15 Japanese Words Every English Speaker Should Know
According to the internet, I’m apparently a massive fraud on account of there being countless Japanese words out there that are impossible to translate. Which was a surprise to me because during the 15 years that I've been a professional Japanese translator, I never once had to explain to a client that parts of their copy were untranslatable so I just replaced them with my ranking of the best live-action Batman actors.
Every word is translatable. You just sometimes have to use more than one word to do it correctly. Also, there’s no need to pretend that Japanese is some mystical cipher when the real language is already plenty fascinating with words that English should adopt immediately or words with bonkers meanings/etymologies …
“Ryoto-Zukai” Is The Most Badass LGBTQ Term Ever
“Ryoto-zukai” (両刀使い) literally means “two-sword fencer,” and it has a bunch of meanings, including literally a person who fights with two swords or a person who likes both alcoholic drinks and sweet things. Holy hell, Japan actually came up with a word to accurately describe the target demographic for SkittleBrau from The Simpsons.
But the word also has another meaning: a bisexual person. It’s kind of an older term, but as Japan looks to the future and keeps updating its LGBTQ vernacular, I hope they don’t forget about the past and bring “ryoto-zukai” back because it’s the most badass way to describe someone’s sexuality.
“Oyakodon” Is Delicious, Cruel, And Perverted
“Oyakodon” (親子丼) is a Japanese dish of chicken and eggs over rice. It’s pretty great in all ways except its name, seeing as the “oyako” part literally means “parent and child,” which is a poetic though kind of messed up way to describe chickens and eggs, especially while you’re eating them. The name is technically accurate, but no dish should ever sort of remind you of Sophie’s Choice.
Finally, “oyakodon” is also a porn term for smut where a guy gets with a MILF and her daughter … which I learned when some guy shouted about it at me on the street … while I was on my way to the Bible store. Weird bonus fact: Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” was inspired by a Chinese version of oyakodon. And since we’re on the subject …
“Shiin” Is The Literal Sound Of Silence In Japanese
Not all Japanese “onomatopoeia” transcribe natural sounds. Many of them are mimetic, describing emotional states, actions, manners, etc. Think of old-timey comics where a character would punch someone and the word “PUNCH” would appear over it. It’s a little bit like that. In any case, Japan has thousands of words that can describe any situation, including a state of silence, which is “shiin” (シーン).
It may seem paradoxical to have a word to linguistically mimic the “absence of words/sounds,” but it actually works out great in conversation, like: “So I told her I loved her and wanted to have 10 babies with her, but she went all shiiiiiin, got up, and ran away from the restaurant. Weirdest first date ever.” The word can be stretched as far as you want to until it sounds like someone flatlining, which is legit how I first memorized it.
“Kusshon Kotoba” Help Soften The Blow
Pronunciation: koo-shyon koh-toh-bah
The “kusshon” in “kusshon kotoba” (クッション言葉) is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the English “cushion,” while “kotoba” means “word(s).” So together, the expression means “cushion words,” which you know ALL ABOUT and probably use all the time.
“I’m sorry but,” “I know you must be very busy but,” “If it’s all right with you” are all examples of “cushion words” meant to ease you into an awkward topic or to help you segue into asking for a favor. Or both, if you’re the type of person who frequently has “accidents” that always end with stuff getting stuck inside your butt. So everyone in the English-speaking world knows cushion words. They just never had a proper word for them until now.
“Betsubara” Describes An Internal Organ We Always Suspected We Had
Picture this. It’s Thanksgiving. You’ve eaten so much that you not only unbuttoned your pants, you allowed your zipper to go all the way down because the shame portion of your brain is drowning in a pool of turkey meat and gravy. You are on your phone googling if it’s possible to literally burst from overeating like that guy in Se7en. You physically cannot eat more. Then someone brings out pie, and you’re suddenly “Oh, I’ll have a slice.” Where will you fit it, though? In the “other stomach,” of course, which is what “betsubara” (別腹) literally means.
It’s kind of a joke term describing our amazing ability to always make room for dessert, no matter how much we begged God mere seconds ago to “just come down here and finish the job, coward!”
“Debu” Is The Pinnacle Of Fat-Shaming
“Debu” (デブ) is often simply translated as “fatso,” “pig,” “porker,” etc. Suffice to say, it’s not a nice word but to fully understand just how nice it isn’t, we have to talk about its etymology. There are three theories as to the origin of “debu.”
One says that it’s related to “deppari,” meaning “bulge.” The other one says it comes from the English “double chin,” which would be pronounced something like “daburu chin” in Japan, and with time was shortened to just “dabu” and eventually became “debu.” The third theory also traces the word back to an English expression … specifically “Death and Burst.” It works like “Pokémon,” which comes from Poketto Monsutaa (pocket monsters). So you take the “de” from “death” and the “bu” from “burst,” put them together, and, voila, you’re now an asshole.
“Tsundoku” Is Japan Not Understanding That We NEED All Those Books
Books are available everywhere and for dirt-cheap prices in Japan. I have personally seen countless people finish reading a book and then just … throw it away or leave it on a bench. Meh, what do they care? It was probably like a buck fifty, and if they kept every book they read, their entire life would be nothing but books. They would constantly be surrounded by books, sleep on books, and eventually be buried in books.
That’s why Japan understands better than anyone else that buying books and reading books are two very different hobbies. And if you’re reading this while shamefully eyeing The Stack (C) (TM) that keeps growing with each day, know that Japan has a word for it: “Tsundoku” (積読), the stockpiling of tattooed trees that will probably forever remain unread no matter how much you lie to yourself.
