What Do You Mean?

It’s funny that some words can have a different meaning in other parts of the world. This is for example the case with English, French or even Dutch words, who started to live their own life in Japan. In fact, they look and sound like foreign words, but they do not exist or have a different meaning in the country of origin. These kind of borrowed words are called wasei eigo (和製英語, “Japanese pseudo-Anglicisms”) in the case of English, and maybe you remember I mentioned this in my post about hybridization. I give you some examples:


* マンション manshon < mansion : Sounds like a great place to live, but is just an ordinary apartment
* リムジンバス rimujinbasu < limousine bus : A bus you can hire. Not the one meant for public transport
* ヴァージンロード vaajinroodo < virgin road : the aisle in a Western church during a wedding ceremony
* サイダー saidaa < cider : some kind of soda
* カンニング kanningu < cunning : cheating

more examples here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GprKoUB7hY0#t=248


* アベック abekku < avec (together with) : romantic couple
* コント konto < conte (story) : short comedy
* ズボン zubon < jupon (petticoat) : pants


* オルゴール orugooru < orgel (organ) : music box
* おてんば otenba < ontembaar (untamable) : tomboy

The Japanese have some great creativity, but sometimes the same can be said about us. Some current Japanese words have a different meaning in the West. This week I was joking around with a Chinese friend and said something about yaoi manga. I was surprised that my friend, taking his doctoral degree in Japanese Studies, didn’t know what that was. It is, however, a Japanese word, but differently used there. It becomes clear when you try to look op the same word in different language on Wikipedia. I thought about some other words as well. When you hear the word …

1. YAOI  ヤオイ

… the West thinks of manga about homoerotic male relationships, mainly for a female audience. Sex scenes are more explicit compared to boys’ love manga.



… Japan thinks of the original meaning: an acronym of 山なし、落ちなし、意味なし (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi – no climax, no punch line, no meaning). This term was mostly used with fan manga, “slash”, featuring beautiful young man in homoerotic  relationships, written by women and initially meant as a parody. It could also imply that a certain manga’s storyline was crappy. Further, “yaoi” was used as the counterpart of the “normal” mainstream stuff. Nowadays, manga or novels containing explicit homosexual scenes as the main feature of the story can be called yaoi as well in Japan. But, the term “boys’ love” is still generally used.


… the West thinks of the tradition to slit open your own stomach.


… Japan realizes that it is one of the many forms of seppuku 切腹, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. Harakiri is written with the same characters but has the native reading instead of the Chinese reading. Apart from the concept which is very difficult to explain to foreigners, there are different terms used in specific situations: tsuifuku 追腹, oibara 追い腹, junshi 殉死 and harakiri. Among these, harakiri is said to be the least honorable, because it was a less extended version and was performed without the help of a second.

3. HENTAI  変態

… The West thinks of pornographic manga or anime.

… Japan thinks of “deviant behavior”, the literal translation, or maybe “pervert”. It is not used to describe a genre at all. In general, other terms like ero manga or ecchi are used for that.


… The West thinks of traditional Japanese puppet theatre.



… Japan has to think twice about what you are trying to say, because Japanese people use the more accurate term ningyō jōruri 人形浄瑠璃, the combination of puppets plus chanting and shamisen playing. Bunraku is in fact the name of a particular theatre.


… The West thinks of uncooked fish dishes. Some people think sushi as well is a kind of sashimi, because it contains raw fish.



… Japan thinks of meat or fish sliced into thin pieces. Most important is that the delicacy is very fresh. Sushi is made with rice, and the ingredients are not limited to raw fish, but include cooked seafood as well.


2 thoughts on “What Do You Mean?

  1. Pingback: First Impressions of Japan | nippaku

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