30 English Loanwords That Come From Japanese Language

While the Japanese language has borrowed a lot of English words, we can say the same thing the other way around. Words like sushi, karate or tsunami are so commonly used that it might be easy to forget that they are loanwords used in English that come from Japan. If you’ve been studying Japanese for any amount of time, you’ve probably experienced what could be called the katakana glitch. You see a katakana word and you just can’t figure out what it is until you mouth it, after which you might utter something like ‘oh, it’s just closet’. New words are crossing over perhaps due in part to the Internet and pop culture. 

There are a lot of English words of Japanese origin. Let’s take tsunami, for instance. There’s no English word to describe huge tidal waves, so it was borrowed from Japanese words. Interesting, right? 

This post on Japanese loanwords in English covers some of the old, new and in-between, but is by no means exhaustive. A lot of these loanwords are originally written in kanji and hiragana. If you need to review hiragana and katakana, head to this article. By the end of this article, who knows? New words are probably being borrowed at this very minute. 

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japanese loanwords we've used in english for food

Japanese Loanwords Used in English for Food and Entertainment

In 2013, UNESCO named Japanese food an intangible cultural heritage. The flavors and practices associated with Japanese food are unique. Many of the Japanese loanwords in English reflect that uniqueness. Similarly, many aspects of Japanese entertainment tend to originate in Japan, and the English words borrowed from Japanese show that.

1. Karaoke (カラオケ)

Did you even know this was a Japanese word before coming into actual contact with Japan or the language? We didn’t, and we’re guessing we might not be the only one. Also, have you seen anyone do karaoke like the Japanese? This word literally means empty (kara) orchestra (oke).

2. Sudoku (すどく)

If you’ve played sudoku and understand it, more power to you. This game and its title originated in Japan 1984 and have since become very popular all over the world. The su comes from suji or suu ()meaning number and the doku () means single. The overall aim of the game is to get numbers to appear once in squares in a grid. So literally, the numbers must remain single. Or suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru (数字は独身に限る), which was the original title of the game. 

A similar type of game was actually played by the Europeans in the 18th century. In 1980s, a Japanese publisher distributed sudoku, which turned into a huge hit and became a popular game since then. 

3. Pachinko (パチンコ)

Hard to spend any time in Japan and not see a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a kind of pinball game played in arcade games or, more commonly, gambling parlor. Japanese people like to make words that mimic or represents the sound you hear, like the bees buzzing or the snake hissing. The word pachinko is partly made up of a Japanese onomatopoeia. The first part, pachin, is from the sound that the metal pinball makes as it hits an obstacle.The ko is a diminutive suffix that means something like ‘little’. 

4. Soy (sauce, beans)

Tofu and miso are obviously Japanese loanwords, but soy? Yes, apparently it comes from しょうゆ (shoyu), which is Japanese for soy sauce. The actual Japanese term for the bean is daizu. Edamame, which are green soybeans, is also commonly used in English. 

5. Tamari (たまりしょうゆ)

This one is kind of hip these days. Many recipe bloggers suggest using tamari as a ‘healthy’ alternative to regular soy sauce. Tamari is richer, thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce, but it is also made from fermented soybeans. 

6. Shiitake, maitake, matsutake, and enoki mushrooms (椎茸、舞茸、松茸、えのき)

Did I miss any? Many Japanese mushroom names have been carried over and used as-is in English. The most popular of these might be shiitake, which is often pronounced without the second ‘i’, resulting in shitake. 

7. Umami (旨味)

Perhaps because of the significance of washoku or traditional Japanese cuisine, many food-related words have crossed over into the English language. Umami is generally described as that savory flavor in some cooked meats and mushrooms, for example. Washoku itself is also a Japanese loanword used in English. 

8. Dashi (だし)

No mention of washoku can exclude dashi, stock made from fish or kelp that is used as the base for many Japanese dishes. Dashi is commonly used in English to mean the same thing.

