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Made-in-Japan English words and expressions

By Alex Case
A systematic look at Wasei Eigo expressions which are fascinating to read about, vital if you are learning Japanese, and best avoided by Japanese people speaking English

You might be unaware that it is not just your television and car that is made in Japan, but also some of the language that you speak. There are of course words like sushi and sashimi which refer to specifically Japanese things, but also rickshaw (from jinrikisha – man powered cart), umami (the “sixth flavour”), satsuma (from a part of Japan), Walkman and karaoke, words that are used all over the world to talk about those things.

The interesting thing about the last two examples above is that they are Japanese words from English roots that have come back into English. Karaoke, for example, was apparently derived from the Japanese word for empty and oke, a shortening of orchestra. The same is true for things that are used in English just to refer to Japanese things, e.g. cosplay, anime and salaryman. In Japanese, however, these words are all more general in meaning than they are in English, referring to dressing up, animation/ cartoons and office workers respectively. There are also hundreds of other such “made in Japan” expressions from English roots that haven’t (yet) made it into British or American English. Like anime, many of them are shortened forms of English words and expressions, such as scramble egg (sukuramburu eggu – scrambled eggs), happy end (happii endo – happy ending).

Many others, like Walkman, are entirely constructed in Japan from English roots, e.g. chemical shoes (kemikaru shuuzu – shoes made from plastic). There are then combinations of the two effects of construction and shortening, where expressions are made in Japan and then abbreviated in some way, e.g. CM (shii emu, short for commercial message – TV or radio ad). Below I will examine each of these three areas in more detail, giving interesting examples and further subdividing them. There are also links to other articles on Japanese English at the bottom.

Like Walkman, many wasei eigo (English made in Japan) expressions say something that can’t actually be said in English in any other reasonably short way. Some of them are specific to or mainly about Japan, such as Golden Week (goruden uikku – a period in April or May with many public holidays), bottle keep (boturu kiipu – a system where you can buy a whole bottle of booze in a bar and it will be kept there for you to finish next time), home drama (hoomu dorama – like a soap opera, but usually with a shorter run), recruit suit (rekruito suutsu – a very conservative black suit worn when you first start work) and fruit parlour (furuutsu paara – a posh café serving fruit and ice cream). Many others could well do with being adopted into various forms of English to make communication easier. e.g. paper driver (peipaa doraiba- someone who has a license but never drives) and parasite wife (parasaito waifu – a wife who just leeches off her husband even though she could easily work). Other examples that I think should be adopted right now into English to make communication easier are:

cheek dance (chiiku dansu) – dancing cheek to cheek

chemical shoes (kemikaru shuuzu) – shoes made from plastic

delivery health (deriberi herusu, often shortened to deri heri) – a prostitute that comes to your hotel room or home

goal in (gooru in suru) – reaching your goal, especially used for finally getting married

group sounds (gruupu saunzu) – 1960s guitar pop groups, something like Merseybeat

guts pose (gattsu poosu) – the gesture of standing with one fist in their air to celebrate a victory

heading shoot (hedingu shuuto) – a header towards goal

live house (raibu hausu) – music venue, usually like a bar with a band

long seller (rongu seraa) – a book which sells for a long time, similar to bestseller

mass game (masu geimi) – group calisthenics

minus driver (mainusu doraiba) – normal screwdriver (a Phillips screwdriver is a ‘plus driver’, obviously both coming from the shape at the end)

no make (noo meiku) –not wearing make up

semi double (semi daburu) – small double bed

towel-ket (taoruketto, from towel + blanket) – a huge towel that is used instead of a sheet/ duvet when sleeping

unit bath (yunitto basu) – modular bathroom/ prefabricated all-in-one bathroom

Actually, all of those things can be explained in English one way or another as I have done above, but it is an awful lot easier to do so in Japanese. There are also others which are reasonably short in English, but shorter or more logical in Japanese:

