Favorite Japanese words
There are a lot of words I prefer to say in Japanese rather than in English simply because they are easier and faster. I’ve lived in Japan so long that I’ve grown accustomed to them, even though I do not speak the language very well. (No one in Canada believes me when I say that, but there it is.) Sometimes I think of the Japanese so quickly, almost automatically, that it feels natural. Occasionally when I am vacationing in Canada I unintentionally speak Japanese in response to something that a Canadian family member says. When that happens - which is rarely - it is not intentional. It just slips out because I forget myself. Most Japanese syllables are enticingly simple, featuring one consonant and one vowel. Japanese words never end with a consonant except for one exception, the final “n” sound, and there are only a very few words like that. One reason why Japanese, Chinese and other Asian languages sound so much like “cha-cha-ching-ching” babble to Western ears is that the number of syllables is limited and necessarily repetitious. Japanese, for example, uses only a little more than one fifty syllables, period. (Using two different native writing systems, Katakana and Hiragana, that gives a little more than one hundred native writing characters.) My point is that the repetition of syllables makes the language easy to get a grip on. I like the sound of it.
Other times there are things that are unique to one language and culture that cannot accurately be said in the other language. That’s the bare reality of translation anyway, even between more closely related languages. People usually function on the unspoken premise that accurate point-by-point translation actually is possible. It’s one of the polite fictions we live with daily that help support our lives of illusion. There are many Japanese onomatopoeia that appeal to me for one reason or another. Japanese has some great onomatopoeia expressions.
Generally speaking I find it harder to be rude in Japanese than in English. I can curse a horrible streak in English and then make things worse by bringing your mother or your sister into it. (Or both.) Maybe my knowledge of Japanese is just still so small that I haven’t learned all the naughty bits. But my experience so far is that the language is designed to cultivate politeness. Rudeness for Japanese comes across more in behavior than in word of mouth. In oral interactions you can defuse situations and smooth things over with a good apology and talk about mutual understanding and peace. “Mutual understanding” goes a long way with Japanese.
Following is a short list with some explanations and comments.
1. Mechakucha (in disarray, botched up)
I just like the sound of the syllable“cha.” It impresses Japanese people that I even know this word and how to use it. “Mechakucha”might even be a good way of describing my life.
2. Jidohanbaiki (vending machine)
Vending machines are all over the place in Japan, like mushrooms, lichen, spittle, cigarette butts and love hotels.
Mostly I just like the sound of it and the way it feels in my mouth when I say it.
3. Jishin (earthquake)
This is a lot easier to say than “earthquake” because it is a shorter word, because I don’t have to use as many muscles in my tongue, cheek and lips, and because it’s a really handy word here, used often, usually as an exclamation. Jishin!!
4. Ohaiyo (good morning)
Again, it’s a lot easier to say ohaiyo than “Good morning.” It’s faster and takes less energy. Not as many muscles to use.
5. Ja! (See you!)
It’s a lot easier. It sounds neat, too.
6. Abunai! (watch out!)
It’s just easier than saying “Watch out!”
7. ira-ira (irritating)
I find many things “ira-ira,” and my wife often says that I am “ira-ira.” (She doesn’t mean it kindly, either.) It is both passive and active, meaning both “I feel irritated,” and “It is irritating.”
8. iro-iro (this-and-that, various)
It sounds very similar to “ira-ira.” Iro-iro is another innocuous and vague expression that has many uses. Again, Japanese are impressed when they hear me use it properly.
A: You have a lot of stuff in your bag.
9. Nani? (what?)
This is an extremely common question in Japan. It’s short for “Nan desuka?” meaning “What is it? / What’s this?” It does sound a little annoying sometimes, like a whiny kid who won’t be quiet, but ... hey, my wife thinks that describes me!
Nani is sort of like the ubiquitous “Huh?” or “What?” in American English.
10. Dozo (here you are)
Another very common expression, maybe it’s symptomatic of Japanese politeness. Again, it’s so much easier and faster to say than to say “Here you are.”
11. Yada (yuck, I don’t like it.) / Kowai (scary) / Kawai (cute)
It’s kind of a childish word, something that children say a lot. Japanese women, especially young women, say it a lot, too. It’s not nearly as rude as some other things we couldsay, and it is very common as well as easy to pronounce. I think there is also an element of cuteness to it, possibly a residue from its association with children’s speech.
