Japanese language explained

Why do the Japanese pronounce Triumph “trimpu”?

In researching this oddity that had been puzzling me, I was surprised to find that this bra company is German, despite the name. Haven’t managed to find out what the German pronunciation is yet though

Why do the Japanese pronounce Mao Tse Tung “Mou taku tou”?

It’s the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji for his name

Why do Japanese TV and newspapers usually show the pronunciation as well as the kanji of Korean names but only the kanji of Chinese names?

Famous historic Chinese figures etc are usually known by the Japanese pronunciation of their names, so showing the names’ Chinese pron would only confuse people. There is also the fact that Chinese names have various pronunciations for the same kanji depending on whether you are speaking Cantonese, Mandarin etc, which is not a problem in Korean

Why is the word for kitchen “platform place” (台所-daidokoro)?

Why is sake sometimes spelt with an accent on the E?

It’s to remind you to pronounce it. Many older borrowed words from Japanese have these accents.

Why are Edo and Ebisu sometimes spelt Yedo and Yebisu in English?

Why do so many apparently unrelated Asian languages have counters (different numbers for long things, animals, thin things etc)?
I used to have the same question about Asian tonal languages, but apparently a majority of the world’s languages are tonal, including lots of African ones
Why do some Japanese language books teach tones but most not bother?
Japanese is obviously not a proper tonal language, because you couldn’t teach Chinese or Thai without tackling tones from the first day

Why is green tea only called agari in a sushi place?
Why is shoyu (soy sauce) called murasaki in a sushi bar?

Why are there so few Japanese surnames? Second attempt

Even today, Japanese people hearing a surname they have never heard before can be overly curious if not downright suspicious- for example that they are Korean or Chinese using the Japanese pron of the kanji of their name. Therefore, if anyone in the Meiji era villages where most people took on their family names had been brave enough to choose something radical, I have a feeling most of those names would have disappeared through social pressure over time.

Why is there no taboo word for “shit” in Japanese?

Why do the English titles of Japanese films and manga often have so little connection to the Japanese title?

My favourite example of this (as well as my favourite manga) is Urayasu Tekkin Kazoku (Urayasu- a lower middle class area of Chiba near Disneyland- Steel Muscle Family), which for some reason gets the English title Super Radical Gag Family. And the reason is…

English titles for things that are not designed at all for export are not meant to be a translation, they are supposed to be an addition to the Japanese title to add to it’s impact on the Japanese reader, whilst possibly suggesting that it is good enough the be exported.
Why is “greengrocer” written as “eight hundred shop” (八百屋- yaoya)?


Why do Japanese barbers (床屋- tokoya) tend to spell it in English “bar-ber” with a dash?

An archaic use, ie. it was spelt that way in some European language when it was borrowed into Japanese when the first barbers were set up in the Meiji era?

Why do the Japanese pronounce the car maker Jaguar /jagaa/? 

Using the Japanese pronunciation of the big cat’s name??

Why do the Japanese pronounce Gary, as in Gary Oldman, /geri/?

Like the American pronunciation?? On that topic, why on earth do the Spanish say AND spell the actor Johnny Deep??

Why does the phrase “ai shitteru” (愛しってる- I love you) only exist in the movies?

A taboo against both public and private displays of affection; a cowboy-like image of a real man as a strong silent type; a mistrust of romance as something that will disappear in the real light of day when juku bills have to be paid to get the kids into Todai; a clear distinction between genres of fiction, personal fantasy and real life, with no desire to blur them with realistic dramas or following your dreams; and/ or a habit against saying nice stuff to people close to you because you have to make insincere compliments at work all the time.

Why お袋 (honorable bag) for mother?

Could it possibly refer to the womb??

Why does the Kobe earthquake have a different name in Japanese (大阪神地震ー daihansaijishin)?

Why do the Japanese still use kanji when they have two easier native scripts they could write with?

At a practical level, reading something for meaning can actually be done quicker when written with kanji when you get used to it, as you can skim past the grammatical parts of the sentence (written in hiragana) and read just the meaning-based parts (written in kanji). You can also understand many new scientific words from the kanji used without even needing to have heard them before. For this reason, Japanese government departments are actually simplifying the information they give the public by using more kanji-based compound nouns and less “Japanese English” ones like “cool biz”.

This is only part of the story, though, as the same is more or less true of Korean Hangeul, and the use of Chinese symbols are dying out there. The social reason why it continues to be taught in schools in Japan is that the method of learning kanji, copying your teacher with no questions asked, is supposed to develop the right ‘Japanese’ personality traits.

Why do polite Japanese female voices, e.g. tour guides, seem so unnatural?

Although Japanese is not really a tonal language, dictionaries of tones of words do exist. People trying to speak with the precise, ‘correct’ dictionary pronunciation therefore sound unnatural.

Why are their two names for Japan?
Where does the name Japan come from?/ Why do we say Japan when they say Nihon or Nippon?

Why is tobacco the only borrowed Western word commonly written in hiragana? Why is tobacco usually written in hiragana rather than the katakana script that is usually used for borrowed words?
People tend to get very attached to and personal about their addictions- just look at the fuss in any country when a chocolate or beer company is taken over by a foreigner

Why is the word for geek (おたく otaku) and the polite for you (お宅 おたく otaku) the same?

They could just be homophones, something which Japanese has a huge number of, but one explanation link the two. One sign of the lack of social skills of otaku was using overformal language like お宅 with each other, so much so that it eventually became their name for each other

Why did the Japanese hang onto kanji Chinese symbols while they were reforming everything else during the Meiji era?

