Origin of 15 Japanese loanwords all English speakers use

Karaoke, Emoji, Ramen, etc, are Japanese loanwords we use in everyday life. Did you know other loanwords originated in Japan? 

Whether you have ever learned Japanese or not, you might have used some Japanese loanwords in English. These words are commonly used as a part of the conversation but have you ever heard their origin? Here are 15 Japanese loanwords and their original meanings in Japanese alphabets — Kanji, Katakana


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Definition: a violent wind that has a circular movement, found in the West Pacific Ocean

Japanese Kanji: 台風

Kanji Meaning: 台 (tai): table, 風 (fuu): wind

A typhoon and a hurricane are the same weather phenomenon — tropical cyclones — classified depending on where the storm originates in the world. If tropical cyclones are formed in the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific, the term hurricane is used. The same tropical cyclones formed in the Northwest Pacific is called a typhoon. In 2019, five typhoons landed on Japan including extremely large Typhoon Hagibis by which Japan recorded 74 deaths. 

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Definition: an extremely large wave caused by a violent movement of the earth under the sea

Japanese Kanji: 津波

Kanji Meaning: 津 (tsu) : harbour, 波 (nami) : wave

On 11 March this year, Japan marked the ninth anniversary of the tsunami and nuclear disaster in which “an extremely large wave” literally destroyed thousands of habitants’ lives alongside the harbour in the north part of Japan in 2011. The height of the tsunami was at its highest 16 meters. The Fukushima nuclear power plant exploded due to the earthquakes and spread radioactivity into the air, the land, and the ocean. The two Japanese loanwords, Typhoon, and tsunami would explain how easily Japan can be damaged by natural disaster. 


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Definition: a form of entertainment, originally from Japan, in which recordings of music but not the words of popular songs are played, so that people can sing the words themselves

Japanese Katakana: カラオケ (karaoke)

Before we talk about the origin of karaoke, it is worth knowing that Japanese has four alphabets — hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji. Katakana is the one used for Karaoke. Usually, Katakana is used for “foreign loanwords in Japanese language” which ultimately means the very origin of the word Karaoke is from an English word — orchestra. The word Karaoke can be divided into two parts: the word 空(kara) which means “empty” and オケ (oke) which is the shortened version of orchestra in Japanese pronunciation オーケストラ(ôkesutora).

In Japan, there is a karaoke box which has several small rooms with a karaoke machine, a variety of food and drink menu, and sometimes anime costumes for cosplay. It is quite common that people go to karaoke after their dinner or drink with friends as well as colleagues. In Dublin, there are some karaoke boxes like Ukiyo, or Maneki Karaoke Box


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Definition: Japanese films made using characters and images that are drawn rather than real, or one of these films. 

Japanese Katakana: アニメ(anime)

Again, the word “anime” in Japanese derives from the English word “animation”. And the shortened version of animation — “anime” was exported to the western world. What a trade! Apart from the most well known anime like Dragon Ball, One Piece or Pokemon, Japanese kids and adults also admire the works from Studio Ghibli by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. “Spirited Away” is one of the most popular films from the studio and the film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. The studio released their 21 masterpieces on Netflix this year. 


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Definition: a digital image that is added to a message in electronic communication in order to express a particular idea or feeling 

Japanese Kanji: 絵文字

Kanji Meaning: 絵 (e): picture, 文字 (moji): letter

Emoji has been developing along with the improvement of digital communication in Japan for over the last 30 years. In the mid 1990’s, a small text-sending device pocket bell was widely used among schoolgirls in Japan.  At that time, ❤️was the only emoji to exist in the pocket bells. “❤️was the first emoji in digital communication around 1995”, says Shigetaka Kurita who used to be a member of the development team of i-mode — a mobile internet service in Japan. In 1999, the emergence of i-mode surprised Japanese people with its various types of emoji — about 200 of them. And now in 2020, thousand of emojis enable our joyful digital communication worldwide ?


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Definition: a number of game in which you have to write a number between one and nine in each small box of a 9×9 square

Japanese Kanji: 数独

Kanji Meaning: 数 (suu): number, 独 (doku): independence, isolation 

Sudoku was selected as the word of the year in 2005 by Oxford Languages. As its kanji explains, sudoku is a game you can do by yourself. In Japanese overcrowded metros, people need to entertain themselves by texting friends, reading a book, and solving sudoku. It is a common way for killing time for Japanese people. 


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Definition: a long, loose piece of outer clothing with very wide sleeves, traditionally worn by the Japanese 

Japanese Kanji: 着物

Kanji Meaning: 着 (ki): to wear, 物 (mono): wear 

Unlike the comfortable, and easy wearable kimono on the H&M online shop, the Japanese kimono requires time, engagement, and training. There are even classes to teach how to wear the kimono for Japanese women. Nowadays, it has become uncommon among most of Japanese people to wear the kimono except on special occasions like weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, and so on. 


