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26 April 2020

10 Japanese Loanwords We Use in English

(This article was reviewed and edited by native Japanese speakers to ensure accuracy.)

English speakers tend to look at Japanese as an ancient and arduous language, which is far away from other idioms. However, Japanese words are everywhere in the English language, and we commonly (and fluently) use them as part of our daily conversations.

The best starting point for learning Japanese is to identify these loan words and use them as a base to start building your fluency.

Here, you will find 10 Japanese words that we use in English habitually. It is interesting to see how often the pronunciation of some words may change. Besides, the original Japanese meaning can sometimes differ from the adapted English version. Understanding these differences can be one of the keys to master the Japanese language.

1. Hentai

Japanese: 変態 (hiragana: へんたい)

Kanji details:  変 (へん) unusual, strange + 態 (たい) attitude, condition, appearance

In the English language, it is mainly used to describe pornographic cartoons, especially of Japanese origin or drawn in a Japanese style.

In everyday language, the term primarily refers to a person with pervasive sexual habits or who expresses his libido in an inappropriate way.

There are also more technical uses. In biology and physics terminology, it describes the act of transformation, typical of anthropoids such as insects and crustaceans.

The word originally appeared in the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) to describe abnormal or unusual traits, including paranormal powers and psychological disorders.

Omae, mikake ni yorazu hentai da na!
Despite appearances, you are a pervert!

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2.    Karaoke

Japanese: カラオケ

Kanji details: N/A (This word is written in Katakana.)

In the Japanese language, karaoke is the clipped compound of 空 (kara, empty) and オーケストラ (ōkesutora, orchestra). The literal meaning of “empty orchestra” refers to a piece of music without vocals

Karaoke first became popular in English in 1979. Outside Japan, amateur singers usually perform in a common area at bars and pubs, in front of an audience that includes strangers.

In Japan, “karaoke boxes” are common places to enjoy karaoke. They offer private karaoke rooms where people can sing in front of their friends only.

Moreover, different versions of karaoke devices, such as wankara (ワンカラ, “solo karaoke”) are available in Japan. This is a smaller karaoke box which serves only a single person, with no audience.

Karaoke ni ikanai?
Do you want to go to karaoke?

3.    Tsunami

Japanese: 津波 (hiragana: つなみ)

Kanji details: 津 (つ) port, harbour + 波 (なみ) waves

A tsunami is a gigantic sea wave produced by a seaquake or undersea volcanic eruption. The word refers to a large-scale wave propagation phenomenon, that occurs in oceans due to sudden changes caused by earthquakes, volcanic activity and mountain collapse.

Tsunami ga kimasu node chūishite kudasai.
A tsunami is coming, so please be careful.

4.    Sushi

Japanese: 寿司 (hiragana: すし)

Kanji details: 寿 (す) longevity, congratulations + 波 (司) official

Undoubtedly, sushi is the quintessence of Japanese food for those living outside this country. It is prepared with vinegar rice and a variety of ingredients, such as seafood.

The increasing popularity of this delicacy around the world has resulted in a wide variety of styles of sushi. This includes the use of ingredients which are not typically used in Japan, like cucumber, avocado and tropical fruits.

In Japan, when people talk about sushi, they usually refer to “nigiri” whereas in Western countries, people may think of “maki” when they talk about sushi.

Sushi no gu wa nani ga suki desu ka?
Which sushi ingredients do you prefer?

5.    Karate

Japanese: 空手 (hiragana: からて)

Kanji details: 空 (から empty) + 手 (て) hand

Karate is a martial art featuring punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, and other open-hand techniques. It was introduced in Japan in the early 20th century and systematically taught after the Taishō era (1912–1926).

English-speakers began to use the word karate in the 1960s to refer to all striking based Asian martial arts. In Japan, karate refer to this specific from of martial art.

Chūgaku no toki wa karatebu deshita.
I used to be in a karate club when I was in junior high school.

