37 Weird Japanese Words You Won’t Believe Exist
Have you ever heard the English word “petrichor”, meaning “the smell of the earth after it rains?”
Or what about a “backpfeifengesicht”, the weird German word that means “a face badly in need of a fist.”
Ever since I learned that these words exist, I’ve been fascinated by what other cultures deem necessary to express in one word.
Japanese is no different. The weird words I’ll share below are merely single words, but the Japanese language is also rich in expressions, phrases, and slang.
- Cat Words
- Wasei Eigo – False Friends
- Not Taken So Literally
- Way Too Complicated for a Single Word
- How to Learn More Weird Japanese Words
In addition to words even a newbie to Japan recognizes, like salaryman (サラリーマン/さらりーまん – salaried worker), there are many unique words with a mix of kanji and katakana to refer to people, usually in a deprecating or condescending manner.
教育ママ (きょういく まま)
A mother who is obsessed with her children’s education.
バーコード人 (ばーこーど じん)
Men who have ridiculous combovers (translates as “barcode men”).
KY (aka 空気読めない/くうき よめない)
Someone who is incapable of reading the atmosphere of a situation.
Having room for dessert despite being full, i.e. an extra stomach or a dessert stomach.
A boyfriend who is “kept” until someone better shows up.
クリスマスケーキ (くりすます けーき)
Christmas cake”: A woman not yet married by 25, as she is said to lose value after the 25th.
Here are some strange Japanese words referring to behaviors:
Something unnecessary and probably detrimental (“snake legs”).
“Horizontal rice”: Western food.
Leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up with other unread books.
Death from overworking.
When you’re not hungry but you eat because your mouth is lonely.
“U-turn phenomenon”: The movement of people who grow up in a rural area, escape to the city for education or work, and then come back.
There are many dated words in English as well (When did you last “defenestrate” someone?), but the Japanese have a term for breaking in a new sword by attacking a stranger.
Cat got your tongue? There are many expressions and words in the Japanese language focusing on feline behavior. Here are a few of the more unusual ones:
Someone who is particularly sensitive to hot drinks (“cat tongue”).
A girl who acts like a cat.
“Hunchback”: Be honest, the Cat Back of Notre Dame sounds much better, doesn’t it?
猫に小判 (ねこに こばん)
Gold coins to a cat: Giving a gift to someone who is incapable of appreciating it.
Cat veil, the equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Someone who feigns naiveté.
Embezzlement or misappropriation; stealing. In and of itself, this sounds normal… until you realize it’s translated as “cat excrement.”
Wasei Eigo – False Friends
和製英語 (わせいえいご), or words that sound English but have been adapted by the Japanese to mean something entirely different, are all too commonly used. ファイト (ふぁいと) “Fight” can be shouted at any sporting event or competition. Here are some you may not have heard of:
ハイテンション (はい てんしょん)
“High tension” – Someone full of energy and enthusiasm.
“Viking” – A restaurant that allows unlimited refills from their buffet tables.
ドクターストップ (どくたー すとっぷ)
“Doctor stop” – When a physician instructs someone to take it easy.
パラサイトシングル (ぱらさいと しんぐる)
“Parasite single” – An adult who is capable of living on her own, but prefers to stay with her parents.
Actually a combination of English and Japanese, it means “communicating while drinking.”
オーバードクター (おーばー どくたー)
“Over doctor” – Someone who holds a PhD but remains unemployed.
マッチポンプ (まっち ぽんぷ)
Someone who starts trouble simply to make themselves the hero trying to fix it.
If there’s one thing the Japanese language has in spades, it’s the ability to describe tranquil moments, like the way petals fall off trees during cherry blossom season or the simplicity of eating a well-prepared meal.
Shakespeare may have needed fourteen lines for each of his sonnets, but Japanese has single words for such poetry:
When sunlight filters through the trees.
The awareness (coincidentally, the Japanese term is also pronounced as “a-wa-re”) of the impermanence of beauty.
A beautiful woman, but only when she is viewed from behind (I’ll admit, this is a bit more crass than the first two).
The definition of this term varies depending on context, but it generally refers to a mysterious sense of the beauty or nature of the universe.
Not Taken So Literally
“Summer heater winter fan.” – Something out of season and worthless.
“Flower, bird, wind and moon.” – This term is used to list some aspects of nature.
“Three-day monk.” – Giving up prematurely, i.e. a monk who disrobes after three days.
“Descent from heaven.” – Although this is a dated term in Japanese, it’s all too common in American politics. It refers to politicians who leave office, only to accept offers as high-paying executives in the corporate world.
Way Too Complicated for a Single Word
“An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude” (Source)
This is a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. Although that’s a definition of sorts, this word is widely considered untranslatable.
Making no distinction of status, where one can speak and act freely without considering pressure and authority from others.
Literally “cold head, warm feet,” this term refers to the fact that most Japanese homes are not properly heated in the wintertime, and one of the ways families stay warm is to put their feet by the こたつ (“kotatsu” is a knee-high table with an electric foot-warmer installed inside on the top board which is used with a coverlet during winter) leaving their heads out in the cold.
How to Learn More Weird Japanese Words
Language is constantly evolving, especially slang and novel vocabulary in the modern world, In Japanese, new katakana words borrowed from English or other languages are commonplace.
The best way to pick up on Japanese slang or other weird words is to watch modern content straight from Japan. When you watch the latest dramas or commercials, you can listen to and learn how to use colloquialisms as naturally as the natives do.
One resource where you can watch native media is FluentU, a website and app that has authentic Japanese videos filled with slang and modern vocabulary. The platform not only allows you to practice new Japanese words but learn about popular culture as well.
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to start developing an incredible Japanese vocabulary!