A class (ei kurasu) – top class/ first rate

autolock (ootorokku) – self-locking (door etc)

baby bed (beibi beddo) – cot

bare shoulder (bea shorudaa) – off the shoulder (dress)

baton touch (baton tatchi) – passing the baton (literally or metaphorically)

bed town (beddo taun) – commuter town

byplayer (bai pureya) – supporting actor/ bit part player

catch ball (catchi booru) – playing catch

charm point (chaamu pointo) – attractive qualities

China dress (chaina doresu) – cheongsam

coin laundry (koin randorii) -laundrette

collar shirt (karaa shatsu) – shirt with a collar

country risk (kantori risuku) – risky country to invest in

dining kitchen (dainingu kitchin) – open plan dining room/ kitchen

door eye (doa ai) – peephole

effecter (efekutaa) – effects pedal

food fighter (fuudo faitaa) – competitive eater

free dial (furii daiyaru) – toll free number/ freephone

free size (furii saizu) – one size fits all

free soft (furii sofuto) – freeware

fried potato (furaido poteto) – chips/ French fries

front glass (furonto garasu) – windshield/ windscreen

full base (furu beisu) – with the bases loaded (in baseball)

game centre (geimu sentaa) – amusement arcade/ video arcade

girl hunt (gaaru hanto) – going out to pick up girls, similar to ‘going out on the pull’

go sign (goo sain) – (metaphorical) green light

guard man (gaadoman) – security guard

high vision (hai bijon) – HDTV

inside report (insaido repooto) – exposé

lemon tea (remon tii) – tea with lemon

love comedy (rabu komedi) – romantic comedy

meat shop (miito shoppu) – a butcher’s

milk tea (miruku tii) – tea with milk

Miss contest (misu kontesto) – beauty pageant

news value (nyuusu baryuu) – newsworthy

nighter (naitaa) – a night baseball game

non pro (non puro) – amateur

non-caffeine – caffeine free/ decaffeinated

oil shock (oiru shokku) – energy crisis, oil crisis

old miss (orudo misu) – spinster

order made (oodaa meido) – custom made/ made to order

pocketable (poketaburu) – portable/ able to fit in your pocket

poemer (poemaa) – poet

recycle shop (risaikuru shoppu) – second hand shop

running home run (ranningu hoomu ran) – inside the park home run

shoot chance (shuuto chansu) – a chance to shoot

skinship (sukinshippu) – physical contact

suite room (suiito ruumu) – a hotel suite

table speech (teiburu supiichi) – after dinner speech

ten key (ten kii) – numeric keypad

three size (surii saizu) – body measurements/ vital statistics (for a woman)

virgin road (baajin roodo) – aisle in a church (down which a bride walks)

wood bass (uudo beisu) – double bass

Many others can be instantly guessed from their constituent parts, especially when seen in context:

after care (afutaa kea) – product maintenance/ after sales service

American coffee (amerikan kohii) – Americano

band man (bando man) – band member

belt conveyor (beruto konbeya) – conveyor belt

best ten (besuto ten) – top ten

body shampoo (bodii shampuu) – shower gel

camping car (kyampin kaa) – camper van

change lever (chenji rebaa) – gearshift/ gear lever

cheer girl (chia gaaru) – cheerleader

cuffs button (kafusu boton) – cuff link

door boy (doa booi) – doorman

dump car (danpu kaa) – dump truck

dust box (dasuto bokkusu) – trash can/ bin

gasoline stand (gasorin sutando) – gas station/ petrol station

gift card (gifuto kaado) – gift certificate, e.g. book token

ice candy (aisu kandee) – ice pop, Popsicle

interphone (intaahoon) – intercom

log house (rogu hausu) – log cabin

man to man (man tsu man) – one to one (e.g. lesson)

model gun (moderu gan) – toy gun/ cap gun

morning call (mooning kooru) – wake-up call

open set (oopun setto) – outdoor set (for films)

out course (auto koosu) – out of your lane

show window (shoo uindo) – shop window

side brake (saido bureeki) – hand brake/ parking brake

side business (saido bijinesu) – side job

symbol mark (simboru maaku) – logo

trailer house (toreeraa hausu) – trailer/ mobile home

wind orchestra (uindo ookesutora) – wind ensemble

woman power (uuman pawaa) – women’s rights/ woman’s strength and abilities

There is another large group that is easy to guess once you know how certain words are used like prefixes in Japanese:

