Japanese Loan Words

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Whenever you encounter another culture, each culture takes something from the other. So it is with English and Japanese. Each language has borrowed from the other. In the case of English, there’s a long list of borrowings. Some of these have no direct English equivalent and describe inherently Japanese concepts. Others come from Japanese via Chinese. Here are a few examples:

Adzuki – a type of bean
Anime – Japanese animation (interestingly, this word originated from the English/French word animation)
Bonsai – tray gardening
Dojo – a martial arts training ground
Futon – a type of mattress
Geisha – female entertainers
Haiku – a form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines, with 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively.
Hara Kiri – ritual suicide
Honcho – squadron leader
Jujitsu – martial art – meaning ‘soft skill’
Kabuki – Japanese theatre
Kamikaze – strong wind (refers to suicide pilots)
Kanji – A Japanese writing system; refers to the Chinese characters used
Karate – martial art – meaning ’empty hand’
Kimono – a full length robe
Ninja – a stealthy warrior
Origami – folding paper
Rickshaw – a human powered vehicle
Sake – rice wine
Samurai – a warrior
Satsuma – a type of orange
Seppuku – ritual suicide by cutting the abdomen
Soy – a bean
Sumo – a type of wrestling
Sushi – rice combined with other ingredients
Tofu – bean curd; this word is of Chinese origin
Tsunami – a huge wave (incorrectly called a tidal wave).
Zen – a branch of Buddhism

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26 thoughts on “Japanese Loan Words”

  1. Hi Sharon, I’m a native Japanese speaker, who enjoys reading your blog. I found this entry interesting.

    Though I knew the word rickshaw, I didn’t know it originated from a Japanese word. What’s even surprising (to me anyway) is the word soy. Until reading this entry, I never thought that this word came from Japan.

    Many other words with the Japanese origin seem to have been transcribed just as the Japanese people would actually write; yet, those words seem to have been transcribed in a more English way. Rickshaw, for example, is rikisha in Japanese, and ‘rikisha’ is how the Japanese people would transcribe rikisha in English alphabets.

    I believe ‘soy’ came from shouyu (meaning soy sauce, and pronounced like ‘show you’). But if that were the case, I would wonder why it was shouyu but not daizu (soy beans) that served as the origin of the word ‘soy’.

  2. Hi Masafumi

    I’m not an expert, but it might depend on when a particular term entered the language and who brought it. Rickshaw might have been as close as a native English speaker could get to the original.

  3. I am an English-Japanese translator, and I agree with Masafumi about the word “soy”. How could that possibly have come from “shoyu”? I’ve wondered that since well before this blog, of course :). I’ve also wondered about the word “ken” as in “outside of my ken”. It means “prefecture” in Japanese, but I think its similar use in English may just be a coincidence…
    Great post, thanks!

  4. Thanks, Jaimpanese

    Dawn, I speak subject to correction, but I believe that the word ‘ken’ for know is used in Scotland and originates from the German ‘kennen’ to know, hence outside of my ken = beyond my knowledge. Maybe someone who knows more about it will weigh in with a better explanation.

  5. Thanks Sharon, that confirms my suspicions. While I’m here too, the word “salaryman” also popped into my head as one of those re-imported Japanese phrases from English like “anime”. I’ve lived in Japan too long to know, but I believe that one has also picked up use among native English speakers…?

  6. Yes, definitely another re-importation, Dawn. I’m not sure how widely it’s used, but then as a freelancer I’m not often in corporate circles πŸ™‚

  7. Oh, I can’t help but keep coming back to this post! Here are some others:
    aikido (martial art)
    judo (martial art)
    hibachi (charcoal grill or heater)
    kendo (martial art)
    koto (musical instrument)
    Noh (theatre)
    pachinko (pinball game)
    s(h)amisen (musical instrument)
    shiatsu (massage)
    shogun (military general)
    tatami (straw mats/flooring)
    ukiyo-e (woodblock prints)
    zaibatsu (corporate conglomorates)

  8. don’t forget:

    surimi (fake crab meat)
    banzai (desperate charge)
    sashimi (thinly sliced, raw meat)
    ronin (rogue warrior)
    mimikaki (ear wax cleaner)

  9. Thanks for the additions, Peter.

    Georg, I guess it’s all in the way you think about it. I’m talking about their route into English. In some cases the English language borrowed a word from Japanese, which was borrowed by Japanese from Chinese. Hope that makes it clearer.

  10. Are you sure you mean “from Japanese via Chinese”, instead of “from Chinese via Japanese”? Japanese has taken many words from Chinese, but I’m not so sure it is the other way around.

  11. What about skosh? I’ve always wondered why Americans say, “just a skosh bigger”. Isn’t this the same exact meaning is the Japanese sukoshi?

    Tenpura, Saki (sake), Ramen, Sukiyaki, and many other food names come from Japan, obviously.