6.    Futon

Japanese: 布団 (hiragana: ふとん)

Kanji details:  布 (ふ) linen, cloth + 団 (とん) group, association

Futons are maybe one of the most emblematic elements of Japanese décor. This traditional bedding consists of a mattress and a duvet, which are pliable to be stored away in a closet when not in use.

What people call “futon” in the West is bigger, as they have the dimensions of a western mattress. Moreover, they are thicker, and they do not need to be aired regularly. In contrast, traditional Japanese mattresses (known as 敷き布団, shikibuto) must be aired in the sun frequently to prevent mould and to keep them free of mites.

In Japan, Western-style futon are simply known as ベット (beddo, bed) and generally not considered “futon”.

Maiasa futon o katazuketeimasu.
Every morning, I put away my futon.

7.    Emoji

Japanese: 絵文字 (hiragana: えもじ)

Kanji details: 絵 (え) picture + 文 (も) decoration, figures + 字 (じ) character, letter

Emoji are smileys used in electronic messages and web pages. In Japan, the word emoji refers to Unicode pictograms, or typographic approximations, where a combination of letters and pictures is used to describe a word or a sentence. In different contexts, emoji can also describe a picture that replaces words or symbols (for example, a mark indicating an emergency exit).

Although numerous claims have been made to who invented the first emoji, Japan was the first country to widely adopt them in 1997. Their popularity increased worldwide in the 2010s after being introduced in several mobile operating systems. The word emoji itself derives from the Japanese terms for “pictogram”.

Musume wa emoji wo yoku tsukau.
My daughter often uses emoji.

8.    Zen

Japanese: 禅 (hiragana: ぜん)

Kanji details:  禅 (ぜん) dhyāna (profound meditation), Buddhism

In the Japanese language, 禅宗 (ぜんしゅう, zenshū) refers to certain branches of the Mahayana Buddhism school. The Zen doctrine emphasises the use of meditation to achieve an intuitive illumination of the mind. To this end, rigorous self-restraint, constant meditation and in-depth insight into the nature of mind and things are essential.

Over the last centuries, the term zen has been adopted in Western countries, but with an entirely different meaning, which is instead not used in Japan. In the English language, zen is used more as slang for feeling peaceful and relaxed. When using the word zen, English-speakers refer to a state of inner peace that is not linked to Buddhism teachings. On the contrary, “being zen” is often associated with a minimalist or laid-back lifestyle.

Zen wa obei demo ninki ga arimasu.
Zen is popular also in Western countries.

9.    Kombucha

Japanese: 昆布茶 (hiragana: こぶちゃ)

Kanji details:  昆 (こ) descendants, insect + 布 (ぶ) linen, cloth + 茶 (ちゃ) tea

Kombucha is a fermented, lightly alcoholic and effervescent, sweetened black or green tea. This beverage, consumed for its supposed health benefits, is believed to have originated in Manchuria.

In Japan, the term kombucha (commonly called kobucha) refers to kelp tea, which is made with powdered kombu, a type of edible kelp. In other words, it is an entirely different beverage. Linguists advocate that this may be a case of a misapplied loanword from Japanese. The correct Japanese kanji for fermented tea are 紅茶キノコ (kōcha kinoko, literally “red tea mushroom”).

Kobucha wa oobei ya oosutoraria de, kenkou inryou toshite urareteimasu.
In Europe, America and Australia, kombucha is sold as a health drink.

10.    Sudoku

Japanese: 数独 (hiragana: すうどく)

Kanji details:  数 (すう) number, figures + 独 (どく) single, alone

Sudoku is a logic-based, number-placement puzzle which objective is to fill a 9×9 grill with digits so that each column and each row contains all the numbers from 1 to 9.

The game first appeared in 1979 and was published by the Japanese puzzle company Nikoli under the name of Sudoku (“single number”) in 1986. The puzzle officially gained its popularity outside Japan in 1997, when a judge from Hong Kong developed a computer program to produce unique grills. Sudoku was initially introduced in Britain in 2004.

