Anyways, in Tokyo they’re not necessary…public transportation is excellent here.


  3. goshinbi August 14, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    that’s really interesting. Most of the time I hear futon here in America they are referring to couches that fold out into a bed, do you know why? I have wondered why for a long time now. And I haven’t heard hancho by itself, it’s always used in “head hancho” in a sarcastic or joking manner. I also find it interesting how in America karaoke is pronounced like “carry-oaky” A class mate asked a Japanese exchange student something about it and she had no clue what he was talking about.


    • tokyo5 August 14, 2009 at 11:29 am #

      >that’s really interesting.

      Thank you.

      >futon here in America they are referring to couches that fold out into a bed, do you know why?

      I suppose because most Americans wouldn’t be comfortable sleeping on a real futon.
      They’re used to beds and sofas.

      >it’s always used in “head hancho” in a sarcastic or joking manner.

      Yes, “head honcho” in English has a bit of a different meaning than the actual meaning of 「班長」 (hanchou).

      >in America karaoke is pronounced like “carry-oaky”…a Japanese exchange student had no clue what he was talking about.

      Yes, Japanese people wouldn’t recognize many Japanese words the way westerners pronounce them.
      Such as: Karaoke, Karate, Tokyo, Honda, Toyota, Sake, Hibachi, etc, etc…


  4. naoko August 6, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    What situation do they use 班長/hancho in US? in an office or a factory? Does it mean same as Japanese, the leader?


    • tokyo5 August 6, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

      It pronounced like hancho. But spelled “honcho” in America.

      Often people say “Head Honcho” to mean “Boss“.


      • naoko August 7, 2009 at 5:59 pm #

        One more question,
        Do you use ‘ヤンキー’ in kanto that means bad boys and bad girls?


      • tokyo5 August 7, 2009 at 6:41 pm #

        Yes, “Yankee” has that same meaning here.

        That word “Yankee” means different things in different countries.

        In most English speaking countries, except America, it means “American”.
        In America, it refers to people from the “New England” (north-eastern) section of the U.S.
        In Japan, it refers to hooligan types. (This is because when some Americans were in Japan after WW2, they referred to themselves as “Yankees”. The Japanese thought it referred to their personality, not the part of America they were from.)


      • naoko August 7, 2009 at 10:13 pm #

        I’d been wondering why Yankees mean hooligan types in Japan. Thanks!!


      • tokyo5 August 7, 2009 at 10:23 pm #

        Sure. Anytime.


  5. tokyo5 August 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    I thought of two more Japanese words that I heard in America when I was a kid:

    ★ 「火鉢」 (Hibachi small grill)
    ★ 「指圧」 (Shiatsu Japanese massage therapy)


  6. becomingjapanese August 3, 2009 at 2:21 am #

    You could probably make a whole separate list of martial arts related terms, like ninja, karate, nunchaku, katana, etc…


    • tokyo5 August 3, 2009 at 2:35 am #

      Oh yeah, thanks.
      I know Americans know 忍者 (Ninja), 空手 (Karate), and ヌンチャク (Nunchaku). But is 「刀」 (Katana) well-known in America?

      You reminded me of another:
      ★ 「侍」 (Samurai).


      • nickolas of winterhold April 29, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

        yes katana is very well known as are samurai and ninja (although i thought it was shinobi and “ninja” was an american thing?) and westerners dont say nunchaku i believe you are refering to the weapon right? in that case it is pronounced nunchuck over here


      • tokyo5 April 29, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

        I’m not an expert on ninja … but I think both ninja and shinobi are about interchangeable.

        Yes … “nunchucku” is the martial arts weapon.


  7. gigihawaii August 3, 2009 at 2:19 am #

    Saimin. How is it different from Ramen?


    • tokyo5 August 3, 2009 at 2:30 am #

      Saimin is Hawaiian-style Ramen.

      I’ve never tried it. But I’ve heard that it’s quite different from Japanese Ramen (which, in turn, isn’t the same as Ramen in America, I’ve heard).


  8. Kelly M August 2, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    I was under the impression that “typhoon” came from the Chinese “tai feng”. My Chinese teacher insisted that the Japanese “taifuu” is a Chinese loanword but she may have been biased…

    Another word to add to your list is “futon”. The futons I’ve seen in furniture shops around Europe are low-lying beds (complete with wooden frame and mattress), nothing like the Japanese futon.


    • tokyo5 August 3, 2009 at 12:28 am #

      I don’t know about the Chinese language, but it’s possible that the Japanese word came from a Chinese one.
      There are many words in the Japanese language that originated in Chinese.

      And thanks for mentioning 布団 (futon).

      I just thought of another:
      ★ 「ラメーン」 (Ramen).
      (This one originated in China, too).

      BTW, I looked at your site. You’re studying Japanese kanji! It’s not easy, I know.
      Do you live in Japan?


      • Kelly M August 3, 2009 at 2:43 am #

        Studying kanji isn’t too tough when you’ve already studied Chinese. 🙂 Having said that, learning the various readings of each kanji takes a lot more effort than memorising the pronunciation of a Chinese hanzi.

        I don’t live in Japan. I’m currently living in the Netherlands but I’m extremely fond of Japan and everything Japanese. I’d love to go back to Japan and spend a few months there but I can’t just get up and go since I have a job and mortgage to pay. Still, one can dream..


      • tokyo5 August 3, 2009 at 2:54 am #

        So you’ve studied Chinese and Japanese both! Great!
        You must be good with languages!

        And you’ve visited Japan before? Which part? Tokyo?
        When were you here?


      • Kelly August 7, 2009 at 3:15 am #

        I love languages, though I’m not sure I’d say I was good at them. It’s a lot of hard work and my speaking skills need a LOT of improvement. 🙂

        I visited Kyoto a couple of years ago (2006, if my memory serves me correctly). It was only for a week but it was enough to prompt me to learn Japanese and learn more about Japanese culture and history. I started learning Japanese just before I went to Kyoto and have been studying it on and off since then.

        Can’t wait to go back and visit the rest of the country!


      • tokyo5 August 7, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

        >Can’t wait to go back and visit the rest of the country!

        You saw Kyoto. It’s a beautiful traditional city. Each area of Japan is unique…where would you visit next? Hiroshima, Tokyo, Osaka, Okinawa…?


      • Kelly August 10, 2009 at 1:11 am #

        Hmmm…tough to say. There are so many places I would love to visit. Tokyo, Nara, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, Okinawa…and the Nebuta festival (I think this is held in Aomori?). I’ve only seen photos of the lanterns and I’d really love to see them for myself.

        I’ve also heard that there are some beautiful places in Hokkaido and Shikoku.


      • tokyo5 August 11, 2009 at 11:30 pm #

        >the Nebuta festival (I think this is held in Aomori?)

        Yes. The Nebuta Festival is from Aomori.
        Every Summer, a group comes down from Aomori to Tokyo too:

        >I’ve also heard that there are some beautiful places in Hokkaido and Shikoku.

        I especially like the 「札幌雪祭」 Sapporo Snow Festival every February in Hokkaido.


  9. tokyo5 August 2, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    I thought of another Japanese word that is used in English:

    ★ 「数独」 (Sudoku number puzzles)


  10. kasi viswanathan August 2, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    very nice for bloggers to understand and I luv Japanese culture and way of life.

    I would luv to be part of japan and rich heritage.

    Do visit my blogs and leave your comments.
    I have a blog on my visit to switzerland.

    Check out and let me know


    • tokyo5 August 2, 2009 at 8:47 pm #


      You should visit Japan, if you have a chance.


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