Words that are different in Japanese and English

By Alex Case

If you have read any of my other articles on Japanese English (see links below), you might get the idea that borrowing vocabulary is mainly a case of the Japanese using and abusing English words and expressions, both as part of Japanese and when they try to use English internationally. These kinds of changes are, however, universals of vocabulary transfer from and to any language in the world. What is more, English speakers are guilty of exactly the same things when they use Japanese words in English, and so often when they think they are speaking Japanese too. I’ve grouped these changes together in several categories, dealing with the changes in either direction each time:

  1. Pronunciation changes
  2. Abbreviations
  3. Longer than the form in the other language
  4. More restricted meaning
  5. Extended meaning
  6. Other meaning changes
  7. Less common in the language or country it comes from

I hope the resulting analysis will be of interest to learners and teachers of either language, as well as those interested in the more general linguistic topic of borrowings from other languages. As the words given here are now considered a part of the English language, the topic might also be of interest to speakers of other languages who have a good level of English. This should hopefully also make people less self conscious about their own “mistakes”. As I tell my Japanese students when they say “golden week”, “It’s not wrong, it’s just Japanese”, just like cul de sac (translates are “arse of the bag”, the French expression for this being “impasse”) is English rather than bad French.

As some people’s computers will show neither, I have attempted to avoid both phonemic symbols and Japanese script. When the pronunciation of a Japanese word is given, I have simply transposed the katakana into Roman script. This is more difficult when trying to write out the pronunciation of English words, as English spelling is irregular and Japanese does not have enough sounds to represent them all. I have therefore given a couple of different attempts to show what pronunciation I mean, for example using capital letters to represent the letter sound (e.g. A for the vowel sound in gate) and words that have similar pronunciations.

1. Pronunciation changes

Traditionally, one of the most common changes in Japanese pronunciation when it comes into the English language is to replace a final e for elephant sound with an ee from feet one. This has even been reflected in the spelling at times, with the older English spelling of sake being sacky. Educated speakers nowadays make more of an effort to mimic Japanese pronunciation, but amateur singing to the sound of a machine is still mainly known as “karry oh key” in English. Saying this or karate in a more Japanese way can sound at least pretentious and maybe even incomprehensible to an English speaker. This seems strange in a way, being that the e sound is quite happily used in common English words like egg and pen, but it is rare at the end of English words. The same is true of the ts in tsunami, which is perfectly natural at the end of the word “parts” but can sound forced or even be difficult to say at the beginning of a word as it doesn’t exist in that position in English sounds.

The same things happens in Japanese with words borrowed from English. For example, w+a and h+i are common sound combinations, but w+i is always written and pronounced as the similar ui, as in uiiku (week). There is a large list of similar examples in my article on Pronunciation Changes in Japanese English (see list of links below).

Another linguistic universal that the English ways of saying karate illustrates is how two pronunciations can coexist in a language, often with one being closer to the original language and considered more correct, but perhaps being less common in speech. The same thing also happens with English words in Japanese. The most obvious example is v, which can be used in violin but is more commonly pronounced as a b (baiorin).

There are even times when pronunciations that are more and less similar to the original language can take on different meanings. During the American occupation of postwar Japan the geesha/ giisha pronunciation of geisha (that still lives on in some people’s pronunciations) came to mean a type of prostitute, with the gaysha/ gAsha pronunciation retaining its original Japanese meaning of a traditional entertainer. Similar pairs exist in Japanese, for example hanbaagaa for a hamburger in a bun and hanbaagu for hamburger steak/ hamburger patty.

Another similarity between how Japanese pronunciation is modelled on the English and vice versa is the fast, informal pronunciation in one language becoming the standard in the other. For example, most ds endings in English lose the d sound and become zu in Japanese, making niizu for needs and kiizu for kids. The same thing happened to the Japanese word sukoshi (a little) when it came into American slang as skosh, as the final i and (especially) the u are almost silent in fast Japanese speech but are pronounced when speaking slowly and carefully.

There are also plenty of examples that don’t seem to match any rules, however much you analyse the available examples. In Japanese these include botan for button and sutekki for stick, and in English they include honcho from hanchou in Japanese and the short i sound in most English speakers’ pronunciations of shiitake. You also sometimes hear harikiri for hara-kiri ( seppuku, stomach cutting).

2. Abbreviations

The well known Japanese words anime, cosplay and karaoke all come from shortening of English words (animation, costume and orchestra), and there are hundreds more that haven’t made it out of Japan yet, such as wide show (uaido shoo, a kind of variety show). There is a link to a whole article on the topic (How the Japanese Chop Up English) below.

There are fewer examples in English, perhaps the most common of which is rickshaw, from jinrikisha (human powered cart). You could also put the use of Akita to refer to the dog in this section, as that word on its own means just the prefecture (like a country or state) in Japanese, with the dog being Akita-ken.

