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5 Japanese Words You Didn't Know Were English

This article was contributed by Spencer Huddleston from myGengo, a Tokyo-based startup devoted to breaking down language barriers and making global communication accessible to all through high quality human translation services that are always scalable, convenient and affordable.

If you understand words like karate, karaoke, sushi, origami, ramen and sumo then you must have a pretty solid comprehension of the English language. (And yes, I do mean English!) Wait...what's that you say? Oh, you thought these were Japanese words, did you? Believe it or not, they're actually both languages—words of Japanese origin that over time have each made it into the English dictionary. And if you still don't believe it, check the Oxford Dictionary of English for yourself!

In fact, many more Japanese words also appear in English dictionaries, but unlike the words rambled off above, you've probably never even heard of them. Or if you have heard of them, then chances are you had no idea they were English. Let's take a look at some of these together! (Right after we learn how they ended up in the dictionary in the first place.)


How do Words Make it Into the Dictionary?

So how exactly do words make it into the dictionary anyway? Excellent question—in fact, it’s one so commonly pondered by inquiring minds that Oxford Dictionaries lists it on their website amongst the top of their most frequently asked questions.  As explained in the FAQs, texts from all types of published materials (both written and spoken) are monitored and tracked daily. Using software to analyze emerging word trends (including context, usage and spelling) lexicographers are able to capture an accurate snapshot of a language on any given day. The words that appear consistently and across a variety of different mediums are those considered for dictionary entry.

In other words, every single word (regardless of its origin) can only enter a language "officially" if it's been determined that the word has been used enough, over a period long enough, carrying a weight significant enough for it to earn a rite of passage into the dictionary. The next 5 examples below have all achieved this accomplishment.


5 Japanese Words in the English Dictionary

Gaijin (外人)

This word is the shortened version of a slightly longer word—gaikoku-jin—which translates as "foreign-country person" (i.e. anyone non-Japanese). The Japanese characters for gaijin are composed of two parts: (gai) for "outsider" and (jin) for "person". There is some debate about whether or not the term is offensive and many prefer that the longer and formal version—gaikoku-jin—be used instead.


Example Sentence:Even if a foreigner living in Japan has their Japanese citizenship, in the eyes of the Japanese, they will always be considered a gaijin



Karoshi (過労死

This word is used to describe what happens when a person works themselves to death—usually by means of a heart attack, stroke, or other form of stress-related cause. The Japanese characters for karoshi consist of the following three parts: (ka) for “excess”, (ro) for “labor” and (shi) for “death”. In most countries around the world, death by overwork or job-related exhaustion is a concept difficult to conceptualize. In Japan, however, this is a reality so familiar that society has created one single word used to define it. 


Example Sentence: My boss is a total workaholic and if he doesn't slow down he's going to be a victim of karoshi before he ever makes it to his 40th birthday.


Hikikomori (引き籠もり

This is a word used for someone who suffers from social anxiety—they are shy, insecure and have a very difficult time coping with the pressure and norms of society. In extreme cases, they will isolate themselves by remaining indoors for extended periods of time. The Japanese characters for this word consist of two parts: 引き(hiki) for “pull” and 籠もり  (komori) for “withdraw”. There are an estimated 3.6 million hikikomori in Japan.  

Example Sentence: Statistics show that the suicide rate among hikikomori is higher than ever before and I feel sorry anyone who suffers from this awful sickness.


Kawaii (可愛い)

This word is one that’s used frequently in Japan —its cultural significance is so deeply imbedded into the hearts and minds of the Japanese that its meaning resonates with the entire nation of Japan.  The word means “cute” and people of all ages (and both genders) are smitten with all things adorable.  In Japan, anything can be kawaii—products, fashion, looks, writing-style, characters…you name it. The Japanese characters for this word are (ka) meaning “acceptable” and (ai) which means “love”.


Example Sentence: I think the Hello Kitty watch your boyfriend gave you for your birthday is super kawaii, and once again, I'm totally jealous of your cute accessories.


Otaku (おたく

This is the word used for when a person's pop-culture obsession with things like video games, comics, computers and anime, to name a few, consumes them, overshadowing their social lives. In Japanese, the literal meaning of the word otaku or おたく is “house” which is exactly where an otaku feels most comfortable—inside their room devoting unhealthy amounts of time, effort and energy towards their particular fixation.   


 Example Sentence: People may call me everything from fanboy to nerd to geek, but the truth is that being an anime otaku makes me who I am.


Translating English Words of Japanese Origin

Let’s say you're a translator who happens to come across an English word of Japanese origin in your source text. Do you leave it alone because it's in the English dictionary or do you translate it? The short and safe answer is that it all depends. For example, if you come across the word "ramen" during a translation, you probably aren't going to translate it as "Japanese soupy noodle dish". That is, unless the context of what you're translating warrants it to be translated that way. An instance like this might include a translation where the purpose of the translation is to explain different types of Japanese dishes in very basic layman's terms. Otherwise, it usually makes the most sense to keep the word as “ramen”.  

In a different example, let's assume you have a lesser known word like "karoshi" in your source text. What do you do? Again, it depends. By understanding what the translation is being used for and who the intended audience is, you'll have a pretty good indication of what should be done. In some cases, simplifying the word “karoshi” into "death from overwork" so it can be understood by all might make the most sense. In other cases, making no changes to the word at all is the best plan of action.

As any seasoned translator will tell you, translation is an art, not a science and over time even the new beginners will begin to learn a sense for what works best.


One Last Japanese Word We Want in English

Gengo (言語)

This is the Japanese word for “language” and while it’s not actually in the English dictionary—we think it should be! And just who are “we” you might ask? We’re myGengo, a startup devoted to breaking language barriers and connecting the world through global communication that’s accessible by all. We want you (and the world) to feel like the rest of the world’s speaking "my" language.




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