Sekai sudoku senshūken wa 2006 nen kara kaisaisareteimasu.
The World Sudoku Championship has been held since 2006.

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25 April 2020

How to say “cute” in Japanese

(This article is reviewed and edited by native Japanese speakers to ensure accuracy.)

You might already be familiar with the Japanese word “kawaii” for the word “cute”. There are countless anime, manga, and even an entire “kawaii” culture. In Japan, children and adults alike, embrace the childishness and cuteness of everything. Did you know that there are actually many words in Japanese that are used to express “cute” in different contexts?

Here are seven words that can mean “cute”, or used to compliment someone, and how to use them! 

1. かわいい – Kawaii

One of the most famous words in the Japanese language, かわいい, can have many meanings. It can sometimes be confusing to understand all of the unique nuances. 

It can be used to describe something cute and small: puppies, babies, children, etc…

Sono koinu kawaii ne. 
That puppy is so adorable/cute

However, it can also be used to describe something that is small because being small is associated with cuteness. 

Kono ryouri kawaii ne. 
The dish is quite small. 

かわいい can also be used to describe someone attractive, particularly a woman. Other than cute, it can often mean that the woman has a childish appearance or a sweet personality. 

AKB48 no onnanoko-tachi meccha kawaii. 
The girls in AKB48 are very cute. 

It is also possible to use it to describe clothing, accessories, and items that are cute.

Pretty much anything that’s adorable or cute can be かわいい!Just make sure to keep in mind that there are big gender differences in spoken Japanese. For example, men will rarely use this word to complement each other about their outfits or items. This is because it’s a word that’s often associated with femininity. 

Sukaato kawaii ne.
That skirt is cute. 

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Sometimes there is also a possibility to use かわいい when refering to someone who is endearing and cute. This could even apply to a middle-aged man and often young women will say this. Keep in mind that this does not mean that the man is attractive, it is just that there is something adorable about him. If you saw a middle-aged man with an ice cream cone or with a tiny poodle you might want to say: 

Ano ojisan kawaii!
That middle-aged man is cute! 

The last thing I wanted to add is that many Japanese learners easily confuse かわいい (kawaii) with a very similar sounding word, 怖い (kowai). 怖い means scary. If you’re planning to tell a special someone that they are かわいい, make sure to say the right word! 

2. かっこいい – Kakkoii 

This is a compound word that includes looks (かっこ) and good (いい). Just like the word “cute”, it is useful when we want to express attraction towards someone. However, compared to かわいい, it is often used to describe men. It usually means that you admire or look up to them. Other synonyms include handsome, good-looking, and cool. 

Suzuki-kun kakkoii yo ne.
Isn’t Suzuki-kun handsome?

Hito o tasukeru no kakkoii!
It’s cool to help someone!

かっこいい can be also be used to describe clothing, accessories, and things that have a cool style. It’s usually associated with men but can also apply to women. When I think about this word, I imagine motorcycles, rock bands, or cowboy boots! 

Sono kawajan kakkoii ne.
That leather jacket is cool. 

When used towards women, it generally means that the woman is cool. Make sure not to use かっこいい if you want to describe a woman as being attractive in a cute way. 

Hajimete no josei uchuu hikoo-shi nan datte. Kakkoii.
I hear she is the first female astronaut. She is so cool. 

3. キュート – Kyuuto

キュートis an English loan word from the word “cute”. There is a general feeling in Japan that foreign words are especially stylish and trendy. If you’ve been to Japan, maybe you’re familiar with the random English words on T-shirts or in J-pop song lyrics. When the word “cute” is expressed as キュート, it’s often used for advertisements, Japanese idol groups, and things that are fashionable.

Kyuuto na baggu.
A cute/stylish handbag.

