I wrote a haiku about shamisen music while cuddled up in my futon eating teriyaki chicken.
Japanese words are everywhere in the English language, and being able to identify them enlightens you to a base knowledge of Japanese that you didn’t even know you had.
For instance, did you know the word tsunami, sometimes called a “tidal wave,” is of Japanese origin?
Here, we’ll introduce you to 32 words we use in English that you may not know come from Japanese. The original Japanese word, usually written in kanji, is included for each loanword (plus hiragana in parentheses, for easy reading).
It’s interesting to see how logical the original character’s form usually is, which makes the words altogether easier to remember.
Some Japanese pronunciation tips are also included, as the pronunciation of the original Japanese words can sometimes differ from that of the adapted English versions.
You already know the meanings and how to say them—add the full Japanese knowledge, and you’ll be 32 words closer to mastering this difficult but fascinating language!
32 Cool Japanese Loanwords We All Use in English
Japan tends to be on the dangerous side when it comes to the weather, so it isn’t surprising that these first two words came from Japanese and were incorporated into English.
Japanese: 台風 (たいふう)
Kanji Meaning: 台 (たい) means “table” or “pedestal,” and 風 (ふう) means “wind.”
Typhoons are common during late summer and early autumn in Japan, often causing minor damages in the southern Okinawa islands and disrupting transportation in large cities.
Japanese: 津波 (つなみ)
Kanji Meaning: 津 (つ) is “harbor” or “port,” and 波 (なみ) means “wave.”
Pronunciation Tip: In Japanese, the t is pronounced, unlike in English.
Unfortunately, Japan has had more than its fair share of tsunamis (or “tidal waves”). We commonly use the Japanese word to describe these devastating natural disasters in English.
Now we’ll steer away from these dangerous events and into something more fun. A lot of popular recreational activities actually originated in Japan. Get a faceful of these next words!
Japanese: カラオケ (からおけ)
Kanji Meaning: As seen above, “karaoke” is now usually written in katakana in Japanese, such as on signs and buildings. However, the word originally came from the kanji 空 (から), meaning “empty,” and the katakana オケ, coming from the English “orchestra.” So, if you think about it, “karaoke” is an English word adopted from Japanese, but which originally had influences from English—or from Greek, if you want to get really linguistically fancy. Phew!
Pronunciation Tip: Forget everything you know about the English pronunciation of this word, as I’m afraid we’ve butchered it. Follow the katakana to the letter (literally).
Karaoke is an entirely different experience in Japan, and can be enjoyed alone, as a small group of friends or, similar to Western style, with loud and drunken strangers.
Japanese: 酒 (さけ)
Kanji Meaning: 酒 (さけ) literally means “alcohol.” Add お at the beginning of the kanji (お酒) to describe any alcoholic drink.
Aah, sake. The businessman’s best friend and an essential addition to your “new experiences” to try in Japan. This rich, strong rice wine is often described in English with its original Japanese word.
Japanese: 漫画 (まんが)
Kanji Meaning: 漫 (まん) means “random” or “uncontrolled,” and 画 (が) is “picture.”
Manga, or Japanese comics, are extremely popular in Japan and beyond. Shelves of these visual stories can be seen not only in libraries and bookshops, but also in restaurants and convenience stores.
Okay, this one might be cheating a little, as the word “anime” technically comes from the English word “animation”—that’s why it appears in katakana, the writing system of choice for foreign words in Japanese—but it wouldn’t have felt right not to include it. “Anime” is the Japanese word for “cartoon,” and more specifically, Japanese-style animation.
Japanese: お宅 (おたく)
Kanji Meaning: 宅 (たく) literally means “house,” and perhaps refers to the tendency “otaku” have to spend a lot of time indoors.
In both English and Japanese, “otaku” is often used to describe someone who spends a lot of their free time playing video games, reading manga and watching anime, and who takes little or no interest in more social activities. It can also sometimes be used by fans of anime and manga to describe others with similar interests.
Japanese: 絵文字 (えもじ)
Kanji Meaning: 絵 (え) means “picture” and 文字 (もじ) is “character” or “letter.”
You know what these are! Emoji are those little pictures you can use on your smartphone or computer to communicate an emotion or message. This actually originally came from Japanese, literally meaning “pictograph.”
Japanese: 折り紙 (おりがみ)
Kanji Meaning: 折 (おり) means “to fold,” and 紙 (がみ) is “paper.”
This old Japanese art literally means “paper folding” and is hugely important in July’s Star Festival in Japan.
Japanese: 指圧 (しあつ)
Kanji Meaning: 指 (し) means “finger” and 圧 (あつ) is “pressure.”
You may have seen the word “shiatsu” outside massage parlors—it’s a Japanese style of body massage that supposedly supports the body’s natural defenses, helping people to heal and balance themselves in mind, body and spirit.
