15 Japanese words that English needs
Every language has words that cannot be translated into English without cumbersome and lengthy explanations, and yet are so good at conveying some elusive quality that you cannot help but wonder why there is no English equivalent. Japanese is no exception, and some of my favorite words offer a glimpse into Japan’s own unique view of beauty and impermanence, while others are clever plays on words or convenient shorthand used every day.
This word refers to the sunlight shining through the leaves of trees, creating a sort of dance between the light and the leaves. Although Japan certainly does not have a monopoly on an appreciation for nature, this word is a good indicator of the respect for nature and attention to the changing of the seasons embodied in Japanese culture.
Literally “forest bath,” shinrinyoku means walking through the forest and soaking in all the green light. We are all aware on some level of the restorative effect of walking in forests, but it took the Japanese to put a word to it.
Although now used as a single word, wabi and sabi used to be distinct words and concepts. Originally, wabi referred to desolation and loneliness, but took on more positive implications around the fourteenth century when spiritual asceticism came to be admired. The meaning of sabi has also evolved from ‘withered’ to the beauty of passing time. These two words are now typically combined and sum up a key Japanese aesthetic rooted in Buddhist teachings—the imperfect, incomplete, and transient nature of beauty. Objects that elicit a sense of quiet melancholy and longing could be defined as wabi-sabi, such as wood that gains a mellow patina over time, falling autumn leaves, or a chipped vase.
Literally ‘leaf-wilting wind’, kogarashi refers to the withering wind that comes at the start of winter and blows the last leaves off of the trees. Although used in countless haiku since the Edo period, it has been more prosaically defined by Japan’s Meteorological Agency as northerly gusts with speeds of 8 meters per second or more. They even keep a record of when kogarashi first visits every year.
5. Mono no aware
This word combines mono, or ‘thing’, with aware, which means sensitivity or sadness, to connote a pathos engendered by a sense of the fleeting nature of life. This gentle sadness accompanied by a sense of the transitory nature of beauty lies at the heart of Japanese culture. Accepting this impermanence can lead to a sense of joy in the present moment, however insubstantial it may be, and even a recognition that beauty and intransience are two parts of a whole.
This phrase, which literally means ‘I humbly receive’, is said before every meal, and expresses appreciation for all the work that went into the meal that is about to be eaten. It conveys a respect for all living things, but at a more pedestrian level, signals that it is time to eat.
This set phrase is said whenever you enter someone else’s house, signifying that you know you are going to be a bother and apologize in advance. When using this phrase, you are signifying your own modesty and sense that you are intruding.
The meaning of this word differs depending on the setting. When said to colleagues at work, you are recognizing their hard work by saying something like “it’s been tough and you must be tired”. It is used as a greeting on arriving at work, during the day when you see colleagues in the hallway and when you leave the office. Sometimes it is even used in place of ‘cheers’ when drinking together with friends on a Friday after a hard work week. Gokurasamadesu has a similar meaning, with the crucial difference that it is only used by seniors to their subordinates. Although they might seem like empty phrases, they smooth interactions in stressful workplaces.
This adjective is commonly used when something evokes a sense of nostalgia for the past or fond remembrance. It is not a wistful longing, but a happy look back at a past memory, for instance when looking at old pictures from childhood.
A Buddhist word that has found its way into the vernacular, mottainai means ‘what a waste!’ and expresses regret over this waste. This wastefulness not also pertains to physical resources, but also to a misuse of opportunities and time. It can also be used to deflect praise that one feels isn’t deserved. The concept of mottainai has been adopted in the environmental movement, with a sense of appreciation for nature built into the determination not to waste its gifts.
Kuidaore means to go bankrupt because you spend all your money on food and drink. The very existence of this word is evidence, if any was needed, of how much Japanese people love good food. This term also means someone who plays around and doesn’t work.
Shogania means ‘it can’t be helped’, but also expresses a conviction that there’s no point in complaining if a situation is out of one’s control. This mentality can be both realistic and fatalistic, and perhaps helps explain why Japanese people deal with earthquakes and tsunami without much complaining, and also why so many rail about the ruling government party but don’t bother to vote.
The author James Michener defines shibui as ‘acerbic good taste’, and indeed it comes from the word shibushi, which means a sour or astringent taste, and is still employed as an adjective to describe the taste of sour fruit or bitter tea. Shibui could be used to describe something that is old-fashioned but appealing (although probably not to a teenage girl). This word can also be used to describe a scowling face or miser-like behavior, but in an aesthetic sense it refers to something that is charming precisely because it is understated and low key.
This word is made up of the English back and the German schoen (‘beautiful’) to refer to a woman who looks lovely from behind but turns out to be unattractive when she turns around. Although we might not appreciate this sentiment, the combination of English and German is a good example of the ingenuous word play found in Japanese.
This word is made up of the characters for the verb ‘to accumulate, pile up’ and the verb ‘to read’, but it is also a play on tsunde oku, which means to simply pile up something and leave it. It is defined as constantly buying books that accumulate but never get read, but all of us who have piles of unread books at home can take comfort in the presence of the character ‘to read’ in tsundoku, which suggests to me that we will get around to reading our piles of books one of these days.