In many ways the Meiji era changes remind me of Ataturk era Turkey, but the Turks got rid of the alphabet they had borrowed from one time cultural superiors who then became despised “degenerate” colonial subjects (in their case the Persians, but a fair description of the Chinese for the Japanese). Strangely, the difficulty of kanji was one of the reasons for its retention, as learning huge numbers of huge kanji was a status symbol that the educated classes weren’t keen to give up. Other factors include that ability of kanji to make the meaning of written homophones and technical compounds clearer than if they were just written in hiragana, and the belief by some that learning kanji is a good way of teaching kids the mental attitude they need in their Japanese adult lives (don’t ask why, just copy).

Why isn’t Japanese clearly related to any other languages?

It could such a thorough mix of two or more languages that it makes the roots impossible to identify. Alternatively, the ethnic group with the closest related language on the Chinese or Central Asian mainland could have lost its language under the influence of neighbouring groups, after the people speaking what became part or most of the Japanese language left that area.

Why is baka (馬鹿- stupid) written with the kanji for horse plus deer?

“legend having it a foolish king of the ancient Chinese Qin dynasty, upon seeing a deer, fatuously said ba instead of ka, and was the first to have earned himself the nickname baka” Japanese Street Slang, Peter Constatine pg 7

Why is “pimp” and “string” the same word in Japanese (himo)?

Why does “abura o uru” (油を売る- sell oil) mean loaf/slack?

“the oil seller in olden times used to stroll leisurely from house to house chatting, flirting, and gossiping” Japanese Street Slang pg 29


Common confusions with words from European languages in Japanese

Japanese English explained

(Only) the best resources for learning Japanese

Online dictionaries

Popjisyo– shows the translation of every word on almost any website when you click on the word. Makes reading in Japanese 10 times faster and easier. 

Kanji practice

The most used kanji in Japanese newspapers– this will not only make sure you learn the useful kanji first (not the case if you learn them in the JPLT, Japanese elementary school or any other well known order) and in context, but it is also quite fun and interactive. 

Jouyou kanji list – Another game-based kanji site, this time is a more systematic but less instantly useful order. Has quite a lot of pronunciations etc. that you don’t need, but very good at recycling and looking at the same kanji several ways until you have really got it.

Kanji clinic– Interesting newspaper columns on kanji for when you just can’t drill anymore.


JGram Japanese grammar community– not all the information is correct, but the fact that people are working together to make it so makes it all much more memorable. Good for the JPLT tests.

General information about the Japanese language

Washington State University guide to the Japanese language– history, language families etc.


  1. Brandon said,

    January 26, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Not sure if this question was rhetorical or not, but here goes anyway. About 八百屋 (yaoya). In the Japanese language, “800” is synonymous with “so many”, “much”, etc. It’s a traditional style of usage and still used in some words today. So basically yaoya is a shop of many (vegetables or greens). Definitely not obvious. I had to ask a Japanese friend.

  2. chris said,

    March 30, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    – “Why is there no taboo word for “shit” in Japanese? ”
    you must be american i suppose. only the us americans are that prudish about this word.
    – “Why are their two names for Japan?”
    there arent two names, its just two pronounciations: nippon and nihon

  3. crella said,

    April 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    The Kobe earthquake is the Hanshin-Awaji Dai Shinsai. 阪神淡路大震災。

    ‘Japan’ is from the Portuguese ‘Jipangu’. In any country it’s the same….we call Germany ‘Germany’ they call it ‘Deutschland’ etc.

    ‘Otaku’ and ‘otaku’ :-D is the same as ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ in English…homophones.

    Yedo and Yebisu reflect old kana、and their transliteration into Romaji. If you know any elderly in their late 80s or early 90s you may notice that their names contain hiragana not currently in use….language evolves, including the kana used, and their Romaji renditions.

    Well, the Japanese for ‘shit’ , ‘kuso’ is not used in polite company…I don’t know if that means it’s ‘taboo’ or not, but using words like ‘kuso’ etc is considered generally to be in poor taste. There is less swearing in daily conversation than you might expect elsewhere. The language is definitely lacking in satisfying swear words ;-D

  4. Lapenda said,

    October 13, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Why is “important” written as “big”+”cut” (taisetsu)?

    • Ian said,

      December 14, 2018 at 4:30 pm

      Because something important to you takes a big share (cut) of your life/thought

  5. Iain said,

    January 15, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Not one-hundred percent sure about this, but I think the name ‘Japan’ probably comes from Chinese. The chinese characters 日本 (the same used in Japan for the name of the country) are pronounced rìběn. If you step back in time a wee bit when standardised romanisation hadn’t been introduced, this was often written as jeben. The ‘j’ is pronounced as it would be in French. I imagine after this it is just a question of being interpreted differently in Western sources.

    Also, on the note of ‘tabako’ (煙草), the characters used are called ‘ateji’, a term which literally means ‘designated kanji’. Before the Meiji Restoration (and even up to the end of World War II) these were often to assimilate foreign words. I have to admit that I can’t think of many more examples of ateji, but consider the difference between がらす, meaning glass that you might have in a window, and グラス, which you would drink out of. Though they have the same sound in English, they are distinct in Japanese. The former, I understand came to Japan in the early 20th Century, while the latter came in post-war Japan.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Ian said,

    December 14, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    What do they mean by two names? There’s multiple ways to refer to Japan (nippon, nihon, yamato, japan, zipangu)

    • alexcase said,

      January 20, 2019 at 5:13 am

      Only two of those are standard ways of referring to Japan in modern Japanese

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