Japanese Words You Can’t Translate to English

Last Updated on 20.10.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Like any other languashes, in Japanese, there are certain words and phrases that cannot excactly be accurately translated in English. Because of this, it may feel frustrating to capture the right emotion for a specific situation, even as something as saying Ganbatte to wish for someone else to keep it up, when in reality Ganbatte means good luck.

1. 頑張って (ganbatte)

Directly translated as good luck, but is versatile in many situations. This phrase can be used in wishing someone good luck for their exam. However is also widely to encourage someone to feel better, try harder, and beyond wishing good luck.

2. 空気を読む (kuuki wo yomu)

Translated to read the atmosphere. Which does not make much sense, but it means to understand the current situation and people’s feelings to avoid making rude or insensitive remarks.

3. いただきます (itadakimasu)

This phrase is used before having a meal, to say “I am grateful to have this meal”. It is a difficult phrase to directly translate to English, and may be awkward to say in English every time before having a meal.

4. わびさび (wabisabi)

Found in many aspects of Japanese culture such as entering the tea ceremonial rooms, wabisabi means the art of imperfection, incompleteness. It is also used to described the beauty in simplicity as well. Wabi captures the sadness when things do not go the right way properly, and Sabi means to perceive the beauty in stillness and quiet.

5. おもてなし (omotenashi)

Used for Japanese customer service in providing the highest level of hospitality. A kind of customer respect you cannot see in the rest of the world, where the customers are treated with utmost respect. Not only is the customer always right, but they are treated with exquisite manners that make customers feel at ease in an situaiton. It is difficult to translate to English because the level and hospitality expectations are different.

6. 木漏れ日 (kimorebi)

A beautiful Japanese phrase to describe for the sun that shines through the trees. Often seen in forests,

7. めんどくさい (mendokusai)

めんどくさい is difficult to translate to English, as it is commonly used to describe being lazy or being too lazy to do something. Whereas in English, a whole sentence is needed to describe being lazy, in Japanese this one word explains everything: that you are too lazy and not bothered to do something.

8. 物のあわれ (mono no aware)

Mono no aware is a Japanese concept that perceives the poetic beauty in things. It is to appreciate, and experience some of the beauty and is often tied into Japanese culture and arts. Examples include Japan’s short lived full bloom of cherry blossom season, Japanese zen garden, and tea ceremonies. Can you relate and see the poetic beauty in any of these cultural activities?

9. 懐かしい (natsukashi)

Feeling nostalgic? This phrase is used to describe nostalgia, either an object, a situation, or a memory you have. This strangely cannot be translated to English, as it is casually thrown around in Japanese to refer to any nostalgic moments, whereas in English, nostalgia is not used as an adjective.

10. 口寂しい – kuchi sabishii

This is phrase is something one can probably relate to frequently. Do you ever find a time where you’re snacking because you’re bored, rather than snacking due to hunger? Though the literal translation for this is mouth lonely, this phrase of 口寂しい(kuchi sabishii) accurately captures the feeling of eating out of boredom.

11. ツンデレ (Tsundere)

Tsundere is used to describe someone with a cold personality, but being all cutesy and loving in certain situations. They are shy to admit their true feelings and only reveal emotions with someone they are comfortable with. These characters or personalities are often seen in manga and anime.

12. 猫舌 (Nekojita)

Means cat tongue. Used to express that you burn your tongue easily. Derived from the understanding that cat’s tongues are sensitive, and because your tongue is sensitive to how hot the food or drink is, it is a metaphor for burning your tongue easily due to its sensitivity.

13. 三日坊主 (mikkabouzu)

Ever wanted to get on with your new years resolution of eating clean, or learning a new language but you find yourself stoping after 3 days? Mikkabouzu means to do things for 3 days and then completely stop. This phrase is difficult to translate to English because this requires a full explanation of why you stopped sticking to your goals, but these 4 kanjis itself is self-explanatory.

14. 別腹 (betsubara)

Have you ever felt stuffed from a meal, but always having room for ice cream of cake? This word is the perfect word to capture that feeling. It literally means to have a separate stomach, usually for dessert.

15. しょうがない (shouganai)

Translated to cannot be helped. It is casually thown around in Japanese, in any unfortunate situations or times when things do not go your way. The closest thing to shouganai in English is “it cannot be helped”.


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