Why is Japanese “ken” translated as “prefecture”?

I don’t know why it took me ten years to look up the answer to this nagging question on Wikipedia, because the answer to that question has been waiting for me there:

“The origins of the Western term prefecture being used to describe Japanese subdivisions date from 15th century Portuguese contact with Japan, whereby the word prefeitura was used to very roughly describe Japanese fiefdoms, in Portuguese the original meaning was more analogous to municipalities than provinces. (Reciprocally today, Japanese uses the character ken -  - to refer to Portuguese districts.)”

Why is the Japanese parliament called the Diet?

Not only have I always wondered this, I’ve had my Japanese students asking me. However, only now got round to researching it. I did already know most of this Wikipedia entry:

“The word diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag…”

but that still leaves open the question of whether foreign commentators invented the expressions (like “bullet train”) or if the Japanese people setting the Diet up chose the description of it in English (the Japanese expression “kokkai” always being used when speaking that language).

In either case, I wonder if they didn’t choose the word “parliament” because they didn’t want it to sound like a real parliament, given the powers of the Emperor and in the case of Westerners perhaps their unwillingness to accept that an Asian country could run a real democracy.

Why do the Japanese say “presentator”?

I’d always assumed what this Japanese site says, that this Japanese version of “presenter” was a made-in-Japan word made to sound like other words like “commentator”. I therefore told a Belgian student of mine to start worrying about picking up Janglish when the word came out of his mouth. However, it turns out he was right when he told me it is used there too. As there are few if any recent borrowings from Dutch into Japanese (though many in much earlier history), it still seems likely that this is just coincidence and it was actually created in Japan.

For much more on Janglish/ Japanglish/ Japanese English/ Japlish, there’s loads more on JapanExplained, or have just updated my full list and made a collection of my favourites on my English teaching blog:

TEFLtastic Janglish dictionary

Janglish which we should all start using

Why are the Japanese so insensitive to swearing in other languages?

In just one week I’ve heard someone saying “Merde” in a NHK programme for primary school kids, seen “Jesus Christ!” coming out a speech bubble on Yamanote line train posters, and become aware of this incredibly profane T-shirt on local station Kanagawa TV. Is it just because there is very little concept on swearing in Japanese, or just the incredible ability of the Japanese to filter out most of what is going on around them, especially text in foreign languages?

Why does cos-play have a (semi-) English name?

It could be because the idea also came from an English speaking country, if this story from a recent edition of the BBC Radio programme Boston Calling is be be believed:

“Some early Japanese fans went to Star Trek conventions, saw them dressing up in the US and brought that back to Japan”

Cos-play is short for “costume play” and in Japanese means any kind of dressing up, unlike its English language use only for anime-related dressing up since it was borrowed (back?) from Japanese.

Why do foreigners use the word keitai?

These are the Japanese words which from my experience are most common in conversations between two English speakers who have been in Japan for a fair while:


manshon/ apaato


kare raisu



Less common:


Some are quite easy to explain. For example, “apaato” and “manshon” aren’t strictly translatable into Japanese, and rice ball is a horribly clumsy expression for “onigiri”. “Konbini” is probably a combination of being easier to say than “convenience store” and the stores seeming somehow different to and/ or more common than those back home. Why “keitai”, though? It does seem to be the same with use of the word “handy” for English-speaking people in Germany, so maybe it’s something to do with the switchover happening while many of the expats who set the trend already being in the country.

Meanings/ Origins of Japanese company names post much expanded

Still needs a lot of work, though, so questions and corrections here please:

Japanese company names explained

Why do the Japanese pronounce Gary “geri”?

As in the fabulous British actor Geri Oldman. As this amusing GaijinPot thread points out, that makes it sound exactly like the Japanese word for diarrhoea. No particular need for it, either, as “gari” is perfectly possible in Japanese, and indeed the name for the red pickled ginger in sushi shops – making it a much better pronunciation all round!

How does a French e end up as a Japanese u?

I can just about understand how the French definite article “le” ends up as “ru” in Japanese, as it is probably closer to the pronunciation than a Japanese “re” would be in that case, but there is no way that the first syllable of Renoir in French sounds like “ru”, to give one of many examples.

Why is it acceptable in Japan to leave even small kids home alone?

Being a (soft) Sapir-Whorfist, I have long thought that it was at least partly due to how easy and reasonable-sounding it is to say to a kid “O-rusu-ban o-negai shimasu” (something like “Please look after the house while I’m out”) as you leave, as it sounds a lot less neglectful than the English “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes” or “Be good while I’m gone”. This nugget of information from East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History that I’ve just come across might also have some relevance though if the habits have long outlasted their roots (as is common in any culture):

“For reasons of etiquette and security, old-style houses had required that someone always be home to greet guests and guard the premises. Western-style front doors made it easy for the housewife to lock the door and go shopping, visit friends or see a movie” (page 480)

Then again, some Japanese parents also seem happy to let their kindergarten-aged kids take the train home without any adult supervision, so maybe it is something more general.

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