Understanding Japanese Loanwords

Gairaigo & Wasei Eigo: Understanding Japanese Loanwords

Even if you are only just now looking into how to learn Japanese, I guarantee you that you already know some Japanese words. Have you done karaoke with your friends? Have you added tōfu to your vegetarian dinner? Is your child learning karate? All of these words and more have been adopted into English as “loanwords.” 

The same is true in Japanese. You will be delighted to know that you already know words in Japanese because the English words have been adopted into Japanese as their own loanwords.

Loanwords are a great way to start off your Japanese vocabulary journey on the right foot!

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What are loanwords?

Simply speaking, “loanwords” (or “loan words”) are words that originate from one language and have been largely accepted as commonplace words in another language.

Like in the above example, you can find “tofu” in the English Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a soft food product prepared by treating soybean milk with coagulants (such as magnesium chloride or diluted acids).” Even if the word originated in Japan, it is now an English word as well.

Japanese loanwords have a few special names.

Gairaigo

The first is gairaigo 外来語, which literally means “language coming from outside.”

Gairaigo are loanwords that have been adopted into Japanese while retaining their original meaning. For example, the Japanese word for “pen” is a loanword: pen ペン. It refers to the exact same writing instrument in both languages.

Wasei eigo

The other term is wasei eigo 和製英語, which literally means “Japanese-made English.”

The loanword baikingu バイキング comes from the word “Viking,” but that is not what it means in Japanese these days. Instead, it refers to a buffet! This was due to a Japanese chef traveling to Sweden in 1957 and enjoying the concept of smorgasbord (another English loanword!). He found, however, that “smorgasbord” would be particularly difficult to pronounce in Japanese, so a tangentially related word was found in “Viking,” resulting in buffets being called baikingu!

Loanwords in English

More Japanese words have been adopted into English as loanwords than you may realize. Why, you likely use one in particular every day: emoji! Emoji 絵文字 comes from the word e 絵 for picture and moji 文字 for character (as in a letter). 

Other words that have been adopted into the English dictionary maintain strong cultural ties to their Japanese origin. The word “kimono” is used almost exclusively for the Japanese robes (although you will see it used to describe Western clothing, such as with thin, flowy cardigans for women), and origami is still recognized as the Japanese art of paper folding. Samurai and ninja are both known to be different classes of sword-wielders in Japanese history. 

Other Japanese words have morphed before being adopted as loanwords. “Typhoon,” for example, comes from the Japanese word taifū 台風. While both words refer to the dangerous weather phenomenon, they are spelled and pronounced differently.

What languages have influenced loanwords in Japan?

English is not the only language that has made its way into the Japanese lexicon. The languages of its neighbors (namely China) have also had an impact, as well as a handful of other Western countries due to their exchanges with Japan in history.

Chinese

Chinese is something of an exception among the Japanese “loanwords.” The Japanese written language was born from Chinese in the eighth century CE. As a result, Chinese has had a profound impact on the Japanese language as a whole, influencing more than half of Japanese words.

As such, the Chinese-Japanese lingual relationship is more akin to English’s relationship with Latin and Greek, where the influencing language (Chinese) fundamentally helps build the target language’s (Japanese) vocabulary.

Therefore, these words aren’t exactly “loanwords” at all in the context we are using them here.

English

Most modern Japanese loanwords come from English, which gives native English-speakers something of an edge when learning Japanese loanwords.

This is, in part, due to the occupation of Japan by the United States following World War II, but the phenomenon has continued as English remains one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world as well as the strong cultural influence of the United States.

Many English words used in Japanese will be immediately apparent to you!

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Portuguese

Portugal was the first country from Europe to establish trade with Japan. As a result, Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests brought new words along with the goods and religion they peddled in. 

This also included names of other European countries, such as England and the Netherlands. The word for England in Japanese is igirisu イギリス, which comes from the Portuguese word for “English”: inglês. The Japanese word for the Netherlands, oranda オランダ, is based on the name traders used to refer to their home country as (“Holland”), which was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. 

Here are a few common loanwords from Portuguese still used in modern Japanese:

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Dutch

During the Edo Period of Japanese history, Japan closed its borders and ceased nearly all foreign relations, including trade.

However, Dutch traders were still permitted to trade on a limited basis at the port of Dejima in Nagasaki, and they were the only European merchants allowed to do so. As a result, a number of Dutch terms were adopted as loanwords into the Japanese language, including the examples below.

