Japanese Words in English

You may be surprised by some of the English words that come from Japanese and by some of the foreign-based words common in Japanese.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #467


Today we’re going to talk about Japanese: Japanese words used in English and foreign words used in Japanese. You've probably heard of Japanese-based words like kamikaze [ka-mi-ka-zay] and tsunami [tsu-na-mee]. On the other hand, you may be surprised by some of the English words that come from Japanese and by some of the foreign-based words common in Japanese.

Japanese Words You Recognize in English

At first it might seem difficult to come up with one English sentence that uses several Japanese nouns. However, you likely know more Japanese than you think. If you think about the culture of Japan, raw fish, karate chops, and geisha who wear kimono probably come to mind. It wouldn't be hard to write a Japanese-filled sentence about food: “She first enjoyed some miso [mee-so] soup, followed by some sushi [soo-shee] and sake [sah-kay].” Aren't you hungry already? If you're not familiar with Japanese cuisine, here's a quick tutorial on the three Japanese words in that sentence: “miso” is a salty paste, and “sake” is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. The word “sushi,” contrary to popular belief "does not mean raw seafood. Instead, the word refers to the vinegared rice that can (but need not) be paired with raw seafood.” (1)

If foreign food is not your thing, maybe you're more familiar with karate, judo, or ninjas. The word karate was first used in English in 1947. (2) Kara means "empty" and te means "hand," and so karate translates as empty hands. When you study karate, judo, or jiu jitsu [joo-ji-tsu], three examples of Japanese martial arts, you'll meet a sensei [sen-say] (teacher) in the dojo [doe-joe] (martial arts studio). A ninja might be a good Halloween costume, but a real one practices ninjutsu, [nin-joo-tsu] the traditional Japanese art of stealth, camouflage, and sabotage. (3) The word ninja comes from the word nin (endure) and ja, a combining form of sha, which means "person." (4)

Of course you've heard of a kimono, a silk garment worn by women, and if you do crosswords, you'll be familiar with the answer to the clue Japanese sash: obi. [oh-bee] A kimono can be astronomically expensive. For example, back in 1993, when the Crown Prince got married, his princess wore a 12-layered kimono that reportedly weighed 30 pounds and cost more than $300,000. (5) Thank goodness regular ladies don't need to spend that much. Speaking of ladies, let's clear up something about geisha ladies. Geisha literally means “arts person” (6); geisha were and are licensed and engage in artful tasks such as playing instruments, dancing, and calligraphy. (7) They aren't necessarily ladies of the night.

After all this food, self-defense, and expensive entertaining, you've earned a rest on your futon, a traditional Japanese mattress. A Japanese person might not recognize a futon in the West, however. Futons in the States come with bed frames, but these are not used in Japan; a futon is folded up and stored during the day since space can be tight in Japanese homes.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.