    We eschew the Japanese term “Yaki Soba” here (sounds like yucky soba), so Japanese merchants have begun calling it “chow mein” instead.

  12. Ikebana?


    Interesting that Kimono is unchanged, Happi has been rendered as “Happy Coat”, but zori were once known here as thongs, and now as flip flops. What’s so hard about saying zori or geta?

  13. I dissagree with your explanation of Geisha” it is more like “a person of culture”

    and Hara kiri mean “cut the belly”.

    The rest is pretty cool.
    thank you for sharing.

  14. “oruka” (γ‚ͺルカ) is a word for killer whale in Japanese (though more common is “shachi” [シャチ]). The word for dolphin is “iruka” (むルカ). Doesn’t it seem like “iruka” and “oruka” should be somehow related, and that orca is of Japanese origin? Well, it turns out that “orca” is of Latin origin.

    Maybe the Japanese “oruka” and the English “orca” are both loaned from Latin. If that’s the case, then why are the Japanese “oruka” and “iruka” so similar?! I don’t think that “iruka” is from Latin. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s a head-scratcher to me.

  15. I’ve also always wondered about “honky-dory”. It really sounds like it could be Japanese. “Honki” (ζœ¬ζ°—) means “truth” or “seriousness”. “Dori” (道理) means “way” or “street”. It seems like things that are “honky-dory” could be going in a “truthful way” (or something like that.)

    I haven’t looked into it, but it seems possible. Nothing like “honkidori” is in current use in Japanese, as far as I know, but it could have been loaned in the distant past. Japanese seems to “evolve” pretty fast. I’ve met plenty of native speakers who say they have a hard time reading a newspaper or understanding some speech from just a few decades ago (e.g., as recent as WWII.)

  16. I too might have to dispute the origin of the word “soy”. How is it that this word could be explained as coming from Japanese? Shouyu doesn’t really sound anything like soy. The Japanese word for soy bean, “daizu,” sounds even less like “soy.”

  17. Wow, I can’t believe nobody got the loan word I heard numerous times growing up in the Midwest, usually when talking about amounts in recipes or being asked about how much someone wants of something.

    It’s used in everyday speech, not exclusively in the context of a Japanese food or art, which is this:

    “skosh” : ‘I’ll have just a skosh.’

    This comes from the Japanese word 少し (sukoshi), which means ‘a little bit’ and is really only used for amounts. The ending i of the ‘shi’ character (し) character is often unspoken or barely enunciated, as well as the u in ‘su’ thus making the transliteration “skosh” pretty accurate.

    (For anyone who’s never heard this, the o in ‘skosh’ makes an “oh” sound, not an “ah” as in squash.)

  18. @Josh:
    I’m a little hesitant to accept /skosh/ as an import of /sukoshi/, as cool as that would be. Let me reason for a second, and see if you share my opinion. The /i/ and /u/ are actually verbalized more often then not, but only appears to be verbally omitted because they have lost their voicing qualities. If you look at the timing of speech, /i/ and /u/ are still being allocated some articulation time by the speaker. The devoicing makes them less audible. The vowels aren’t always devoiced; only when they are inbetween two voiceless consonants (the case here for /u/) or the last phoneme following a voiceless consonant (the case here for /i/) . Say “少しね”. Notice that /i/ is back? That’s bcuz the /n/ of /ne/ is voiced.

    However, an english speaker would probably only perceive /skosh/ not realizing that the vowels are indeed weakly articulated. So, a potential adoption might be /skosh/ as you say.

    But I still have to say this seems a very unlikely load-word bcuz I really don’t think Eng has had enough exposure to Jap. Look at the list of loan-words, does it seem like 少し would belong in that list? All those loan-words are strictly nouns, making it highly unlikely that 少し was imported in its adverbial sense (少しテレビ見る).

    It is also used as a noun (少しけょうだい) but not in the same sense that をニパ or すし is a noun. Notice how every single load-word can be found in the following types of E-sentence:
    {a, an, the, those, these, that, (nothing)} X {is, are} spectacular. For example:
    Those geisha are spectacular.
    That anime is spectacular.
    Sushi is spectacular.
    Kanji are spectacular.
    The constraint is that loan-words must be able to exist independently by themselves as the subject in clause that contains at least a subject and a predicate. 少し in its noun sense (quantifier) fails this test.

    But why do people find it necessary to import foreign words in the first place? Either as social trend or bcuz of the lack of an adequate word in the native language; for example, nonJaps started calling it /sushi/ only because they really had no idea what else to call it. Its not “raw fish”. So why would we adopt a word like 少し when English has already probably half-dozen other words that would do the job for a speaker?

    The only situation I can see an E-native using skosh as 少しis as an ironic or innovative word choice, but only when the listener knows that that is the intention, and then it is more like an inside joke.

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