There are also plenty of examples where it is part of a longer expression which is usually shortened in the one language and only used in the short form in the other, e.g. demo, which is never lengthened to demonstration in Japanese. Shogun is also an example of this, as his full title was seii taishougun.

3. Longer than in the original language

In English, this is usually due to adding English words to the Japanese one, often in a way which could make the meaning clear in English in a way which wouldn’t be necessary in Japanese, giving us sumo wrestling, soy sauce (the word soy comes from shoyu, meaning soy sauce), and head honcho (from the Japanese hanchou). This also happens in Japanese, especially with the adding of suru (do) to English words to make verbs, e.g. up suru (appu suru – to rise or raise). There are also examples where the expression only uses English words, but is still longer than the English equivalent, e.g. neck tie (nekku tai – a tie). There are also examples in both languages of adding affixes, e.g. moxibustion from the Japanese mogusa.

4. More restricted meaning

The most common category of words which have amore restricted meaning in English than in Japanese are words that are just used to refer to Japan or Asia in English but are used more generally in Japanese. These include made in Japan expressions like anime, which only means Japanese animation in English but is much more general in Japanese, and salaryman, which basically means the same as office worker in Japanese. The same is true of Japanese words like tsunami (a tidal wave), manga (any kinds of comics in Japanese), katsu (any kind of cutlet, not just Japanese-style tonkatsu etc), otaku (any kind of obsessive geek or nerd in Japanese, not just anime freaks) and bento (bentou – any kind of packed lunch, including sandwiches, in Japanese).

This is less common in Japanese, perhaps because of the impact Westernization has had on the country, but cake (keiki) cannot refer to traditional Japanese desserts and tea (tii) cannot refer to Japanese or Chinese green tea. Rice (raisu) is also only usually used as a word with imported dishes like curry rice (karee raisu).

One subcategory of those words is words that are only used in English to talk about martial arts, but have a more general original meaning in Japanese, e.g. sensei (a general term of respect used especially for teachers but also experts in Japanese) and sempai (anyone in a more senior but similar position).

In the same way, there are many words that are used to sports in Japanese without having their wider English meaning, such as crawl (kurooru) and stroke (sutorooku) in swimming, safe (seifu) in baseball, and wood and swing (uudo and suingu) in golf.

Another thing that both languages seem to have in common is borrowing words with just their sexual meaning. A hostess (hoosutesu) is only someone who works in a hostess bar in Japanese, not someone who invites you to something, and hentai has the more general meaning of perverted in Japanese, rather than just being a genre of comics and animation as in English.

Food is another category where both languages do the same thing. Sake can mean alcohol more generally in Japanese, nihon-shu (Japan spirit) being the unambiguous way of referring to Japanese rice wine. Fugu and maguro refer to the two (living) fish in Japanese as well as to their flesh. The Japanese divide the meat and body by using English in the same way with the word liver (rebaa), which is not used to refer to that part of your body.

Other food ones in Japanese are rare (rea), which never means unusual but only refers to your steak, and bacon, which is always sold ready cooked, making it a bit like ham.

In a similar way, English words which are borrowed to talk about business, Christianity and TV in Japanese often don’t have their more original English meaning. There is a list of these below, along with their more restricted Japanese meanings.

Business and economics

bubble (baburu) – a temporary economic boom, not a soap bubble

dumping (dampingu) – selling products under cost price to eliminate competitors, not throwing things away

feedback (fiidobakku) – telling someone how something went, not the screech of an amp with a microphone too close to it

inflation (infure) – prices going up, not blowing up a balloon etc

plant (puranto) – factory, not trees, flowers etc

slump (suranpu) – only the metaphorical meaning of a bad period, not your shoulders


sister (sisutaa) – a nun, not a member of your family

father (faazaa) – a priest, not your Dad

rosary (rosario, from Portuguese) – Catholic prayer beads, not Buddhist ones


anchor (ankaa) – TV news anchor, not boats

guest (gesto) – TV talk show guest, not guest in your home

Other areas

air con (ea kon, short for air conditioner) – a machine that both cools and heats air, as one that just cools is a kuura (cooler).

