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10 English Words That Might Confuse You When in Japan

Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.

All languages borrow words from other languages around the world. Being a native English speaker living in Japan, I have realized how abundant English words are in the Japanese language. Here, these words have become part of everyday speech, integrated into Japanese through the use of katakana (the phonetic alphabet).

More often than not, it is quite helpful when these English words come up, as I am not completely fluent in Japanese. However, things can get confusing; this is where I’d like to introduce you to the world of wasei-eigo. It is a term that describes words that sound like English, but to the Japanese, have a slightly different meaning than what we are used to.

1. Smart

To the English speaker, being called "smart" is a compliment to your intelligence, however, in Japan, being smart has nothing to do with brains. In this country, a smart person is someone who is slim with a nice body. This is why a Japanese person may be calling you 'smart' while glancing at your body instead of your head.

2. Style

Not only does this word refer to fashion, design, a manner or way in Japan, but it can also be used to describe a person’s figure. Similar to the previous word ‘smart’, somebody with a ‘good style’ means they have a nice body.

Slim, long legs, fit, this woman would be considered 'smart' or with 'ii-sutairu' (good style) in Japan

Slim, long legs, fit, this woman would be considered 'smart' or with 'ii-sutairu' (good style) in Japan

3. Revenge

Usually when we speak of revenge, it has something to do with payback for having experienced something bad done to us. When used in the Japanese context, it has a much more positive meaning. Revenge here refers to giving something another try after failing the first time. You will see the Japanese say the word revenge while pumping their fists and with a happy look of determination. Don’t worry, they are not evilly taking enjoyment in plotting something against you, it’s just that they are motivating themselves to succeed the next time.

4. U-Turn

There are two ways this word can be used in Japan. The first is the same as in English, where it is used to describe the change of direction by a vehicle turning 180 degrees as if driving in a U-shape. The second use is to describe the period of time when everybody is heading back home after going away for the long weekend. Let me go into more detail; in Japan, it is difficult for people to take a vacation from work, or rather difficult for people to ask for time off (as they don’t want to burden others, seem lazy, or be looked down upon).

Most can only manage to go on a vacation on national holidays, when the company they work for is closed for consecutive days. The majority of long weekends only amount to 3 days (Saturday, Sunday and Monday) which does not give much time to get out of the city. However, there are two times of the year when companies will close for a whole week due to a string of national holidays in a row. New Year's is one of them, but people are too busy spending money on lavish dinners and holiday presents to be able to go anywhere, not to mention it is winter and cold. People who do go out of town are those who visit family members in another city.

Golden Week, on the other hand, is in May when the weather is a lot warmer. It may also be a time to visit the parents or family, but for those who don’t want to spend the whole week at their parent’s house, golden week is also a good time to plan a summer trip. To give you an idea of how busy the travel business is, whether it’s out to a different part of Japan, or to a different country, this is probably the most expensive time to travel for the Japanese because the rates of all things related are hiked up.

Back to the original discussion, U-turn is the term for the movement of people returning home from those long vacations. Nobody wants to end their vacation early so most people make their way back home on the last or second last day of the obon weekend. As you can imagine, during the U-turn, the streets and trains are packed. It could take several hours more than it normally would just to get home. So, if someone asks you how was the U-turn traffic, they don’t mean traffic caused by vehicles suddenly making U-turns on the road.

5. Host

In English, if one is a host, they are the ones throwing a party, welcoming guests, or emceeing a radio or television program. In Japan, it has quite a different meaning. While you may find it being used once in a while in the same way as in English, most of the time a ‘host’ is a man who works at a host club, or as an entertainer for women. Strip clubs are banned in Japan, but there are Host clubs and Kyaba clubs.

In a Kyaba (comes from the word cabaret) club, the patrons are men who are looking for company and want to have a drink with the women employees (a.k.a Kyaba girls). Host clubs are just the opposite where the men are there to entertain women customers. The men are referred to as hosts. So if you hear the word host in Japan, it mainly points to a young man working in a host club, looking for popularity in order to make fast money.

6. Service

This is one word you’ll like to hear in Japan. While service in English usually refers to providing or doing something for somebody, in Japanese it means a freebie. If you’re in a restaurant and the waiter brings a dish and says ‘sa-bisu’ (service pronounced in Japanese), it means it’s on the house. If you’re in a store and are making a purchase, the staff may throw an extra item into your shopping bag and say ‘sa-bisu’; it’s basically a gift from the store for being a valued customer or just someone who brightened up their day.

7. Talent

In Japanese, a talent is not a skill that a person has, rather it is a person who appears on television or radio, and their special skill is entertaining. They are usually somewhat comedic, and have a particular character (made up or not) that appeals to the viewers or listeners. Their job is to make interview shows, travel shows, food shows, trivia shows, news reports, events, etc. more interesting for everyone. Most will appear on not just one, but multiple shows. You can find talents that are not actually talented at all and fall off the ratings after everyone gets tired of their one gig that made them popular.

8. Idol

In English-speaking places, an idol is someone we look up to. It may or may not be someone famous, but in either case, it is someone who we admire and perhaps aspire to be. In Japan, only a handful of people would think of an idol in this way; here an idol is interchangeable with the word pop star.

Usually they consist of young musicians who both sing and dance on stage to J-pop (Japanese pop music). Idols can have fan followers of any age (not just the teens who openly confess their love for pop groups); as an example, young female idols often weirdly and almost disturbingly attract audiences of older men who like to sing and dance along.

9. Volumy

This word is a little different in that it does not actually exist in the English language. It does however, clearly have roots in English. It essentially means that something has volume and is mostly used when describing a large or satisfying amount of food. It probably comes from the grammar rule in which -y is added to words to make them adjectives such as hazy, scary, smoky, eggy, crispy, dirty, etc.

An egg sandwich, covered in pizza topping, this dish from a well-known café in Nagoya serves a very 'volumy' sandwich

An egg sandwich, covered in pizza topping, this dish from a well-known café in Nagoya serves a very 'volumy' sandwich

10. Sea Chicken

If somebody asks you if you want to eat sea chicken in Japan, know that you are not going to be served chicken. Sea chicken is actually what canned tuna is called. It probably started from a company calling one of their popular tuna products "sea chicken", but you can find it being used more generally now for any canned tuna.

A can of sea chicken, or flaked tuna (contains no actual chicken)

A can of sea chicken, or flaked tuna (contains no actual chicken)

There are a lot of English words that the Japanese have borrowed and put into common use, but as you can see, sometimes they can have a different meaning or nuance from what we know. It might be confusing for the English speaker at first, but if you listen with an open mind and put things into context, you may find that you can catch the differences and even start using wasei-eigo in your own Japanese speech.

Doing so may further convince the Japanese person that they are using the word in the right way, but I don’t see the problem in that; languages are forever borrowing and changing.

© 2018 Kiyomi Motomura