4. きれい – Kirei 

This word can be used to describe something or someone that is pretty or beautiful in a casual way. This usually isn’t a word used towards men, and it is more often towards women.

きれい as a compliment for a woman generally sounds more mature than かわいい.

Satou-san tte kirei janai?
Isn’t Satou-san beautiful? 

Another meaning for きれい is clean. It may seem a bit odd that the same word for pretty could mean clean. However, a reason for this double meaning is that Japanese culture values cleanliness.

Heya kirei ni shite!
Clean your room!

5. 美人 – Bijin

The word 美人 is made up of two kanji characters meaning beauty (美) and person (人). Compared to some of the other words, it is simple to use as there is only one definition. It means a “beautiful woman”. This word can have a classy and respectable connotation. 

Burajiru no moderu wa bijin desu.
The fashion models from Brazil are beautiful. 

You can also say 美女 (bijo – beautiful woman).

Bijo no kuni ni ikitai.
I want to go to a country of beautiful women.

And 美男 (binan -beautiful man).

Binan bijo no kappuru tte urayamashii.
I envy beautiful couples.

6. 美しい – Utsukushii

During the Heian period (~7th-10th centuries) in Japan, 美しい was actually used in the same way as the modern かわいい. However, over time it has evolved into meaning beautiful. It is considered a classy word, often used in Japanese writing to express deep beauty. It can be used to describe landscapes, color, sound, people, and art. 

Mone no sakuhin wa iro-zukai ga utsukushii desu.
In Monet’s works, the use of colors are beautiful. 

7. イケメン – Ikemen

After appearing in a magazine around 1999, this word started to gain popularity among the younger generation. It comes from the phrase meaning cool (いけてる) and the word “mens” (メンズ) combining to form イケメン. It’s a slang that is used to describe men that are attractive or hot. It’s usually a word used to gossip or talk between friends. Keep in mind that it’s not too common to tell someone directly that they are イケメン。

Sakkaa senshu no kurisutiaano ronaudo wa ikemen.
The soccer player, Christiano Ronaldo, is so hot/cute. 

Guys being “cute” vs. Girls being “cute” 

Now that we’ve gone through the meanings of certain Japanese words and how they relate to the word “cute”, it might be useful to clarify the gender differences. In English we can use “cute” as a word for attraction towards both women and men. However, in Japanese it can be a bit more complicated. Here is an overview! 

  • “That guy is cute”

In Japanese, it’s necessary to be a bit more specific in what you mean by “cute”. It would be unlikely to use かわいい, unless a guy actually had a girly, feminine, and childish look. Instead, choose かっこいい if you think the guy is handsome, cool, or admirable. If you want to be a bit more trendy or if the guy is hot, try using イケメン.

  • “That girl is cute”

When describing women, it’s also important to be mindful of what kind of “cute” you want to express. If the woman is attractive in an adorable, feminine, and innocent way, かわいい would be the way to go. To express that she is beautiful, 美人 or 美しい would be a good choice. If you mean that she’s pretty in a more casual way, use きれい. 

Other ways to translate “cute” to Japanese

There are a few other ways in which “cute” can also be used in English, that might be difficult to translate to Japanese. In certain situations, “cute” is used in a way that means that you’re taking something too lightly. In these situations, it would be translated with あまちゃん.

Atama ga ii to omotteru no? Amachan dane.
Oh, you think you’re smart? That’s cute.

In English, there are also times when “cute” can be used to mean “childish” . In those cases it would be translated with 子供っぽい.

Kono kaigi wa shinken’nanode, kodomoppoi komento wa yamete kudasai.
This meeting is serious, can you stop making cute comments? 

In this way, there are many situations where the word “cute” might have different translations in the Japanese language. As you continue to learn and become familiar with Japanese, you might notice more and more words that could mean something similar to “cute”. Part of the joy of language learning can be the discoveries of new words that can sometimes only exist in another language. I hope this guide has been helpful in mastering the word “cute” in Japanese! 

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