Just as how you use the word “anime” as you talk with your friends about Pokemon, or say the word, “sushi” when you come across a Japanese restaurant in your hometown, the Japanese also have their fair share of borrowing words from other languages. As English is an international language, the Japanese throughout the years have adopted a lot of English vocabulary, but it’s not always obvious!
English words with Japanese pronunciation aside, there are words and expressions coined by the Japanese using English. This Japangish is called “wasei-eigo” in Japan which literally means “made-in-Japan English” (or, let’s just say, “only-in-Japan English”!). Wasei-eigo is being commonly used nowadays in Japan, and it is a part of the language, with some native Japanese speaker not even aware of the origin of the words. Even more interestingly, some Japanese speakers believe these Japanglish words are proper English and mean the same around the world. However, although based on English, “wasei-eigo” words can have quite different meanings from their English origins which can lead to hilarious confusion for English-speaking visitors in Japan. Here is a list of the most amusing and interesting!
It’s obvious once you know it, but at first you can be quite confused as to what kind of a fried potato we’re talking about.
When I first went to McDonald’s in Japan, it took me a few repetitions saying the word, “french fries” at the counter. I had to point out at the menu’s picture just so I could get a hold of my beloved food. I later on found out that “fried potato” is what they call it or sometimes “potato fry”. The term “french fries” is uncommon to them unless they have been overseas or have had foreign influence.
‘Skinship’ refers to any physical contact like hugging, holding hands, or cuddling. It could be between platonic friends, or a mother and a child, and does not necessarily involve only people in a romantic relationship. It comes from blending ‘skin’ and ‘relationship’, or in other words a relationship with a closeness level of skin touching skin. Touch is rare in Japanese culture, even among family and couples, which is why skin on skin connection is marked as special. This is why people greet each other by bowing, you pay by leaving money in a tray so as not to touch the hands of the store clerk, and so on.
No, a high touch is not a higher level of skinship. However, it does involve hand touching hand, arm held high.
“Give me a high five!”
I once said this to my Japanese student and she only stared at my hand as I was anticipating a response. Only then did I understand that they don’t understand “high-five” because they say “high-touch” instead!
This is probably the wasei-eigo whose meaning is the most removed from its English origin. My apologies, but we are not going to talk about sexual consent or anything like that, because consent, ladies, and gentlemen, actually means “electrical outlet”. Yes! Outlet. Socket. The first time I heard it, I almost turned into a human question mark, as I was the only one who did not catch what it means.
English speakers might wonder why the word “consent” is being used this way, and there is actually history behind it. This word is said to have originated from the English “concentric plug” which was commonly used during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Japan started accepting a lot of Western influence. Consent, as its abbreviated form, became the standard way of naming any type of electrical outlet from then on.
Come to think of it, should it not be spelled as “concent” then?
Here’s an example – when you play volleyball with your Japanese friends and you could not get the ball in the opponent’s court, do not get surprised when someone tells you, “donmai”. This term is the counterpart of “don’t worry about it.” or simply, “don’t mind it” for the Japanese. Shortened and with a changed pronunciation, it is very unrecognizable.
Aircon, pronounced as “eakon”, refers to an air conditioner in Japan. It is unusual for Japanese to use the full phrase “air conditioner” in everyday life, although some use “AC” (pronounced “ei-shi”) which is its abbreviated form. The rule of thumb for wasei-eigo and all English borrowing in Japan is ‘the shorter, the better’.
Some also use the word “cooler” (kura). In English though, “cooler” refers to something like a portable refrigerator that keeps your food or beverage cool whenever you are camping or going on a picnic. These differences in meaning often lead to confusion, but also amusement.
Of course, if there is summer, there is winter. If there is a cooler, there is a stove.
During my first winter in Japan, a Japanese friend asked me if I have a stove in my house. I responded with a confident “yes” and wondered at the back of my mind why she suddenly brought it up. Then, I started talking about how I cook my own food and what dishes I usually prepare. You know. We were talking about my stove! To my surprise, though, she was actually referring to a kerosene heater.
Are you hyper? Are you always in high spirits? If yes, then you are a “high-tension” person!
This don’t mean you are “tense”. It is not uncommon for the Japanese to use the term “high-tension” when describing someone who is very hyper and excited. In fact, this could be their initial reaction to anyone who is exerting more energy than the usual. The word, “tension” means excitement in Japan as opposed to its English origin which is usually in reference to, “voltage”, “nervousness” or “tightness”.
Sometimes they also say “powerful” to describe someone who is “energetic”, confusing the word for energy and power.
So when someone tells you that you are “high-tension”, be proud! Not everyone can be as dangerous, oh I mean, as hyper and fun as you are!
Now, this one’s pretty interesting.