“Baishun”: A Surprisingly Poetic Word For Sex Work
Japan has A LOT of words for prostitution, which you’d kind of expect from a country that was once home to the wildest red-light district in the world. Some are very straightforward, like the mostly-out-of-use “inbai,” literally meaning “selling lust.” Then there is “baishun” (売春), a term which became popular during the Meiji Period (1868—1912) and literally means “selling spring.”
“Spring” is a synonym for youth and beauty in many cultures around the world, but what’s interesting about “baishun,” i.e., the selling of one’s youth, is that it started out as a lyrical euphemism but is currently an actual legal term used in Japan’s Anti-Prostitution laws. And the world should follow Japan’s example because “creating ephemeral rivers of gold” sounds a bit better than “public urination.”
“Kuchisabishii” Is The Cutest Euphemism For Addiction Ever
Sometimes, people eat not because they’re hungry but because they want something in their mouth . You may also experience a similar need to stuff your gob when giving up smoking.
There’s a name for all of those feelings in the English language, but it’s terrible: “oral craving/fixation.” The word “oral” is just all-around awful. It’s way too clinical, and it ruins everything it’s put in front of, especially “sex.” Just say “mouth hug down low” like a normal person, FFS. Also, take a lesson from Japan. When they were looking for a way to describe your mouth feeling lonely, they called it exactly that: “mouth-lonely,” the literal meaning of “kuchisabishii” (口寂しい).
“Madogiwa-Zoku” Is Hell To Some And Paradise To Others
Its popularity is fading, but the idea of lifetime employment at the same company is still going strong in Japan. It may sound like a slow death to you, but it has its benefits. The system heavily favors seniority, meaning that you’re pretty much guaranteed raises and promotions if you just stay with the company long enough … Unless you become such a burden that you get made part of the “madogiwa-zoku” (窓際族), the “window-side tribe.” It refers to employees relocated somewhere out of the way and given NO TASKS at all.
They still get paid, but they don’t do anything during work hours, which is management’s subtle way of encouraging them to quit because under the lifetime employment system, getting fired would require you literally burning the company down using your boss’ cherished family photos as kindling. Most would quit because they lacked the vision of George Constanza.
“Mai Buumu” Is The Perfect Word To Temporarily Obsess Over
“Mai Buumu” (マイブーム) is the Japanese pronunciation of “My Boom,” which may sound like an angry toddler claiming ownership of your stack of illegal fireworks, but it actually has a cool meaning: “ current obsession.” Those who have periods when they are ALL about one thing, be it learning a new language, a new smartphone game, or wanting to eat butter toast all the time, can be described as experiencing their “Mai Buumu” moment.
However, like an actual explosion, the obsession has to be temporary and not turn into a lifelong passion, etc. The word had its heyday during the '90s, but it feels tailor-made for modern times when access to all kinds of knowledge is so easy, we all routinely make like Cyber Alice and fall down internet rabbit holes.
“Nekojita” Is Japan Calling You A Pussy For How You Like Your Food
You ever take a bite of something that’s a bit too hot, so you open your mouth to air cool it inside you because taking it out would be giving up, and your parents may have raised an anxious neurotic with more issues than a newspaper publisher, but they didn’t raise no quitter? Yeah, well, some people can’t do that. Not because it makes them look like a panting pug, but because they quite literally can’t handle the heat. Their mouths just aren’t made to handle hot food. Japan calls that having a “cat tongue” or “nekojita” (猫舌).
There are a couple of theories as to the etymology of the word, but the overall point is that if your friend routinely burns their mouth, Japan says that it’s okay to call them a pussy.
“Happobijin” Are Not Really Bad People But Dealing With Them Can Be A Headache
Does this sound familiar?
1: Where the hell is Steve? He promised he’d help me move that corp … I mean couch out of my basement.
2: Wait, he promised to watch an oyakodon por … I mean, read the Bible with me today.
3: I think he’s at that ska concert with Dave. He had an extra ticket he didn’t want to go to waste.
2: … Who still listens to ska? What a loser.
The thing is, Steve had every intention of keeping his promises, but he overextended himself because he’s always trying to be everyone’s friend. In other words, he’s an “all-direction beauty” or “happobijin” (八方美人). Again, they’re not bad people, but like a chemist who doesn’t know the abbreviation for nobelium, they really need to learn how to say “No.”
“Yuufoo Kyacchaa” Are Rigged! Just One More Game, Though …
This phrase is the Japanese pronunciation of “UFO Catcher” (ユーフォー/UFO キャッチャー), though you’d be forgiven for thinking that it refers to some kind of alien fetishist. Thankfully, it’s just the Japanese term for claw crane games. Japan does have Western-style “robo-hand” crane games, but the catching mechanism on the most popular variety does kind of look like a flying saucer with two grabbers, one of which IS MORE LIMP THAN BOILED SPAGHETTI WITH WHISKEY DICK.
You usually have to spend a preset amount of money before both grabbers start working properly, but once they do, it’s actually easy to grab a prize, some of which are pretty cool arcade exclusives. That being said, “UFO Catcher” would also be a pretty accurate name for alien fetishists, which must exist in Japan because Japan.
“Batakusai” Is Japan Throwing Shade At The West
For most of the Edo Period (1603—1868), Japan was isolated from the world, but after the US metaphorically came up to the country’s front door with shotgun in hand and started coughing suggestively, the country opened its borders to the West. They got some neat things out of it, though, like access to plenty of ice cream, beer, and butter. For some reason, the country really focused on that last one and started describing all things Western-influenced or European/American-looking as “smelling of butter” or “batakusai” (バタ臭い).
This is a very outdated term, and on the rare occasion you spot it in the wild, it’s probably being used ironically. But it should totally make a comeback so that Americans can know how French people feel when some butter-smelling bastard calls them “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
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Top image: Aj Garcia/Unsplash