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Kawaii Japanese for everyday life

The English language is no stranger to being infiltrated by loan words from other languages. As far back as the days of Old English, when there was enormous influence from the Viking invaders, English has always found room for new words and more ways to express similar concepts (e.g. maternal and motherly) and this continues to this day. In particular, I’ve noticed that recently, due to the rising popularity of Japanese culture in English-speaking countries, there has been an influx of Japanese loanwords in English. Sugoi! (That’s pretty much the Japanese equivalent of ‘awesome’.)

Pop culture, technology, and sociology

Recent additions include terms from anime and manga (both of which are borrowed from Japanese) such as hentai, otaku, kawaii, and shojo. Older additions include technologically-related tamagotchi (remember those?!) and keitai. From sociology, there are words such as hikikomori or karoshi, and of course the much older harakiri and seppuku (let’s hope none of our readers feel inspired to do this!). The table below shows the meanings and origins of these words:

Word Meaning Origin
hentai sexually explicit subgenre of anime and manga 変態 abnormal, perverted
otaku fanatic of something (such as computers or manga) 御宅 (オタク)your house, a formal and polite 2nd person pronoun
kawaii cute 可愛い cute
shojo genre of manga and anime aimed at a young female audience 少女 girl
tamagotchi an electronic toy  ‘digital pet’ たまごっち = たまご egg + ウオッチ watch
keitai mobile phone 携帯 portable (short for 携帯電話 ‘mobile phone’)
hikikomori abnormal avoidance of social contact 引き籠もり staying indoors, (social) withdrawal
karoshi death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion 過労死 = 過 excess +labour +death
hara-kiri ritual suicide 腹切り = 腹 abdomen + 切り cutting
seppuku another term for hara-kiri 切腹 = 切 to cut + 腹 abdomen


Food is another arena where English has borrowed gluttonously from Japanese. You can relax with your friends at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or onsen (hot spring) in comfortable yukata (light cotton kimonos) and enjoy the kaiseki (traditional Japanese cuisine) smorgasbord. Or, if you prefer, some crispy gyoza (potstickers) and some piping hot yakitori (chicken skewers) at an izakaya (Japanese pub). Sushi and wasabi are ever popular, while tsukemono (pickled vegetables) remains less well known. Ramen (noodles) are always a popular student choice, but if you’re in the mood for Japanese noodles, you can also have soba (noodles made from buckwheat flower) or udon (thick wheat noodles).

Wax on… Wax off…

Of course, most people associate Japanese with martial arts, and there are plenty of words such as aikido, kendo, dojo, katana, karate, and ju-jitsu that come from Japanese. I was also surprised to note quite a few business terms: aside from the obvious Nikkei, there’s zaibatsu (conglomerate) and kaizen (business philosophy of continuous improvement) as well. And that’s before we even get started on philosophy and religion – there are dozens of loan words from these areas too.  It’s not all work and no play, though – there are plenty of familiar loan words for games. We could play pachinko, do some Sudoku, sing some karaoke, or fold some origami. If you’ve got kids, we could always play Pokemon! For those in for something more cultured, we could go watch kabuki or noh theatre.

Masaka! (‘No way, Jose!’)

I’ll leave you today to speculate which of the following words have come from Japanese:

tycoon, honcho, and skosh

That’s right, all three. Surprised? I thought so.

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