English words from Japanese explained

Why did I nearly get into a fight when I pointed out some yakuza in the street?

Unlike “mafia”, the word “yakuza” was originally an insult (it is derived from the worst possible score in a dice game) and still retains some of that negative impact. This is based on a friend’s real experience and question, btw!

Why is karaoke pronounced “kareeokee” in English?

Because it has an unusual succession of vowel sounds for an English word.  

Why is “karaoke” written in katakana despite being a Japanese word (Japanese words are usually written in hiragana or kanji)?

According to some pop etymological stories the word karaoke comes from から (空 -kara, meaning empty) and オケ (oke- short for orchestra, hence “empty orchestra”), hence the last part of the expression comes from English and therefore katakana is natural. 

Why is Noh (能 のう) spelt with an h in English, unlike almost any other Japanese words?

It one of the older schemes for showing Japanese pronunciation with the English alphabet, “oh” was used to show a long O sound. For some reason, with Noh it has stuck (whereas we never write Tohkyoh, aikidoh, judoh etc), perhaps to avoid confusion with the English word “no”.

Why is Noh written with the kanji for “help”?


Why do some American geeks use the word “otaku” as a badge of pride, whereas in Japan it is almost entirely negative?


Why is the Japanese word “gyoza” usually used in English for the Chinese dumplings, not a Chinese equivalent?

Easier to pronounce??

Why is the word “sake” sometimes written in English with an accent on the last letter?

It’s supposed to remind you to pronounce the last syllable and not say it like the similarly spelled word in the English expression “For Pete’s sake!”

Why do English speakers say Akita Inu instead of Akitaken (秋田犬)?

It is one possible pronunciation of the three kanji used to write the name of the dog, but the last kanji is usually pronounced “ken” when used in a compound like this. Did one American with Intermediate level Japanese result in this pronunciaiton spreading over the whole world?

Why do some Japanese not understand when you talk to them about sudoku (数独)?

It Japan it is more commonly known as ナンバーゲーム (nambaa geimu- number game)

Why do I get odd looks when I say “sayonara”?

Two possible reasons. One is that it is fairly heavy expression with an effect like “so long” in English. Another is that if you do want to sound formal you also need to lengthen the second vowel sound (さようならー sayoonara).

Why are satsumas named after an area in Southern Japan in English?

Why does the English word rickshaw come from Japanese?

It was invented in Japan (rickshaw is a corruption of the Japanese word 人力車 (じんりきしゃ jinrikisha), meaning “human powered car”)


Wikipedia list of English words of Japanese origin

Everything2 English words of Japanese origin


  1. marissa said,

    May 1, 2008 at 3:48 am

    I would like to know different kinds of drugs (marijuana, speed, ectascy ect.) in japanese no reason im not a drug dealer lol although the only drug i DO support is marijuana but thats a differnt story but yeah I would like to know how the japanese say drugs lol

    • Pau said,

      November 17, 2011 at 6:03 am

      Marijuana is called “Taima” (great hemp) in Japanese or Maiyaku (hemp medicine) Not sure of speed etc but powders, amphetamines etc that are inhaled or smoked etc are called “kakuseizai”

  2. Zanshin said,

    February 22, 2010 at 12:03 am

    I would guess the people asking about gyoza being called by the Japanese name are actually referring to gyoza, which while based on a chinese food, are quite different from that food. It’s kind of like how ramen is referred to as a chinese food, but in other coutries (or places) like hong kong they have signs with ramen written in katakana. In general, I believe gyoza when sold out side of japan only appear in Japanese restaurants.

    And as far at the otaku thing, while I wouldn’t called it entirely negative in Japan, in fact the perception in Japan is completely different than that in America, basically meaning a fanatic about a certainly hobby, to varying degrees of mania not necessarily implying lacking a social life. The limited number of people in America who use the work otaku are trying to exaggerate their knowledge and understanding of Japan.

  3. Gerald said,

    January 6, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    As regards the pronunciation of “sake,” the “accent” is a reminder to distinguish this word (for rice wine) from the word “SAke” — meaning salmon. Typically, Americans get the pronunciation wrong — but this is understood by Japanese. Of course, these are not really accents but differences in pitch pattern.

    • alexcase said,

      January 7, 2014 at 1:22 am

      I’m sorry, but that sounds totally wrong to me. The accent is to remind English speakers to pronounce the E rather than pronouncing it the same as the English noun /seik/ with the same spelling. There were other examples of this where there were no Japanese homophones – will see if I can remember what they are. The word was used often by foreign people to talk about Japanese food with other foreign people, so there was absolutely no chance of confusing it with salmon, where they would simply write “salmon”. In fact, I’m almost certain the accent was added by foreigners for that purpose, rather than by Japanese people trying to teach foreign people Japanese. Also, there are hundreds of homophones in Japanese, e.g. hana for nose and flower, and no others are distinguished by an accent in English.

  4. crella said,

    January 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

    ‘Did one American with Intermediate level Japanese result in this pronunciaiton spreading over the whole world?’

    Could be, it’s really grating though, I’ve actually written to the American Kennel Club and asked them to correct it :-D

    Isn’t ‘gyouza’ just the Japanese reading of the kanji? They’re indicated by the same kanji on Chinese language menus, aren’t they? (pardon me if I’m mistaken…)

    The accent on the ‘e’ in ‘sake’ is most likely to emphasize that it’s not ‘sakee’ (pretty common) but ‘sakeh’ .

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