alright (oorai) – only used to tell a vehicle backing up, for example into a parking space, that they still have room and can keep coming

bike (baiku) – only used for motorbikes, not bicycles

canvas (kanbasu) – paintings only, not material more generally

club (kurabu) – not used to mean disco

compass (kompasu) – drawing compass only, not navigation tool

department (depaato) – store, not part of company

diary (daiarii) – only one that you write your thoughts about what has already happened (one you write your arrangements in is te-cho or agenda)

director (direkutaa) – only film director, not company executive

flexible (furekusiburu) – personality, not physical stretchability or bendability

initial (inishuru) – part of name, not general meaning of “first”

iron (airon) – contraption for ironing, not material

foundation (faundeishon) – make up only, not building

lab (rabo) – photos only, not science generally

mail (meeru) – only used for emailing, not for snail mail

pinch (pinchi) – tight spot, not physical action

puzzle (pazuru) – jigsaw puzzle, not more general meaning

straw (sutoroo) – drinking only, not dried grasses on farms

summit (samitto) – important conference only, not top of a mountain

terror (tero) – only means terrorism, not fear more generally

ticket (chiketto) – for play etc, but not for a train (which is the Japanese word kippu)

twin (tsuin) – hotel room, not person born at same time

violet (baioretto) – just the colour, not the flower

wax (wakusu) – floors and cars, not more general e.g. thing from candles and ears

Koi and kimono have more general meanings in Japanese, being carp generally (rather than just expensive pond fish), and all traditional Japanese clothes (it just means ‘wearing thing’)

5. Extended meanings

One example of this is kamikaze in English, which is used in phrases like kamikaze driver to mean dangerous or almost suicidal. In Japan it mainly has its original meaning of Japanese suicidal military attacks, plus its original meaning of “wind of the gods”, derived from the storms which saved the island from invasion by the Mongols. Here is a selection of this effect in Japanese:

acryl (akuriru, short for acrylic) – any kind of hard plastic, in contrast with vinyl (biniiru), which is any kind of flexible plastic

billiards (biriyaado) – billiards, snooker or pool

blank (buranku) – blank/ absence

boyfriend (booifurendo) – male friend/ boyfriend

cameraman (kameraman) – cameraman/ photographer

chief (chiifu) – chief/ head/ leader (and therefore used more in Japanese than in English)

colour (karaa) – colour/ character

course (koosu) – as well as the education meanings, often used for a walking route

dead heat (deddo hiito) – dead heat/ close game

elegy (erejii) – elegy/ ballad

even (iibun) – even/ tie/ draw (i.e. also used for the final score)

fastener (fasunaa) – fastener/ zip

freshman (furesshuman) – freshman/ fresher/ new employee

gallery (gyararii) – gallery/ spectators

gang (gyangu) – gang/ gangster

gorgeous (goojasu) – gorgeous/ luxurious

jump (janpu) – jump/ skip levels

kiosk (kiyosuku) – kiosk/ station shop (i.e. also something you can walk into)

knob (nobu) – any kind of door handle, not just a circular one

macaroni (makaroni) – macaroni/ pasta generally

merit (meritto) – merit/ advantage (and so used more in Japanese than in English, e.g. to say “There’ no point”)

minus (mainasu) – minus/ disadvantage

miss (misu) – miss/ error/ mistake/ typo (and so used more in Japanese than English)

napkin (napukin) – napkin/ panty liner

neat (niito) – neat/ cool

overhaul (oobaahooru) – overhaul/ any kind of medical check up

pack (pakku) – pack/ carton

pants (pantsu) – seems to have both the British and American meaning, although usually the former (= underpants)

pass (pasu) – pass/ skip (school)

pick up (pikku appu) – pick up (in your car)/ select

robot (robotto) – robot/ figurehead

rucksack (ryukkusakku) – rucksack/ knapsack (i.e. can be small)

sack (sakku) – sack/ fingerstall (protective covering for finger)

scrap (sukurappu) – scrap/ (newspaper) clippings

sign (sain) – sign/ signature/ autograph

snack (sunakku) – snack or, more commonly, a kind of small bar

sofa (sofaa) –sofa/ armchair

step up (suteppu appu) – step up/ be promoted

summertime (samaataimu) – summertime/ daylight saving time

terrace (terasu) – terrace/ balcony

trainer (tureina) – sweatshirt/ tracksuit

trump (toranpu) – playing cards (not just one game you can play with them)

unit (yunitto) – unit/ prefabricated (e.g. all-in-one fitted bathrooms)

Viking (baikingu) – buffet/ smorgasbord/ eat all you like

vinyl (biniiru) – any kind of flexible plastic, as in biniiru bukurou (plastic bag), not just records and fake leather jackets and sofas as in English

wagon – cart/ wagon/ station wagon/ estate (car)

yacht (yotto) – any kind of sailing boat, however small

6. Other changed meanings

One similarity is when the word is used to describe something that doesn’t quite exist in the other country. For example, there are no sofa beds made of wooden slats in Japan, and a futon is just a thin mattress that lies directly on the floor. In the same way the abbreviation apart (apaato) would be considered a kind of apartment in English speaking countries, but the specific meaning of wooden two storey building doesn’t exist outside Japan. A talent (tarento) also describes a kind of professional TV celebrity that doesn’t really exist outside Japan, hence the borrowing of the Japanese spelling back into English to talk about that job in Japan.