Aah, that was relaxing—but now we’re moving on to the delights of Japanese food! Whet your appetite with these next loanwords.
Japanese: 寿司 (すし)
Kanji Meaning: 寿 (す) means “congratulations” or “longevity,” and 司 (し) is “official.” If you think about it, it’s quite sweet that the kanji for sushi is “official congratulations!”
There was no reason to rename this famous Japanese dish. Sushi is made from rice often wrapped with seaweed, and a filling such as fish or a type of raw or pickled vegetable.
Japanese: 豆腐 (とうふ)
Kanji Meaning: 豆 (とう) is “beans” and 腐 (ふ) means “ferment” or “rot.” It may sound a bit gross, but the Japanese have cleverly mastered several dishes involving fermenting various foods.
Pronunciation Tip: In Japanese, the “tou” sound is longer than the “fu,” which is very short.
Tofu is made from soybeans and is a delicious addition to many sweet and savory Japanese dishes—as well as dishes in other countries. In Japan, there are still many professional tofu makers.
Japanese: らーめん, ラーメン
Ramen is actually a Chinese dish, but has been adapted in Japan and is a long-standing Japanese word. Ramen is also used in English to mean many different kinds of noodle-based dishes.
Japanese: 山葵 (わさび)
Kanji meaning: 山 means “mountain” and 葵 is “hollyhock.” But 山葵 is ateji, which is kanji used semantically without regard to the readings.
Whether you can get it in your home country or not, most people have heard of wasabi—spicy Japanese horseradish often added to sushi and other fish-based dishes.
Japanese: 照り焼き (てりやき)
Kanji Meaning: 照り (てり) means “shine” and 焼き (やき) means “grilled.” Perhaps this kanji was given to it because the sauce glaze makes the chicken look like it’s “shining.”
Teriyaki is a delicious grilled style of chicken mixed in a special sauce, giving it its unique flavor. Teriyaki chicken is often served outside Japanese restaurants, meaning that some people may be surprised the word is of Japanese origin. The surprise might hit especially hard if you’ve been using teriyaki sauce in your kitchen all these years, without knowing its true origin!
After this food vocabulary, we should get a bit of exercise in. Thanks to movies like “The Karate Kid,” Japanese martial arts have become famous worldwide. How many of these words did you know originally came from Japanese? Take a look.
Japanese: 空手 (からて)
Kanji Meaning: 空 (から) means “empty” and 手 (て) is “hand.” Karate, therefore, is literally battling with no weapons except your bare hands.
Pronunciation Tip: All of the syllables contain the same amount of stress, unlike in English where we say “kah-RAH-tee.”
Karate is an offensive martial art with roots in Chinese fighting, involving complicated attacks using hands, feet and elbows.
Japanese: 柔道 (じゅうどう)
Kanji Meaning: 柔 (じゅう) means “gentle” or”soft,” and 道 (どう) is “way” or “road.”
Pronunciation Tip: Long “juu” and long “dou” sounds are used in Japanese.
The difference between karate and judo is that judo is more defensive—it involves taking advantage of your opponent’s strength and weight.
Japanese: 相撲 (すもう)
Kanji Meaning: 相 (す) means “together” or “mutual,” and 撲 (もう) means “hit” or “beat.”
Pronunciation Tip: In Japanese, you’ll want to say a very short “su” and long “mou.” It sounds more like “smou.“
Sumo is a very unique Japanese martial art which involves enormous wrestlers trying to force each other out of the ring. You can watch traditional Sumo matches in Japan; nowadays, most Sumo champions tend to be from Mongolia.
Japanese: 先輩 (せんぱい)
Kanji Meaning: 先 (せん) means “before” or “ahead,” and 輩 (ぱい) means “comrade” or “companions.” It’s the perfect kanji for this word—literally “companions ahead of me.”
The word “senpai” is becoming increasingly popular in English, and it’s on its way to being added to the Oxford Dictionary (though some people aren’t too happy about it). “Senpai” in Japanese means someone higher-ranking than you, usually in school, such as a fellow student in a higher grade. In English, it has a similar meaning, often jokingly referring to people the speaker sees as superior, and therefore not noticing their meek and humble selves.
Japanese: 道場 (どうじょう)
Kanji Meaning: 道 (どう) means “way” or “road,” and 場 (じょう) is “location” or “place.” It’s the place where you are on the road to improving your skills.
Pronunciation Tip: Long “dou” and long “jou.”
The word “dojo” might be familiar to fans of martial arts; it refers to the place where karate, judo and other similar sports are usually practiced.
Japanese: 先生 (せんせい)
Kanji Meaning: 先 (せん) remember this kanji? It also came up in “senpai.” It means “before” or “ahead.” 生 (せい) means “born”—your teacher is (usually) born before you.