9. Katsu (curry or chicken katsu) (かつ)

Katsu refers to cutlets of meat that are breaded using panko and deep fried. The cutlets are usually pork or chicken. Katsu is served with a sauce or with curry. In fact, in some places overseas, katsu curry has become so popular, the term is used to mean all Japanese curry. 

10. Panko (パン粉)

You might have guessed this from the previous entry, but panko is breadcrumbs. They are commonly used in Japanese cooking and the product and the name have crossed over into English-speaking cultures. 

The word panko is actually a combination of loanword that didn’t come from English and the original Japanese word. “Pan” came from the Portuguese language, pao, and ko (粉) is a Japanese word that meant “flour” or “dust”. 

The biggest difference between panko and standard breadcrumbs is that panko is made from bread without crusts. Panko’s crustless white bread is coarsely ground into airy, large flakes that give fried foods a light, crunchy coating.

11. Amazake (甘酒)

Making the list of words of Japanese origin recently recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, amazake is a sweet, fermented drink made from rice. Unlike sake, which is also made from rice, amazake is not alcoholic. It literally means sweet (ama) sake. 

12. Manga (漫画)

These loanwords are used the same way in English they are in Japanese. One distinction is that while manga means comics in general in Japan, the term typically means Japanese comics in English. 

13. Emoji (絵文字)

Texting and instant messaging is just not the same without emoji, graphics that help express an emotion when words are just not enough. But the cute, yellow pictogram you’ve been using on your iphone? The word came from the Japanese language. The kanji 絵 (え) means “picture” and 文字 (もじ) means  “character” or “letter.” You might learn some new emoji from the emojipedia online. 

japanese sports

Japanese Loanwords Used in English for Sport and Martial Arts

Japanese martial arts are known the world over by their Japanese names. These are quite established loanwords, and the sports themselves continue to gain devotees.

14. Judo (柔道)

Japanese martial arts are well-known throughout the English-speaking world, by their Japanese names. Judo, a defensive martial art, is no exception. The term originates from soft, gentle (柔; juu) and way, road (道; do). Judo is an Olympic event, and practitioners are usually called judoka (柔道家). 

When you’re saying the word “judo” in Japanese, remember to elongate the first syllable: Ju-u-dou. In English, however, you can shorten it. 

15. Jujutsu (柔術)

Precursor to judo, this is also a Japanese unarmed martial art. The first part of the term, juu means gentle, just like in judo and the jutsu (術) means skill or art. There are variant spellings in English including jiu-jitsu or ju-jitsu. 

16. Karate (空手)

This is definitely one of those Japanese loan words that just rolls off the tongue. Many people probably recognise nothing ‘foreign’ in the word karate. The term originates from empty (kara) and hand (te), meaning fighting with bare hands. 

17. Kendo (剣道)

This Japanese martial art is armed. Players use bamboo swords and wear protective guards. The ken means sword and do, way. 

18. Sumo (相撲)

Often suffixed with ‘wrestling’ in English, sumo means to fight. It’s not just the word that has crossed borders. Many non-Japanese people have succeeded as sumo wrestlers, in what is perceived to be a closed and very traditional world. Check out this quick guide to sumo related terms to learn a bit more about the sport. 

Japanese Loanwords Used in English for Performing and Literary Arts

From the theater to the page, traditional Japanese performing and literary arts have become well-known in English-speaking cultures. 

19. Kabuki (歌舞伎)

This is a kind of Japanese theater. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites two possible origins of this Japanese loanword. One is that kabuki comes from the verb kabuku, meaning to deviate. The first kabuki performance was given in a shrine by a girl, dressed as a man, which was outside of the norm. The other explanation is that kabuki means  ‘art of song and dance,’ from ka (song), bu (dance), and ki  (art, skill). 

20. Noh (能)

In Noh theater, performers sing and dance while wearing masks. This loanword comes from the Japanese meaning ‘talent’.