My (mai, meaning my personal, private or my own)

my home (mai hoomu) – your own home, usually meaning owning rather than renting

my car (mai kaa) – family car/ private car (rather than company car)

my pace (mai peisu) – my own pace, meaning taking your own time

One (wan)

one room mansion (wan ruumu manshon) – studio apartment

one piece (wan piisu) – a dress

one pattern (wan pataan) – repetitive

one man bus (wan man basu) – a bus with no conductor

one man company (wan man kampanii) – a company in which the boss makes all the decisions

Up (appu – increase/ improvement)

base up (beisu appu) – all round pay rises

career up (kyaria appu) – improving your career

grade up (gureido appu) – upgrade

image up (imeji appu) – improving your image

version up (baajon appu) – upgrade/ update


no bra (noo bura) – braless

no sleeve (noo suriibu) – sleeveless

no cut (noo katto) – uncut (film)


Silver (shiruba – old age)

silver seat (shiruba shiito) – seat for old and disabled people on a train

silver age (shiruba eiji) – old age

Green (guriin – luxury)

green car (guriin kaa) – first class carriage

Pink (pinku – erotic/ blue)

pink film (pinku eiga) – blue movie

Golden (goruden – prime/ peak)

golden week (goruden wiiku) – peak holiday season in April or May

golden hour’(goruden aawa) – prime time, as in TV

Like poemer, non pro and skinship above, a few are actually made with English affixes rather than as a combination of two words:

casher (kyasshaa – cashier)

presentator (puresentatoo – person giving a presentation)

interphone (intaahoon) – intercom

A few take a bit more understanding of the history to be able to understand the logic behind them. Many of these were originally brand names:

catch phone (kyatchi fon) – call waiting

free dial (furii diyaru) – freephone/ toll free number

jet coaster (jetto koosutaa) – roller coaster

magic tape (majikku teipu) – Velcro

number display (nambaa disupurei) – caller ID

pocket bell (poketto beru) – beeper/ pager

Many others seem obvious once the logic behind them is explained:

wide show (waido shoo) – variety show, due to its length

loss time (rosu taimu) – added time, injury time, because it makes up for the time you lost during the game

crank in (kuranku in suru) – start shooting a film, from turning the handle on an old fashioned film camera

free address (furii adoresu) – hot desking

The others just need explaining, and memorizing if you are learning Japanese,:

back net (bakku netto) – backstop (in baseball)

four ball (foa boru) – base on balls

mail magazine (meeru magajin) – email newsletter

seat knock (shiito nokku) – baseball fielding practice

stand play (sutando purei) – grandstanding

timely hit (taimurii hitto) – RBI hit/ clutch hit (in baseball)

Some of those ones which are less than obvious are easy to misinterpret, and so are especially important for Japanese students to avoid when speaking English:

key holder (kii horuda) – key ring, not a hook to hang keys on

paneller (paneraa) – panel member, not a panel beater

play guide (purei gaido) – ticket agency, not a guidebook

soft cream (sofuto kuriimu) – Mr Whippy-style ice cream, not cream

security police (sekyuriti porisu) – bodyguard, and so not necessarily police

travel watch (toraberu uotchi) – a travel alarm clock, and so not a watch

season off (shiizu ofu) -off season, not a whole season off work

sign pen (sain pen) – felt tip, and so not a pen for signing (a pen for making signs?)

There are also a few expressions which have different meanings in English and Japanese, such as open car (oopun kaa – convertible/ drop top, not a car which has been left open), excellent company (ekuserento kampanii – blue chip company, and therefore more technical in meaning in Japanese) and small light (sumooru raito – parking light/ side light, and so more general in English).

