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.

Why mother con not mother com?

Mazaa kon is short for “mother complex” and is the Janglish expression for mama’s boy/ Oedipus complex. As in English, Japanese words spelt with n change to an m sound before p. Unlike English, there is no chance of actually replacing it with an m sound in the spelling as n is the only consonant Japanese syllables can end with and the final consonant in borrowed words that end in m is always followed by a vowel (e.g. chiimu for team). This therefore leaves a rather strange “orphan n” when mazaa kompurekkusu (which would be spelt mazaa konpurekkusu) is shortened to mazaa con with an n sound, as the only other option would be to change the n (pronounced m) in the original to mu.

Why is the kanji for gentleman “male child”?

being 男子 (danshi), with the female equivalent being 女子 (joshi) – as often seen on toilets.

I have no idea, but it does seem to be part of a broader pattern because the other thing you could literally translate as “male child” (男の子 – otoko no ko) also seems to be used much more widely than the actual word for child (子供 – kodomo).

Why would anyone think that Japanese learners have problems with bit/ beat, sit/ seat etc?

Apparently it gets a mention in Lado’s 1957 classic Linguistics Across Cultures and I once came across someone trying to prove something fundamental by teaching Japanese students these sounds.

It’s true that in Japanese they rely only on length to distinguish between the two most similar vowels to “ship” and “sheep” whereas in English the mouth position is also different. However, in eight years of daily conversations in all kinds of levels of English in Japan I can’t remember a single incident of those sounds causing miscommunication in either direction, whereas it was every day or even every lesson in Spain, where there is no short vowel/ long vowel distinction at all.

I know nowadays it is fashionable to argue that the length differences in English vowels are unimportant or even absent in some circumstances (just as it is fashionable to argue that voiced/ unvoiced is a useless or even false distinction), but my experiences of communicating and teaching suggest otherwise. It can help Spanish students to concentrate on the wider spread mouth of “cheap” and “sleep”, given the problems they have with vowel length, but even one second of class time spent on this in Japan is completely wasted. To the authors of that pointless study – try teaching Japanese consonant clusters instead, will you?

Why do the Japanese say “national language” (kokugo)?

In Language and Society in Japan Nanette Gottlieb argues fairly persuasively that it is mainly used by nationalists for nationalistic reasons, and that more neutral and leftwing people prefer the term “Nihongo”.  As the school syllabus still uses “kokugo” but NHK uses “Nihongo”, I think that one word gives quite an insight into where Japanese society is right now.

Why are there two ways of saying “there are” in Japanese?

I’m not asking this as a linguistic question as almost everything exists in one language or another (although if there is a linguistic or historical reason I’d love to know) but more as a philosophical one:

If the animistic Shinto tradition of rocks and trees etc being gods and having souls is so important in Japan, how can they divide things into animate and inanimate when deciding on whether to use iru or aru?

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