21. Tanka (短歌)

A poem written using just five lines, tanka means short (tan) song (ka). In English, the poems typically use five lines and 31 syllables, but in Japanese, they are typically written in three lines. 

22. Haiku (俳句)

If you’ve heard about haiku, you probably have the impression that it takes immense skill to craft them. These poems are written using a set number of syllables. The haiku consists of three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

Though haiku were originally written in Japanese, English poems following this pattern also go by the same name. Literally meaning light (haikai no)  verse (ku), these poems are often about nature. 

23. Senryu (川柳)

This loanword refers to another type of Japanese poetry that’s similar to haiku. Senryu tend to talk about people, rather than nature, however. This form was named after a poet who frequently practiced it. 

Other Japanese Loanwords We Use in English

From business to bedding and natural disasters, Japanese loanwords are used in many areas of life. The following words don’t fall neatly into the categories we have here. But they are still commonly used. 

24. Tycoon (大君)

You’ve probably heard this word used a lot with another t-word, tech, as in tech tycoon. Its origins have little do with technology, however. Taikun was the name foreigners gave to the shogun (another loanword) when they came to Japan in the 1800s. Over time, taikun (great lord) became tycoon. Today, the word refers to someone of tremendous wealth and power. 

25. Honcho (班長)

This is another loanword often used alliteratively with head, as in head honcho, meaning leader. The term originates from Japanese han (group) and cho (leader), and was apparently picked up by foreigners in Japan during the second world war.  

26. Skosh (少し: Sukoshi)

Have you ever noticed someone saying, “Just a skosh.” Maybe you’re asking if you need to add more salt when you are making soup. This loanward is a shortening of the Japanese sukoshi, meaning a little. It was adopted by the US servicement when they were stationed in Japan after World War II It is used in the same way in English, and carries the nuance of a really tiny amount. 

27. Zen (善)

This loanword originates from the Japanese school of Zen Buddhism that focuses on meditation. In common use in English, zen means calm and peaceful, and doesn’t explicitly refer to Buddhism. 

28. Futon (布団)

Futon is one of those loanwords that perhaps many people have forgotten is, in fact, a loanword. It’s used to describe a flat mattress that can be rolled up, which is traditional bedding in Japan. However, in English, people refer to couches that have pull-out beds as futons. The fu in this loanword means sheet or cloth, and the ton means group. 

29. Ikigai (生きがい)

Ikigai, as a concept, has been making waves in the English-speaking world in recent years. Iki means life and gai means value, so the term translates to ‘reason for being’. The idea is that with a reason for being or a purpose, people can live more fulfilling lives, as those lives get longer. 

30 Tsunami (津波)

Originating from harbor (tsu) and wave (nami), this word has been in use in many unfortunate circumstances recently. As with the original Japanese, it describes a large sea wave caused by an earthquake. Tsunami has also been used in a figurative sense to mean a large and sudden amount of something. 

Conclusion

Now with these 30 Japanese loanwords under your belt, maybe you’ll be able to identify other loanwords more easily. You’ve no doubt been using many of them and as the English language continues to borrow words from Japanese, you’ll end up using even more Japanese, in English. For loanwords in Japanese that didn’t come from English, check out this article. 

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Does English have Japanese loanwords?

Yes, English language borrows a lot of Japanese words. For example, tsunami, tycoon and sudoku came from the Japanese equivalent. English language also retains a lot of original Japanese food-related words, like sushi, katsu and dashi.

What English words are borrowed from Japan?

Among many of them, the most common English words borrowed from Japan are:

  • Tsunami
  • Karaoke
  • Tycoon
  • Sushi
  • Skosh
  • Ramen
  • Futon

Does Japan borrow words from the English language?

Yes, Japanese has around 4,500 words that are borrowed from English. Loanwords borrowed from a foreign language is called gairaigo (外来語).


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