A small group of these Made in Japan expressions are actually just longer versions of the English word with the same meaning:

neck tie (nekku tai) – tie

mug cup (magu kappu) – mug

two tone colour (tsuu ton karaa) – two tone

handle name (handoru neemu) – handle

catch copy (kyatchi kopi) – copy (as in what a copywriter writes)

bargain sale (baagen seiru) – sales, e.g. summer sales

Then there are a large group of words which are shortened in some way. The easiest ones to understand are ones where they have simply had the grammar removed from the English phrase:


April Fool (eepuriru fuuru) – April Fool’s Day

Valentine Day (barentain dei) – Valentine’s day

ed endings

condense milk (kondensu miruku) – condensed milk

mash potato (masshu poteto) – mashed potatoes

multi talent (maruchi tarento) – multi talented

old fashion (oorudo fasshon) – old fashioned

one side game (wan saido geemu) – one-sided game

scramble egg (sukuramburu) – scrambled eggs


high heel- high heels/ high heeled shoes

lady first (reidi faasuto) – ladies first

off limit (ofu rimitto) – off limits

office hour (ofisu awaa) – office hours

sunglass (sangurasu) – sunglasses

table manner (teburu manaa) – table manners


happy end (happii endo) – happy ending

multi task (maruchi tasku) – multi tasking

skate rink (sukeeto rinku) – skating rink


time up (taimu appu) – time’s up

ham egg (hamu eggu) – ham and eggs

By far the most interesting but tricky group are expressions which are entirely made in Japan and then shortened, especially as in those cases the long form is rarely if ever used:

agit (ajito, short for agitating point) – hiding place/ meeting place (e.g. a café) for revolutionaries

auto-bi (ootobai, from automatic bike) – motorbike

AV (ei bii) – short for both audio visual and adult video (as in AV model), so easily confused!

AV model (ei bii moderu, short for adult video model) – porn actress

ba u (bea, short for base up) – pay raise

BGM (bii jii emu) – background music, a genre that seems to include easy listening and chill out/ New Age

BS (bii esu, short for broadcast satellite) – satellite television

caba clu (kyaba kura, short for cabaret club) – a kind of hostess club

dia (daiya, short for diagram) – train timetable

DM (dii emu, short for direct mail) – junk mail (old fashioned through the door stuff)

en sto (en suto, short for engine stop) – stalling a car

fami com (fami kon, short for family computer) – video game system (out of date expression)

jea pan (jii pan, short for jean pants) – jeans

le guards (le gaasu, short for leg guards) – shin pads

LL (eru eru) – XL

magic (majikku, short for magic pen) – (permanent) marker

mini pat (mini pato, short for mini patrol car) – small police car

no make (no meiku, short for no make-up) – not wearing make up

OL (oo eru, short for office lady)- female equivalent of ‘salaryman’, but a bit patronising

PV (pii bii, from promotion video) – music video

range (renji, short for cooking range) – kitchen stove

RV (aaru bui, short for recreation vehicle) – SUV

sha pen (shaa pen, short for sharp pencil) – mechanical pencil/ automatic pencil

SL (esu eru, short for steam locomotive) – steam train

soft (sofuto, short for soft cream) – soft ice cream

stand (sutando, short for stand lamp) – a small lamp

sub man (sabu mane, short for sub manager) – assistant manager

trai pan (tore pan, short for training pants) – tracksuit trousers

washlet (uoshuretto, from wash + toilet) – combined toilet and bidet

Y shirt (wai shatsu, short for ‘white shirt’) – business shirt/ dress shirt

Range and magic are two which obviously have different meanings in Japanese, and although BS doesn’t come up in Japanese conversation much, NHK might need to think about another name for their satellite broadcasts abroad!

There are no doubt many which I have forgotten, so please feel free to add to the list in the comments box below. There is also more information on Japanese English here:

How Japanese English Works

Pronunciation changes in Japanese English

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET October 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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