It doesn’t take long for Japanese language learners to realize just how many foreign terms have become a part of everyday Japanese. Whether it’s English interjections like グレート (great) and オッケー (O.K.) or nouns of European origin like アルバイト (from the German “Arbeit” for “work”) and ブランコ (from the Portuguese “balanço” for “swing”), Japanese is chock-full of loanwords.
Similarly, the English language has managed to absorb dozens of Japanese words, many of which are used on a daily basis. Do you know if any of your commonly used buzzwords originate from the land of the rising sun? We’ve put together a list of fourteen popular English words from Japanese and their etymology to keep you motivated on your language learning journey!
Let’s begin with one of Japan’s most mouthwatering exports: food!
Whether or not you’re a fan of these colorful combinations of rice, dried seaweed, fish, and wasabi, you’ve undoubtedly heard of sushi. The most common theory about the origin of this word is that it began seeing use during the Edo Period and came from the classical Japanese conjugation of the adjective 酸(す)い (vinegary, sour), which was written and pronounced 酸(す)し (すし). As you can imagine, this came from the sour taste of the vinegary rice used in sushi. Language learners should take note that when 寿司(すし) is used in compound words, like 巻(ま)き寿司(すし) (sushi rolls), 手巻(てま)き寿司(ずし) (hand-rolled sushi) and 回転寿司(かいてんずし) (conveyor belt sushi), the pronunciation of “sushi” becomes “zushi.”
The most common Japanese word for soy sauce is “shouyu,” but regional variants include “shoi” and “soi,” and it’s the latter pronunciation that formed the basis of the modern English word “soy.” However, this term wasn’t introduced to English directly from Japanese. Dutch was the first language to absorb this word (becoming “soja”) through Japan’s limited contact with the Netherlands during the 1600s, and English later borrowed this term from Dutch.
While even those without any interest in Japanese cuisine or culture have heard of sushi, only those who have ventured into a sushi restaurant and ordered the freshwater eel will know the word unagi. This tender fish is commonly served in sushi or in a rice bowl called 鰻丼(うなどん) and is smothered in a dark, sweet tare sauce. Unagi has an unbeatable flavor and makes for great comfort food, but it may be wise to keep it to an occasional indulgence as the fish was designated as endangered by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment in 2013.
While ramen is originally from China (ラーメン being the Japanese pronunciation of the word 拉麵lāmiàn, or “pulled noodles”), this delicious noodle soup was popularized in Japan in the early 20th century and has made its way across the globe. The uninitiated may immediately think of the cheap, processed, and unhealthy packages of instant noodles when they hear the term “ramen,” but there is so much more to ramen than that. If access to a nearby ramen shop isn’t realistic, teens can check out anime like Naruto and Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles to live vicariously and get a sense of the power of ramen, while adults would be advised to check out the 1985 comedy film Tampopo, a “ramen-western” about a struggling ramen shop and two truck drivers who try to help its owner improve her recipe.
The flavor of this brightly green powdered green tea is unlike any other tea product out there and inspires very strong reactions from those who drink it – you either love it or you hate it. Popularized in the states around 2015 when wellness-influencer Gwyneth Paltrow began blogging about it, matcha has become a staple at cafes as a healthy coffee alternative that still gives you a good caffeine boost. The word comes from the kanji characters 抹 meaning “rub” or “grind,” and 茶 meaning…you guessed it! Tea! The majority of tea ceremonies today utilize matcha green tea, but there are some that use whole-leaf sencha green tea instead.
Now that I’ve sufficiently whetted your appetite, let’s move onto some fun loanwords related to pop culture, recreation, and religion!
Most of us remember being encouraged to play sudoku by our teachers and parents as a kid whether we wanted to or not. Although number puzzles like sudoku don’t originate in Japan, the name of this particular number puzzle game comes from the Japanese kanji for 数(すう) “number” and 独(どく) “solitary. This is actually an abbreviation of a much longer title – the stimulating puzzle game first appeared in Japanese papers under the title 数字(すうじ)は独身(どくしん)に限(かぎ)る (“The Digits Must Be Single”) in 1984. Japanese language learners might notice the elongated vowel in すう and realize that the Western pronunciation of sudoku is nothing like the original Japanese. Some people will say “soo-DOO-ko” or “soo-DOH-koo” in English, but it is really much more like “SOO-doh-ku” with the emphasis on the first syllable.