Often there seems to be confusion in Japanese between the onomatopoeia and the name of the thing. Yada, for example, means “I don’t like it.” But it is also the interjection of distaste. The same is true of many other words. A common example is “Kowai,” which means both “It’s scary,”as well as the interjection of fear. The same thing for “kawai,” which means both “It’s cute” as well as being the interjection to express admiration for cuteness. Usually with a squealing feminine voice.
12. Hai (yes)
It’s easier to say than “yes.” Try it and observe how much lip and tongue action and energy go into each.
13. Ie (no)
Same thing here.
14. Wakannai / Wakaranai (I don’t know. / I don’t understand.)
This expression blurs the line between not knowing and not understanding to begin with. Sometimes I find this kind of confusion beneficial because I prefer to be under-estimated by my fellows. It is also a symptom of how much incomprehension and miscommunication there is in Japan even among naïve Japanese speakers. Japanese has a lot of synonyms and a propensity to drop the subject from its sentences, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. Vagueness (“aimai”) is built into the language. English speakers mostly take this as a fault on the premise that the purpose of language is to communicate clearly. Therefore if a person is being vague in English we might accuse her of poor language proficiency, or maybe even malice. But not in Japanese.
15. Uhn (uhn)
This is a shorthand way of saying “Yeah, yeah, I get you.”
16. Naruhodo (of cours)
I loved this word when I first came to Japan. I had a fantasy about opening an English conversation school facetiously called “Naruhodo gakuen,” or the “Of CourseSchool” because I thought Japanese had a taste for simplistic explanations and the name would be appealing.
17. Hasami (scissors)
Like many words, I just like the sound of it. Before I married I joked with people that if I ever had a child, boy or girl, I would name it “Hasami Shin-piper,” or something like “Scissors New Piper.”
NEVER try to joke in another language.
18. Taihen (it’s hard, onerous)
Incidentally, “taihen” backwkards - “hentai” - means “pervert.” Maybe that’s why I like it.
19. Manzoku (satisfied)
After eating, if you are full, you say “manzoku”
20. Hora miro (I told you so, it was inevitable) / yappari (naturally, therefore, of course)
Again, Japanese get a kick out of hearing me use either of these expressions correctly.
A: How was your test?
A: Did you study?
A: Hora miro!
21. Guja-guja (messy)
Just like “mechakucha” “guja-guja”might describe a large portion of my life. These are not words that we think only in our heads to describe something in the course of our ongoing inner dialogues with ourselves. They are words that we speak out loud as part of social intercourse and conversation. I might walk into a room, for example, look around and say “guja-guja” to no one in particular.
22. Motainai (wasteful)
When something is being wasted in the sense that its potential is not being properly, fully, or sufficiently exploited we can say “Motainai!” Again, that’s my life.
23. Kitte imasendeshita (I didn’t hear it. / Nobody told me.)
This is a kind of joke in contemporary Japanese culture. “Nobody told me” is a ridiculously childish and common excuse we hear from many politicians and corporate CEOs who are caught red-handed taking or giving bribes. When asked to explain the brown paper bag full of gold bars, or hundreds of millions of yen in banknotes that police investigators discovered in a politician’s office safe or home the suspect blames his staff saying, “They didn’t tell me.” It’s the cultural equivalent of Sgt Schultz (John Banner) from Hogan’s Heroes saying “I know nothing. I see nothing.”
24. Ishokenmei (do something hard, with great effort)
Appearance is very important in Japanese culture. How things look is much more important than how they really are, and the appearance of hard work trumps actual accomplishment any day of the week. But real hard work is described/praised with the exclamation “ishokenmei!” The more I think about it the more it seems to me that Japanese excel at describing their emotions with exclamations, as some of the words in this list might indicate.
25. jama (in the way)
I’m surprised that Japanese even has a word for this. Japanese don’t have a sense of being physically in the way of others, and any walk down a street here exposes you to collision dangers as people don’t look where they’re going and otherwise pay no attention to their surroundings. Particularly annoying is the habit of friends to walk abreast of each other, totally blocking the way to others and simultaneously completely oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the way. Not only young people, either.
26. hontou? (Really? Truly?)
Japanese people use this word all the time. Therefore I do, too. We use it to confirm information. Confirming information is very important to me, despite the danger of excessive use confusing things by becoming a distraction. My history of miscommunication here is a reflection of the annoying Japanese habit of confirming incorrect information. It is also used in the sense of “Are you joking?” although there are other expressions that mean just that.