10 Wacky Japanese Language Mistakes All Beginners Make

Last Updated on 12.01.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

We’ve all had our fair share of awkward and embarrassing Japanese language mistakes. It usually goes like this: you brain-farted and blurted out something that resulted in snickers and a few raised eyebrows from nearby oji-sans. 

On a few occasions, it’s a killer icebreaker. On the other end, you risk offending your Japanese friends — or worse, your coworkers. 

Making language errors is a common theme and, in a way, a natural part of learning Japanese. After all, the Japanese language only has five vowel sounds (AIUEO). Due to this, a lot of words overlap each other. Phonetic sure is enough to give any Japanese learner a headache.

Sometimes, we can avoid them. Sometimes, we just can’t. Still, take a look at some of these hilarious Japanese language mistakes and face-palm moments. 

Am I cute, scary or sad?

japanese language mistakes kawaii and kowai

If we’re ranking them based on the most to least common Japanese language mistakes, this would be it: kawaii and kowai. That one vowel is the difference between making or wrecking someone’s day.

Kawaii (かわいい) is Japanese adjective for cute. A lot of people — even non-learners — have probably heard the word before. In fact, かわいい culture plays a major part in Japanese entertainment. You’ll encounter them in anime, manga and TV programs. 

It’s also the go-to choice when complimenting someone or something. That said, when you’re not careful, you can end up saying “kowai” (こわい), which means the total opposite of cute or adorable. It means “scary” or “intimidating”. 

This is also a bit more advanced, but the word かわいい has two i. Make sure you pronounce the “ka” and add a longer i-tail at the end. Think ka-wai-i. 

今日吉野さんはめっちゃ可愛い!
Kyou yoshino san meccha kawaii!
Yoshino looks very cute today!

今日吉野さんはめっちゃ怖い!
Kyou yoshino san meccha kowai.
Yoshino looks very scary today!

Advanced learns can be tempted to add a “sou” (そう), too. Normally, this would mean something “seems to be”. For example, oishisou (おいしょそう) translates to “looks delicious”. 

Now, you might want to say “looks cute” instead of, well, cute. However, the “kawaisou” (かわいそう) means poor, pathetic or pitiful. No one wants a pity party. 

今日吉野さんめっちゃ可哀想!
Kyou yoshino san meccha kawaisou!
Yoshino looks very pathetic today. 

I’m going to the hospital — or is it the beauty salon?

japanese language mistakes biyouin and byouin

Japanese might have fewer vowels than English, but that doesn’t make it easier for us to nail the right pronunciation. One of the comical Japanese language mistakes is the word byouin and biyouin. Take a look at a scenario of someone asking for directions below.

A: すみません。病院はどこですか?
A: Sumimasen. Byouin wa doko desu ka?
A: Excuse me. Do you know where byouin is?

B: 病院ですよね。右に曲がると、左手にあります。医者は今日休んでいるかもしれませんが…
B: Byouin desu yo ne. Migi ni magaru to, hidarite ni byouin wa arimasu. Isha wa kyou yasundeiru kamoshiremasen ga…
B: Byouin, right? Turn right and you will see on your left. The doctor may be absent today, though…

A: あれ?医者?
A: Are? Isha?
A: What? The doctor?

If you understand what was happening in the completely made-up (but realistic) situation, you have one less problem to worry about. Byouin (びょういん) means hospital (病院). On the other hand, biyouin (びよういん) means beauty salon (美容院). The person asking for directions was probably looking to get a haircut rather than a checkup. 

B: あぁ!美容院ですか?まっすぐ行って、左に曲がると、美容院は右手にあります。
B: Aa! Biyouin desu ka? Massugu itte, hidari ni magaru to, biyouin ha migite ni arimasu.  
B: Oh! Do you mean the beauty salon? Go straight and turn left and the beauty salon will be on your right.

He’s my prince, uncle and grandpa – all at once

The Japanese language has long vowels called the chouon. As the name implies, it’s double the length of a normal vowel (think “a” and “aa”). It’s important to know that there are many Japanese vocabularies that look similar, like oji-san (uncle) and ojii-san (grandpa), but they’re not the same. The definitions might even be related — no pun intended. The only difference is that one has a long vowel and one doesn’t. Missing that extended pronunciation will change the meaning entirely. 

It’s easy to detect them in written form. The kanji isn’t the same. Even in romaji, there’s a chance you can quickly see the doubled vowel.  However, your listeners can’t read them in a conversation.

あの人はケンのお祖父さんだ。
Ano hito wa ken no ojii san da. 
That person is Ken’s grandpa. 

あの人はケンの伯父さんだ。
Ano hito ha ken no oji san da.
That person is Ken’s uncle. 

あの人はケンの王子さんだ。
Ano hito ha ken no ouji san da. 
That person is Ken’s prince. 