That’s right! Emojis originate from Japan, too! The word “emoji” comes from the Japanese 絵(え) “picture” and 文字(もじ) (”character” or “letter”). Interface designer Shigetaka Kurita popularized the emoji by designing a set of 176 colorful emojis in 1999 for use on DoCoMo’s i-mode, a mobile internet platform. They have since become extremely popular and occasionally controversial due to the usage and connotations of certain emojis like the infamous 🍑. There is actually a non-profit organization known as the Unicode Consortium that manages emojis and introduces new additions each year.
Ninja, or shinobi (忍(しの)び), were stealthy agents active during feudal Japan, particularly in the Sengoku Period. In this era of samurai and shoguns, ninja would be hired for covert operations such as espionage, sneak attacks, and even terrorism. The word 忍者(にんじゃ) is comprised of the characters 忍 (“endure” or “conceal”) and 者 (“person”). While modern pop culture has promoted these unscrupulous tricksters to the position of honorable warriors with supernatural powers, this was certainly not their image during the feudal period.
What ties the words 合気道(あいきどう) aikido, 柔道(じゅうどう) judo, and 剣道(けんどう) kendo together? You guessed it – that second character 道(どう), meaning “way” or “pursuit.” Similarly, a dojo (literally 道(どう) “pursuit” and 場(じょう) “place”) is the place where you might practice one of these lofty physical pursuits. The term dojo was incorporated into the English language to refer to a facility where you would work on karate or other kinds of martial arts, but these days it has expanded into other fields. You can even find coding or hacking dojos where passionate programmers can get together and hone their skills.
Have you ever seen someone pulling a passenger in a small cart, almost like a human-powered taxi? That’s a rickshaw. Derived from the Japanese word 人力車(じんりきしゃ) “jinrikisha” – 人 (man) + 力 (power) + 車 (vehicle) – rickshaws are still used today, although it is much more common to see motorized rickshaws than hand-pulled ones. Still, if you’re keen on pretending that you’re a moneyed aristocrat from the 1800s, you’re welcome to seek out a private traditional rickshaw tour in cities like Kyoto.
Hopefully, if you find yourself saying things like “I’m in my zen today” or “That’s so zen,” you at least have an idea of where the word originates from! Zen comes from 禅(ぜん) (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning “deep meditation”) and is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen teachings emphasize the denial of the ego, relinquishing attachment to emotions, and the importance of meditation.
Finally, let’s look at three Japanese loanwords related to business and power!
Although “honcho” sounds like it could originate from Spanish, it actually comes from 班長(はんちょう), meaning squad or group leader. This may have entered the English language after WWII when American soldiers heard troops refer to squad leaders as “honcho.” In English, we tend to use the expression “head honcho” to refer to the highest-ranking person in a company or organization, but there are a vast array of role titles in Japanese companies, and “honcho” does not rise nearly as high up in the ranks as 社長(しゃちょう) (company president) or even 部長(ぶちょう) (department head).
Still got Rollercoaster Tycoon installed on your PC? Tycoon comes from the Japanese word 大君, meaning “great lord.” This was a title given to the shogun by foreigners during the Edo Period. While you could argue that feudal lords do have a fair amount in common with the prominent and ruthless businessmen we apply “tycoon” to in English, you can see that this word changed quite a bit when it was integrated into English.
This term is a bit less common for everyday English speakers, but office workers and innovators are likely to have come into contact with it. Kaizen (改 meaning “renew” or “revise” and 善 meaning “good”) refers to the business philosophy of continuous improvement and involving every member of an organization in problem-solving and process improvement. Popularized by Toyota and other successful manufacturing companies, this philosophy has spread to a wide variety of fields and specialties.
How recently did you drink a matcha latte or eat a bowl of ramen? Did you find yourself at the karate dojo last weekend or laughing at a goofy string of emojis? Has your boss been lecturing you about the importance of kaizen in the workplace? It’s undeniable that Japanese culture has laid down strong roots in the English-speaking world and the proof is in the language. So, what Japanese word do you predict will gain traction and seep into our vernacular next? Post in the comments below and tell us why!