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Definition: a Japanese fighter, especially in the past, who moves and acts without being seen and usually carries a short sword

Japanese Kanji: 忍者

Kanji Meaning: 忍 (nin): stealth, 者 (ja): person

There are some Japanese loanwords in English which have been used in Japanese for a long time — “ninja” is the one of them.  The ninja referred here is neither a video game, nor a name of a video game player. In the 16th century, a Ninja was a specially trained and skilled person who was hired by a daimyo (a samurai who holds vast land) for the purpose of spying on their enemies. Ninja broadly specialised in their skillset called “ninjutsu” which covered tactics at the battle, and disguises. It is said that ninja also absorbed one of the buddhism teachings “shugendo” in which people gained a spiritual ability by practicing themselves deep in the mountains. 


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Definition: relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change

Japanese Kanji: 禅

Kanji Meaning: 禅 (zen): Zen (Buddhism)

According to Myozen Kodo, the founding teacher of Zen Buddhism Ireland, the word “Zen” became popular in the 1950’s among Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the word went into circulation to describe your own relaxed state. In contrast, Japanese people do not overuse the word “Zen” in their daily life because Zen is normally a part of religious practice of Buddhism which requires training, learning, rituals — something quite disciplined. The Buddhism Zen teaching was brought to Japan from China by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century as a part of Mahayana Buddhism in which the Zen teaching is not only for your own state but also for others. 


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Definition: a sport, originally from Japan, in which people fight using their arms, legs, hands, and feet. 

Japanese Kanji: 空手

Kanji Meaning: 空 (kara): empty, 手(te):hand

Considering around 100 million people on five continents and 192 countries practice karate, it is a time for Japan to appreciate international players who have been handing down and widely spreading karate tradition. Ironically, although karate itself is a Japanese word now, it has its origin in the 14th century on the island of Okinawa, which was known as the Ryûkyû Kingdom at that time. Tôdî, the original word of Karate in the local language in the Ryûkyû Kingdom, became popular among its local people when they were not allowed to bear arms under the rule of the Satsuma Domain (the estate of a daimyo). 


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Definition: a Japanese way of running a company by always trying to improve the way people work and what they do

Japanese Kanji: 改善

Kanji Meaning: 改 (kai): improvement, 善:(zen): goodness

This is the Japanese loanword in business world. Kaizen is a word to describe the business strategy aimed at establishing an environment of continuous improvement. It has five key elements: teamwork, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles, and suggestions for improvement. In 1986, Masaki Imai introduced the Japanese term kaizen to the Western world through his book “Kaizen: The key to Japan’s competitive success” and the book was translated into 14 languages. For Japanese, kaizen is not always a business term but a term simply means an improvement of any kind of activities in your daily life. 


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Needless to say, Toyota is a Japanese automotive manufacturer which ranked on the top of the sales in 2019. Historically, the influence of Toyota in Japan was also undoubtedly huge. Strictly speaking, Toyota is not a Japanese loanword but there is one story which tells us how Toyota was important in Japanese business, and local people. After the company was established by Kiichiro Toyota in 1937 and started its business in the city of Koromo in Aichi prefecture, the city of Komoro changed its name to “Toyota” due to the economic importance of Toyota in 1959. 


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Definition: a Japanese alcoholic drink made from rice and usually drunk warm 

Japanese Kanji: 酒

Kanji Meaning: 酒 (sake): alcohol 

Unlike the definition in English, the word sake describes all kinds of alcohol in Japanese — wine is sake, whiskey is sake, beer is sake! And there is another word “nihon-shu” for a Japanese sake. “Nihon” means Japan in Japanese. 


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Definition: a Japanese meat or fish soup containing noodles (=long thin strips made from flour, water, and egg) and vegetables

Japanese Katakana: ラーメン (râmen)

According to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, many Chinese restaurants were started by Chinese people who settled in Japan after Japan opened its ports to the world in 1859. The opening of these Chinese restaurants gave a way to the formation of Chinatown where Chinese noodles were served. That was the roots of Japanese ramen. Japan invented its own styles of ramen like Tsukemen (dipping noodles), Tonkotsu ramen (noodles in bork bones based soup), and instant noodles like Nissin Cup Noodles which are also common in the Western world. 

In Ireland, there are a variety of choices when you are up for a bowl of ramen like The Ramen Bar, Kokoro Sushi Bento, or wagamama. By the way, wagamama in Japanese means selfish or egoist! 

How many origins of Japanese loanwords did you know? When your friends naturally use these terms in the future, please explain these Japanese meanings to them! It will be a fun time.

Callie Hardy
Callie Hardy


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