Although in English, “sensei” usually just refers to a martial arts instructor, “sensei” means any type of teacher in Japanese, whether it be for a public school, a cram school or for sports. 先生 is also an honorific suffix that’s commonly used for doctors, politicians, attorneys, etc.
Now we’ll move on to some words that were specifically adopted by English to describe some elements of Japanese culture.
Japanese: 侍 (さむらい)
Kanji Meaning: If anything can tell you how long Samurai have been around, it’s the fact that this word has an entire kanji for itself. 侍 (さむらい) means “to serve” as well as “warrior.”
The Samurai are ancient Japanese warriors with a unique and quite beautiful culture of their own. Real Samurai are extinct now, but were so well-known that the word is recognized in English.
Japanese: 忍者 (にんじゃ)
Kanji Meaning: 忍 (にん) means “spy” or “sneak,” and 者 (じゃ) means “person.”
Ninjas are Japanese assassins, experts in stealth and subtle kills. In English, the term “ninja” can also be slang to mean someone who’s extremely quick and unseen; for example:
A: “How did you get here so fast?”
B: “I’m a ninja.”
Japanese: 着物 (きもの)
Kanji Meaning: 着 (き) means “to wear” and 物 (もの) means “thing” or “goods.” It makes sense, then, that kimono literally means “something to wear.”
A kimono is a Japanese dress traditionally worn by female entertainers (geisha) and nowadays worn at festivals and graduation ceremonies.
Japanese: 浴衣 (ゆかた)
Kanji Meaning: 浴衣 is another ateji, but 浴 means “bathe” or “bask,” and 衣 means “clothing.” Perhaps this is because yukatas are worn to summer festivals, and therefore one can wear them and bask in the beautiful clothes they’re wearing.
A yukata is very similar to a kimono, but it tends to involve less layers, and therefore is usually worn in summer.
Japanese: 禅 (ぜん)
Kanji Meaning: 禅 (ぜん) literally means “silent meditation.”
Zen is a branch of Buddhism that emphasizes self-control and meditation.
Japanese: 三味線 (しゃみせん)
Kanji Meaning: 三 (しゃ) is “three,” 味 (み) is “flavor” and 線 (せん) means “line” or, in this case, “string.”
A shamisen is a stringed musical instrument often featured in traditional Japanese theater.
Japanese: 俳句 (はいく)
Kanji Meaning: 俳 (はい) means “poem” or “actor,” and 句 (く) means “clause” or “passage.”
You may have studied haiku in school; they’re traditional Japanese poems. The many stanza and syllable rules make them unique in the world of poetry.
Japanese: 布団 (ふとん)
Kanji Meaning: 布 (ふ) means “linen” or “cloth” and 団 (とん) is “group.”
Pronunciation Tip: Say a very short “u”; it sounds more like “fton” in Japanese.
Have you ever slept in a futon? They can either be very comfortable or very uncomfortable, depending on what kind it is and how many layers are involved. Futons have been a traditional bed in Japan for centuries, therefore it’s unsurprising that English speakers borrowed this word to describe them. However, we also use this word in English to describe couches that also have fold-out beds.
Japanese: 鯉 (こい)
Kanji Meaning: 鯉 (こい) just means “carp”—no surprises there!
In English, we tend to say “koi carp,” but in Japanese, it’s just “koi.” Koi-shaped streamers are used in Japanese festivals such as Children’s Day in May and are largely featured in Japanese decorations year-round.
Japanese: ヤクザ (やくざ)
Kanji Meaning: The name yakuza comes from “八九三” (八/8=ya, 九/9=ku, 三/3=za). It originates from a card game. In this game, a player’s score is decided by adding the scores on several cards and using only the smallest digit. Because 8+9+3=20=0 points, “893” means “no points.” So this meaning later changed to “useless people” or “gambling people.”
Most people have heard of the Japanese Mafia thanks to movies such as “Kill Bill,” “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” and “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Today, the yakuza are still very active and powerful in areas such as Tokyo.
Japanese: 畳 (たたみ)
Kanji Meaning: 畳 (たたみ) means “tatami mat” but can also mean to “shut” or “put away.”
Tatami mats are a comfortable addition to many Japanese homes and usually recognizable to foreign eyes. In English, we tend to say the phrase “tatami mat,” but in Japanese it’s just “tatami.”
With these English-Japanese words you already know, you’ve now instantly gotten a plethora of Japanese vocabulary stored away in your brain—no studying required.
Japanese is a rewarding language to learn, and there are hundreds of ways to easily study it. This just happens to be one of the easiest ways out there.
Keep exploring loanwords, as well as other connections between Japanese and English, as you advance with your new language. You won’t regret it.