6 Japanese Words Everyone Thinks They Understand (But Don’t)
Have you ever tried to pass off an English word as Japanese?
It’s okay, be honest!
Every beginning Japanese learner has tried this trick.
Imagine my relief when I anxiously guessed kiru biru (キル ビル) and discovered it actually is the Japanese title of Kill Bill.
This works beyond Japanese movie titles.
Japanese “Loan Words” and Wasei Eigo
Japanese is awash with 外来語 (gairaigo), “loan words” borrowed from foreign languages.
In fact, when stuck grasping for a word in Japanese that you can’t remember or haven’t learned yet, you’d be surprised how often you can get away with simply pronouncing the word you’re looking for in katakana.
However, sometimes gairaigo can be mistaken for 和製英語 (wasei-eigo), or “Japanese-made English.” These words were hijacked by Japanese and driven to take on new meanings differing from their original definitions. In this post we’ll introduce few such words along with explanations of their origins and their meanings in Japanese. It’s best to be aware of them – they can really trip you up if you try to interpret them directly back into English.
Keep them in mind for smoother communication at your next language exchange! They’ll stick in your brain easily and will help you sound even more like a native Japanese speaker. Especially when mixed with your colorful onomatopoeia, baseball slang, precise izuchi and perfect chopstick etiquette.
6 Japanese Words Everyone Thinks They Understand (But Don’t)
1. テンション (tenshon)
At first glance, this looks like it may mean “tension” or “tense,” as in “the tension in the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu, teacher’s staff room) was palpable after Takashi admitted he was the one who had peed in the coffee machine.” However, in Japanese テンション takes on quite the opposite meaning, typically seen in the phrase テンションが高い！(tenshon ga takai!). This means that “he/she is really excited” or “in high spirits.” This phrase is synonymous with 盛り上がっている (moriagatteiru) “to be pumped/charged up.”
There are a few theories behind how it came to take on this positive nuance, the most plausible of which comes from the music world. In constructing musical chords, jazz musicians will frequently employ “tension notes” to add character and depth to a certain chord. Japanese musicians would speak to each other saying “テンションをあげよう！” (tenshon oh ageyou!) or “let’s add more tension (notes).” Fans would interpret this to mean 盛り上げよう！(moriageyou) or “let’s really get things pumping!”
Takashi is really excited! I wonder if he passed his college entrance exams.
2. スナック (snakku)
A スナック in Japanese is not a delicious treat one may eat in the afternoon to tide over their hunger until dinner. That type of snack would be 軽食 (keishoku). No, a スナック in Japanese is a shortening of the word スナックバー (snakkubaa), which is a type of hostess bar which serves alcohol and small appetizers and employs younger girls to talk to and flirt with their all-male customer base. Typically these establishments charge a rather high hourly fee for the service of just chatting with the younger girls, but snakku bars usually don’t offer “extra-curricular” (sexual) services. These services are more common at places called キャバクラ (kyabakura).
After a drinking party…
A: I feel like drinking some more. Want to go to a kyabakura?
B: Nah, I’d like to drop by the snakku I usually go to. Want to come with?
3. カンニング (kanningu)
Think back to high school. Were you ever guilty of taking a peek over at your neighbor’s answer sheet? If so, カンニングした！
カンニング comes from the English word “cunning,” and it isn’t too far off from its English origin. However, keep in mind that it’s a noun and only means “cheating.” It cannot be used as an adjective. To say “cunning” as an adjective, you can use the popular word ずるい (zurui) or the less often heard but still valid word 狡猾 (koukatsu).
カンニング is said to have entered Japanese during the early Meiji Era among students who were looking to pull fast ones on their professors. Rather than outright discuss cheating, they would refer to cheating as カンニング as a secret word, to mask what they were actually discussing.
A: Nobu passed the Math exam?! How in the world did that idiot do it?!
B: I heard he cheated, peeking at that genius Michiko’s answer sheet.