Have you ever been so victorious in whatever aspect that you pumped your fists triumphantly in the air and shouted “I did it!”? If yes, then you have just unknowingly done “the guts pose”!
In the mid-60s, there was a professional boxer and a WBC lightweight champion named, “Guts Ishimatsu”. The term, “guts pose” originated from his unique pose after being declared victorious in fights, as he who would always pump his fists in celebration. Since then, the term has become a part of the wasei-eigo vocabulary.
One of the most common reasons why people lack motivation at work, or tend to look for another job is because of the salary. In Japan, though, some companies generously provide their employees with a salary increase, which is called “base-up”. “Up” means “to increase” (as you’ll see it used that way in many ads) and “base” refers to the “basic pay”.
Masukomi is a term made by combining mass and communication, both pronounced in a Japanese accent that could be easily put into katakana. So, “mass” becomes “masu”, and “communication” is “kominikeishon”, shortened to only “komi”.
In English, when you say mass communication you usually refer to the information exchanged at a large scale; however, in Japan, this term is used to mean mass media and press organizations.
Kiihorudaa is a Japanese word formed by linking “key” and “holder”, which results into the Japanglish word “KEY HOLDER”. As holder means support, the container holding a key became the word key holder.
An essential item for summer, the Biichi Sandaru can get even shorter and be referred to as Biisanビーサン.
Let`s take a few seconds and think of it… Beach Sandal? Sandals you use on the beach, maybe?
In English, we`d probably say thongs or flip-flops. Although, in America thongs come with a different meaning, too.
In Australia, people call it thongs, while in New Zealand the flip-flops are actually known as Jandals (a word derived from “Japanese sandals”).
Bottom line, the biggest issue here is that flip-flops are not worn only at the beach, but also at the pool and when you hit the streets of the town after the beach. So, do they become Pool Sandals and Street Sandals?
Here is one word totally different from the English meaning. You`d automatically think of chips, rice crackers and so on, right?
On the streets of Japan, you may see some bright signs saying “snack”, but don`t misunderstand it for a place where you can find Japanese snacks! It’s not like you’ll go in and just munch on some rice crackers. Although the word sometimes holds the meaning of snacks (more commonly used for fruit “snacks”), the places called “スナック” are mainly used for drinking and flirting with girls paid to keep you company!
In Japan, the snack bar is more like a bar with tables, whose owners are usually women being called “Mama”. Usually they are offering drinks and karaoke services to the customers and is a place aimed at adults, mostly men.
A Japanese citizen would probably say a car`s handle or a bike`s handle, however in English we`d say steering wheel if is a car and handlebar for a bicycle. Yes, you do hold it with your hands, but that doesn’t necessarily makes it a handle!
One more thing in this category to be aware of: バイク (baiku/bike) isn`t bicycle , but motorcycle, as bike in Japan is called jitensha (自転車).
In English we usually say email if we refer to electronic mail and mail for packages/letters we get by post. However, in Japan the term mail is used for gmail, yahoo mail etc, as well as for text messages on your phone. On top of that it is pronounced much more differently than “mail”.
It’s not a bag for your vintage vinyl records, but your ordinary plastic bag. In Japan, the term “vinyl bukuro” is formed by mixing the English word “vinyl” and the Japanese word for “Bag” “Fukuro/Bukuro”.
Also, make sure you pronounce “vinyl” as “biiniru”, otherwise they might not understand what you`re asking for.
It technically is text, but not in the way we use the word. Compared to English where we say text as in something written, an SMS or sentences as “I`ll text you back”, in Japan this word is used when referring to a school manual or a textbook.
When we say mansion we automatically think of a large house for rich people, right? Well, in Japan it is mostly used to describe an apartment building or a big flat. Not as fancy as you might think. If someone in Japan tells you they live in a mansion, don’t be so quick to assume they are loaded with money.
There is also the word “apaato” abbreviated from “apartment”, which also means a flat, but smaller and usually in a 2-story building.
Salaryman is a combined word using the words salary and man and it refers to someone who is working in a big company; an office worker, we`d say in English. It usually includes only people who work in a large bureaucracy of a business firm/government office and the word salaryman is quite frequently used here in Japan. The word comes from the image of these (usually) men who only work for their salary and only to support their family. They are also often called “Yes Man” as they are expected to say “yes” to everything, such as long working hours and after-work drinking. Salarymen are usually dressed in a suit and you can easily spot them during rush hour in the trains.
There you have it! There are a lot more Japanglish words out there that are interesting to know and understand. These words and their meanings may be quite different from English and strange to an English-speaker’s ears at first, but they undoubtedly add to the colors of the Japanese contemporary speech. Wasei-eigo may not be the perfect English, but that doesn’t matter as the words have taken new meaning and such are a perfect part of the Japanese language.