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Lost in Translation

English Words from Japanese

After I wrote my article on English words borrowed from Chinese, some readers requested that I create a similar page for Japanese words and now, with the generous assistance of M. Yumiko Masuda, here it is. Read on for there are actually quite a few Japanese words that have entered English!

Copyright 2004-2005 Richard Heli


Japanese words that have entered through our stomachs. Surprisingly, all of these are located in the second half of the alphabet.
miso
a high-protein food paste consisting chiefly of soybeans, salt, and usually fermented grain (as barley or rice) and ranging in taste from very salty to very sweet
nori
dried laver seaweed pressed into thin sheets and used especially as a seasoning or as a wrapper for sushi
sake
a Japanese alcoholic beverage of fermented rice usually served hot
sashimi
a Japanese dish consisting of thinly sliced raw fish served with a sauce for dipping
satsuma
any of several cultivated mandarin trees that bear medium-sized largely seedless fruits with thin smooth skin; also, the fruit of these trees
sukiyaki
from shii, the Japanese chinquapin + take mushroom; a dark Asian mushroom (Lentinus edodes of the family Agaricaceae) widely cultivated especially on woods of the beech family for its edible flavorful tan to brown cap
sukiyaki
from suki- slice + yaki broil; a dish consisting of thin slices of meat, bean curd, and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and sugar
sushi
cold rice dressed with vinegar, formed into any of various shapes, and garnished especially with bits of raw fish or shellfish
tempura
seafood or vegetables dipped in batter and fried in deep fat
teriyaki
a Japanese dish of meat or fish that is grilled or broiled after being soaked in a seasoned soy sauce marinade
wasabi
a condiment prepared from the thick pungent greenish root of an Asian herb (Eutrema wasabi) of the mustard family and is similar in flavor and use to horseradish; also : the root or the herb that yields it
Once again, unusual customs are responsible for a lot of words. In particular, there are a number of words related to various systems of personal combat or of war:
aikido
an art of self-defense employing locks and holds and utilizing the principle of nonresistance to cause an opponent's own momentum to work against him
banzai
a cheer or war cry
banzai attack/charge
a mass attack by Japanese soldiers in World War II; also : an all-out usually desperate attack
Bushido
a feudal-military Japanese code of behavior valuing honor above life
hara-kiri
ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by the Japanese samurai or formerly decreed by a court in lieu of the death penalty
honcho
leader of a squad
judo
a sport developed from jujitsu that emphasizes the use of quick movement and leverage to throw an opponent
jujitsu
an art of weaponless fighting employing holds, throws, and paralyzing blows to subdue or disable an opponent
kamikaze
literally, divine wind 1 : a member of a Japanese air attack corps in World War II assigned to make a suicidal crash on a target (as a ship) 2 : an airplane containing explosives to be flown in a suicide crash on a target 3 : having or showing reckless disregard for safety or personal welfare
karate
a Japanese art of self-defense employing hand strikes and kicks to disable or subdue an opponent
kendo
a Japanese sport of fencing with bamboo swords
seppuku
ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by the Japanese samurai or formerly decreed by a court in lieu of the death penalty
sumo
a form of wrestling in which a contestant loses if he is forced out of the ring or if any part of his body except the soles of his feet touches the ground
But just as important there is the other side of the coin, words of poetry, song and religion:
geisha
from gei art + -sha person; a Japanese woman who is trained to provide entertaining and lighthearted company especially for a man or a group of men
haiku
an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively; also : a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference
kabuki
traditional Japanese popular drama performed with highly stylized singing and dancing
karaoke
a device that plays instrumental accompaniments for a selection of songs to which the user sings along and that records the user's singing with the music
koan
from ko public + an proposition; a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment
No
literally, talent; classic Japanese dance-drama having a heroic theme, a chorus, and highly stylized action, costuming, and scenery
Tanka
an unrhymed verse form of five lines containing 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables respectively; also : a poem in this form
zen
a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation
Unusual things:
anime
a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes (short for animEshiyon, a returned word from English animation)
bonsai
a potted plant (as a tree) dwarfed and trained to an artistic shape by special methods of culture; also : the art of growing such a plant
dojo
a school for training in various arts of self-defense (as judo or karate)
fuji
from Fuji, the mountain in Japan; a spun silk clothing fabric in plain weave origin made in Japan
gaijin
from gai- outer, foreign + -jin person; a foreigner in Japan
Go
game for two who alternately place black and white stones on a board checkered by 19 vertical lines and 19 horizontal lines in an attempt to enclose the larger area on the board
kimono
a long robe with wide sleeves traditionally worn with a broad sash as an outer garment by the Japanese
ninja
from nin- persevere + -ja person; a person trained in ancient Japanese martial arts and employed especially for espionage and assassinations
obi
a broad sash worn especially with a Japanese kimono
samurai
a military retainer of a Japanese daimyo practicing the code of conduct of Bushido or, in general, the warrior aristocracy of Japan
sensei
a teacher of martial arts (as karate or judo)
shogun
one of a line of military governors ruling Japan until the revolution of 1867-68
shoji
(as in shoji screen) a paper screen serving as a wall, partition, or sliding door
tatami
straw matting used as a floor covering in a Japanese home
zori
a flat thonged sandal usually made of straw, cloth, leather, or rubber
Words not yet in the English dictionary, but growing in acceptance:
bento
a meal served in a kind of box with discrete sections
hagaki
a card or postcard
manga
Japanese comic books, often read by businessmen on the subway
neko
literally cat, but known as the name of a cartoon kitty
Pokemon
name of a product line for cards, games and related paraphernalia; a returned word that comes from Englis "pocket monster"
ronin
masterless samurai; also a student who failed to get accepted at a university of his choice and is seeking another chance; also a student who, having failed a school entrance examination for a particular year, is preparing for one next year
yakuza
organized crime member

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    Last update: October 18, 2005
    Many thanks for the wonderful help and suggestions of Yumiko Masuda!
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