4. アメリカン・ジョーク (amerikan jooku)
Who can’t go for a good old American joke every once in a while? The Japanese, that’s who. This is because in Japanese, an アメリカン・ジョーク is not a “joke made by and American” or a “joke about Americans,” rather, it’s a joke that just plain old sucks (to the Japanese at least).
Humor is probably the most difficult aspect of a language to translate into another language. The origins of アメリカン・ジョーク can be found in the fact that a specific subset of jokes told in America (and other countries too, to be fair) require the listener to connect the dots and figure out for themselves why something is funny. Listeners have to “intuit” their way through how seemingly unrelated pieces of information can be put together in a funny way. Unfortunately, the Japanese just don’t tell jokes this way, and thus, when translating this type of humor into Japanese, the punch line is often lost on listeners. Take this exchange between A and B as A tells a joke to B (keep in mind, this is NOT a Japanese joke. Don’t try to use it yourself unless you are ready to face a room full of cold stares).
A: Two whales are drinking in a bar. One whale says to the other… (speaker A imitates a whale song for 2 minutes). Then, the other whale looks at the first and answers “Dude, I think you’re drunk.”
B: (not-laughing and with a serious expression). I don’t get it. That’s such an American joke.
*Note: アメリカン・ジョーク are not strictly limited to being told by Americans. There are plenty of British, Australian and people of all nationalities who, to their chagrin, have been lumped in with their American counterparts as purveyors of アメリカン・ジョークs.
5. マイペース (maipeesu)
マイペース most likely entered Japanese through the world of marathon running. A runner might say, “私はいつもマイペースで走っています” (watashi wa itsumo maipeesu de hashitte imasu) meaning “I always run at my (own) pace.” Runners who run at “マイペース” try not to get drawn by other runners into running too hard and too fast, tiring themselves out before the end of the race. However, this original meaning of マイペース was later generalized to mean someone who “lives life at their own pace.” Someone who is マイペース generally won’t be rushed to do things, or has a tendency to “do things their own way.”
A: I was thinking of leaving this work to Nami, what do you think?
B: Nah, Nami has her own way of doing things, and this needs to be done according to standard.
6. マイ… (mai…)
マイ is a particularly odd duck of a word. Possibly having originated as an expansion from the previous example マイペース, マイ is used as a prefix to describe something as “one’s own,” can be attached to almost anything that one owns. Thus マイカー、マイハウス、マイ犬 respectively mean “my car,” “my house,” and “my dog.” A popular usage of this is マイ箸(maihashi), or “my chopsticks,” specifically used for chopsticks that one carries around with them so they don’t have to waste lots of 割り箸 (waribashi) or wooden, disposable chopsticks.
However, the use of マイ is often a source of confusion for Japanese learners, as it does not specifically mean “my,” but rather means “one’s own.” Take a look at the following example:
A: Do you have your own pen?
B: Ahh, it looks like I forgot it. Could I borrow yours?
When speaker A asks speaker B if he has マイボールペン, he is not asking if speaker B has speaker A’s pen (as one might assume by the prefix マイ), but rather, is asking if speaker B has his own pen. Thus, to clarify, speaker B may want to ask speaker A if A has “あなたのマイボールペン,” or, in English, if A has a pen that belongs to A.
Another great example comes from the sports world. Playing basketball or soccer, when the ball goes out of bounds players will often frenzy, screaming “it’s our ball!” to claim who should get possession. Possession of the ball in this instance in Japanese is called マイボール.
(a basketball is knocked out of bounds during a game between two people)
A: Alright, it’s my ball.
B: No way! You touched it last! It’s my ball!
A: Okay, okay. I don’t think I touched it, but I’ll let you take it this time. But next time it’ll be my ball.
Using and interpreting マイ correctly may be confusing at first, but just remember that when people say “マイ” they could be referring to something that is theirs, or asking you about something that is yours.
Next time you’re watching a Japanese movie, pay close attention and see if you can pick out some of these Japanese words derived from English.
You might be surprised just how much difference a few simple words can make for your Japanese comprehension skills!