My brother is a monster

japanese language mistakes ouji and oji

This is another confusing long-voweled pair: brother and monster. Oni (鬼 or おに) is a Japanese demon On better days, they’re only depicted as wrathful spirits who like to bring chaos to mankind. On worse days? You’ll hear some nasty stuff said about their appearance: troll, pink-faced, horned and with three toes and fingers.  

Ani (兄), on the other hand, means older brother. You would usually use it to refer your relative as a third person to a stranger. It’s never used for calling your own brother when he’s there. For that, opt for onii-san (お兄さん). Again, extend the end vowel: oni-i-san. 

Of course, you won’t be calling a demon oni-chan or oni-san, but what’s a better way to study phonetics than by expecting worst-case scenarios? 

鬼はコックになった。
Oni wa kokku ni natta.
The demon became a cook. 

兄はコックになった。
Ani ha kokku ni natta.
My brother beame a cook. 

It’s okay to make mistakes. We’re carrots after all. 

japanese language mistakes ningen and ninjin

This is totally acceptable (we think). The kanji for 人 can be both read as nin and jin. Together, they make ninjin. By logic, it should mean “human beings”, right?

Nope. Ninjin (人参, にんじん) means carrot. What you’re looking for is the word ningen (人間・にんげん). When you’re trying to say a word of wisdom in Japanese, just make sure no vegetables are involved. 

人間は誘惑にかかりやすい。
Ningen wa yuuwaku ni kakariyasui.
Men are subject to temptation. 

にんじんは誘惑にかかりやすい。
Ninjin wa yuuwaku ni kakariyasui.
Carrots are subject to temptation. 

Or are we fruits?

This is closer to a Japanese tongue-twister than it is a homophone. You may mix the word kodomo (子ども) with kudamono (果物), which can steer the conversation to a completely different route. 

毎日朝ごはんを食べていますか?
Mainichi asagohan o tabete imasuka?
Do you eat breakfast every day?

うん。好きな子どもを食べている。
Un. Suki na kodomo o tabete iru. 
Yeah. I eat the children I like. 

Case by point: it’s not a good idea to tell someone you like eating children for breakfast. Take another breath and say くだもの (fruit) instead. 

To use, to put or to make — that is the question 

When you’ve only just begun learning Japanese, it’s easy to mix up some similar-sounding verbs. Be very careful when using つける (tsukeru, to attach), つかう (tsukau, to use), つくる (tsukuru, to make).

A friend who was visiting her host family had asked: トイレを作っていいですか (toire o tsukutte ii desu ka) instead of トイレを使っていいですか (toire o tsukatte ii desu ka), which mean she was asking to make (tsukuru) a toilet rather than using it (tsukau). 

You’ll love the taste of red bean

At one point, we like to blurt the first Japanese vocabulary that pops into our head. Anko (あんこ) is a red bean paste loved by many. 

It’s good to express appreciation for the tast, but don’t get it mixed with another Japanese word that means something more — let’s just say — offputting. The word  unko (うんこ) means human stool. If you say, confidently, “うんこの味大好き!” (unko no aji daisuki), prepare to make some ghastly trauma.

This cake is weird 

This is another language mishaps all beginner Japanese learners know. Long vowels and homophones are tricky things. The good news is that, because they sound similar, you’re not at risk of getting mistranslated. 

The word お菓子 (おかし, okashi) means sweet, which includes anything from cakes and cookies to candies and small treats. 

We also have おかしい (okashii), which translates to “weird”, “strange” or “ridiculous”.

このお菓子はおかしい。
Kono okashi wa okashii.
This cake is weird. 

Most Japanese people will quickly pick up the minor error and continue the conversation without an eyebat. When you say the word alone, however, is a completely different thing. Better be safe than sorry: keep the okashi short, and the okashii a tad longer (o-ka-shi-i). 

Well, this is awkward.. 

japanese language fail suwaru and sawaru

It’s easy to get tongue-tied in the head of the moment. As a good member of society (you totally are), you offer a seat to the elderly on a train. It might have been a rush hour and, in the spur of goodwill, you stand up and gesture an oba-san to take your seat. You then confidently announce, “どうぞ触ってください (douzo sawatte kudasai),” which means “Touch me!” 

Make sure it’s su instead of sa. Suwaru (座る) is the verb you’re looking for. Sawaru (触る) means “touch”. 

どうぞ座ってください。
Douzo suwatte kudasai.
Please take a seat.

Conclusion

We’ve all had private face-palm moments. As bad as things get, it helps us be better at speaking Japanese. Everyone needs a bit of hilarious Japanese language mistakes, too. Plus, we recall bad memories more easily and in greater detail than good ones, so think of it as a learning experience. 

Don’t go too hard on yourself. After the cringe stops, no one will probably remember it except you. Save yourself some face: don’t forget to apologize and clarify afterward. 

Got another minute to spare? Challenge yourself to a series of fun Japanese tongue twisters, or learn the cool Japanese slang words.

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