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German

When trade opened up with Western countries once more (not only with Europe, but the United States as well), Germany was among the countries who began foreign relations with Japan. Many Germans were invited to aid in Japanese efforts to modernize after their period of prolonged isolation.

German words, many of which were related to the medical and military science fields, were brought into the Japanese vocabulary as loanwords.

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Loanword usage in Japanese grammar

There are a few different ways to apply these loanwords. While the majority are nouns, there are a few outliers that act as verbs, and some even require a little tweaking before being used in practice. 

Those of you who have already learned the Japanese alphabets may have noticed one other identifying feature of loanwords: they are predominantly written in katakana. Katakana’s main function is to spell foreign words to begin with, so it follows that this would apply to loanwords. 

Certain loanwords have been a part of the Japanese lexicon for so long that they have more or less been accepted as common Japanese nouns and written in hiragana instead. The best example is the Japanese word for cigarettes: tabako たばこ.

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Nouns

Nouns are the easiest way to use loanwords. In fact, all of the examples shown in this article so far have been nouns. This means that you can use these loanword nouns just as you would any other Japanese word. So, for example, if you were say that you like cats in Japanese (which has a native Japanese word):

わたしはねこがすきです。
Watashi wa neko ga suki desu.
I like cats.

We can swap in a different noun (in this case, a loanword) for “cats” without any trouble at all:

わたしはキリンがすきです。
Watashi wa kirin ga suki desu.
I like giraffes

Verbs

Verbs are nearly as straightforward. The Japanese word for “to do,” suru する, is extremely versatile. It is already used with native Japanese words to say “to do X” where X is a noun. “To cook,” for example, is literally “to do cooking”: ryōri suru りょうりする. In some cases, the object particle wo を is used, but not often.

The same is done with loanword nouns, although particle wo is used more often in these cases. “To play tennis” is tenisu wo suru テニスをする, while “to give advice” is adobaisu suru アドバイスする.

Shortening long words

Because Japanese consonants are nearly always paired with vowels, certain consonant-heavy loanwords get very long and unwieldy when fit into Japanese phonology. “American football,” for instance, is amerikan futtobōru アメリカンフットボール, which is quite the mouthful.

To ease conversation, and to give the speaker a break, this is commonly shortened to ame futo アメフト, which is much more reasonable.

Here are a few other common examples:

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The dos and don’ts of using loanwords in Japanese

As convenient and easy to understand as loanwords in Japanese are (especially those that are derived from English), there are a few key points to keep in mind when learning them. 

Do!

Take advantage of the words that do exist that are familiar to you. Learning a handful of Japanese loanwords can be a great introduction to Japanese vocabulary to get you started. For instance, when asking to go to the restroom, it is easy for a native English-speaker to ask where the toire トイレ, or toilet, is. 

Japanese loanwords are also a great way to practice Japanese pronunciation and katakana! Without having to worry about the meaning of the word, you can go letter by letter, reading the word with Japanese sounds to get the feel of things without learning native words. For example, it would be useful for an American citizen to learn the word amerika アメリカ. 

It is important, however, to pay attention to the sounds you are using for each letter to avoid pronouncing Japanese words with an American accent, which brings us to the don’ts.

Don’t!

Don’t pronounce Japanese words with your native accent! Not only will it be at odds with the rest of the sentence, it may not be immediately comprehensible to the person you are speaking to. Compare the following:

これはキーボードです。
Kore wa kībōdo desu.

これは「keyboard」です。
Kore wa keyboard desu.

Japanese words cannot end in a consonant (except for n), meaning words that end in a d (such as “keyboard”) are not going to sound exactly the same. The English version of the word is not the same as its Japanese equivalent.

Also note that not all English words can be said with Japanese sounds and be understood, as not all English words are used as loanwords in Japanese. There is a good chance that the word you are attempting to convey will not be understood.

A personal example comes from my last trip to Japan when I told a friend that I cannot eat “cilantro.” Given that it is a foreign spice, I incorrectly assumed that pronouncing it as シラントロー shirantorō would be understood, as I did not know the Japanese word for cilantro off the top of my head. In fact, both cilantro and coriander are referred to as コリアンダー koriandā in Japanese, meaning my friend had no way of knowing what I was referring to. 

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Loanwords are your friends

While not a one-stop shop for Japanese vocabulary, loanwords are a fun and unique way to get started learning Japanese. A Japanese tutor can direct you to the most useful of these terms and help you learn how to pronounce and use them correctly.

Japanese tutoring is an invaluable tool in these first steps. グッドラック guddo rakku (Good luck)!

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