Another similarity is the use of place names to refer to things that come from there. In English we have satsuma from the Japanese region for the fruit that they call mikan, and in (rather old-fashioned) Japanese they have Saville Row (sebiro) for a suit.

A more general and confusing one is tycoon, which comes from taikun, one title for the shogun in Japan and so in no way originally connected to business. Here are some of the many examples of these other changes in Japanese:

accent (akusento) – word and sentence stress (not the way you speak that shows where you come from)

almighty (oorumaitii) – supreme/ dominating (and so used more than the English word, e.g. in sports)

at home (atto hoomu) – relaxed atmosphere, as in “make yourself at home”, but used as an adjective

attack (atakku) – take on a challenge/ go for it

barracks (barakku) – decrepit buildings

boy (booi) – bell boy/ porter

cabaret (kabaree) – part of the sex industry, stripshow

challenge (charenji suru) – undertake something difficult

charming (chaamingu) – (physically) attractive

cider (saidaa) – soda/ lemonade

claim (kureimu) – a complaint, especially meaning one demanding a refund etc

classic (kurashikku) – classical music (not classic rock etc)

condenser (kondensaa) – capacitor (so nothing to do with condensation, unlike the English meaning)

cooler (kuura) – an air conditioner that only cools the air and doesn’t heat (unlike Japanese air con)

co-op (koopo) – one step better than an apaato, looking the same but having thin concrete walls

cunning (kunningu) – cheating, e.g. in exams

dead ball (deddo booru) – hit by a pitched baseball

feminist (feministo) – gentleman, i.e. treating a lady like a lady

fireman (faiaman) – relief pitcher (in baseball)

flying (furaingu) – false start

free pass (furii pasu) – all day ticket (to a theme park, meaning you can go on all rides)

gown (gaun) – dressing gown

gravure (gurabia, short for photogravure) – girls in bikinis (A/V being girls without bikinis)

ground (guraundo) – playground (school or park)

half (haafu) – mixed race, one parent being Japanese

heights (haitsu) – a medium-ranking apartment block, similar to a co-op

hire (haiyaa) – limousine

jumper (janpaa) – zip up jacket (not sweater)

klaxon (kurakushon) – (car) horn

lynch (rinchi) – beating up

madam (madamu) – proprietress of bar

mania (mania) – a fanatic, rather than his obsession. Also notice the short first vowel sound

mansion (manshon) – a modern apartment block, usually (but no always) fairly high rise, and made from reinforced concrete

mind (maindo) – intention

mother com (mazaa con, short for mother complex) – Oedipus complex

on parade (on pareedo) – on display (e.g. in a shop window)

post (posto) – mailbox

premium (puremiamu) – additional charge, for example for not sharing a room. Note the vowel sounds

propose (puropoozu) – proposal

reform (rifoomu) – house renovation or mending clothes

rinse (rinsu) – (hair) conditioner

road show (roodo shoo) – first run of movies

sales point (seerusu pointo) – selling point/ USP

skyline (sukairain) – mountain highway

smart (sumaato) – slim

spats (supattsu) – Lycra shorts

stamp (sutampu) –postmark/ date stamp/ etc (not a postage stamp)

tenant (tenanto) – to let (often seen in shop windows)

wet (wetto) – overly sentimental, with dry (dorai) as the opposite

7. Words that are less used in the original language

One reason a word might be used less in one language is that it has a connotation that hasn’t gone into the other language. For example, yakuza comes from an insult and is never used in the more respectable press (it’s bouryoku-dan – violence gang), let alone to a yakuza’s face!

In a similar way, it is generally okay to say homo for homosexual, half (haafu) for mixed race/ half Japanese, les (lezu) for lesbian, and Indian for American Indian in Japanese – but very much to be avoided in modern English.

Shintou isn’t a taboo word, but the Japanese rarely talk about religion and might not even think of the local shrine as part of anything larger, so many Japanese are unaware of the word. Because of its WWII and post-war history, it could perhaps be considered a member of the next major group, which is words which have faded both from history and consciousness in the original country. Hotchkiss (hotchikisu) was apparently a famous brand of stapler before becoming the general word in Japan and Korea but disappearing from memory elsewhere. Taikun (the source of tycoon) is virtually unknown in modern Japanese. Mikado is slightly more common, but much less so than tennou. Netsuke (things that used to hang off kimonos) were always more popular as collectors’ items in the West, and have died out completely as part of a kimono.

The terms issei, nissei and sansei (first, second and third generation Japanese-Americans/ Japanese Brazilians etc) are more used outside Japan, simply because that is there they live!

More articles on “Japanese English”

How the Japanese Chop Up English

Made-in-Japan English words and expressions

Pronunciation Changes in Japanese English

How Japanese English Works

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net October 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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