Understanding the Japanese Word: 改善 (かいぜん/Kaizen)

Do you know the Japanese word Kaizen? It means improvement. For example, the word is synonymous with quality control at a car assembly line.  The concept is widely adopted not only in manufacturing but also in service industries. This includes retail, transportation and even education. As long as the starting block is a solid one, Kaizen helps shape very marketable products. Here is a deep dive on the word, “Kaizen”.


Kaizen as a Mindset
Truly understanding the word “Kaizen”
In the Workplace…

Kaizen as a Mindset

More often than not, the Japanese cultural word kaizen becomes lost in translation. For when one not only learns but also experiences the phenomena of Kaizen. Only then, would they be able to develop a profound understanding of how the Japanese think and function in their daily lives.

Functionally, if we take a closer look at the Kanji 改 + 善, we observe the former ‘kai’ refers to change. The latter ‘zen,’ refers to good, or change for the better. It turns out, we can divide the ‘kai’ character into two parts moving from left to right. The left portion refers to ‘self’ and the right portion is a picture of a person’s back after being whipped.

kaizen kanji, illustration, image, photo

Kaizen in Kanji


Therefore, the first character reduced directly into its two parts refers to ‘self’ and ‘whip,’ or to change oneself (reminiscent of the expression ‘whip oneself into shape.’) And that same character is used for the word revolution, ultimately suggestive of a profound change. Dividing the ‘zen’ character from top to bottom, we have ‘hitsuji’ 羊 referring to a sheep/lamb, and the bottom portion referring to an altar, translating to the sacrificing of a lamb on an altar–observing a good connotation. As a result, in combining ‘kai’ and ‘zen,’ each individual makes sacrifices for the betterment of the entire group.


Truly understanding the word “Kaizen”

One does not really ‘understand’ the cultural connotations of kaizen, but rather ‘feels’ and ‘senses’ its presence living in modern-day Japan. In Japan, an entity or product without kaizen is like a bowl of rice without miso soup–one simply flourishes by enhancing the other.


For an expatriate living in Japan, a perceptive eye of Japan’s auto manufacturers like Toyota, electronic monoliths such as Sony and Hitachi, and even the quintessential Starbucks show how the Japanese successfully incorporate the concept of kaizen within the economy’s corporate sector. If we consider the following conversations including the word kaizen, we can see how its deeper meaning becomes lost in translation.


In the Workplace…

Addressing Workflow Inefficiencies


A: mada sagyo no furoo ni muda na ten ga ooi yooini omoimasu.
B: soodesune. kaizen dekiru ten wa dondon kaizen shiteikimasyou.

A: I still think there are a lot of inefficiencies in the work flow.
B: I agree. Let’s work on improving those areas one at a time.

Developing New Applications

A: 今回のは商品化に向けたトライアルバージョンなので、どこか改善できる点があれば教えてください。
B: わかりました。

A: konwai nowa shohinka ni muketa toraiaru baajon nanode dokoka kaizen dekiru ten ga areba
oshiete kudasai.
B: watarimashita

A: This is the actual prototype scheduled to be released on the market, so let me know where you think we could make product improvements.
B: Sure.

So in light of these “improvements,” the next time you smile or make a comment to yourself as a result of the extreme attention to detail, just think of the Japanese kaizen, and perhaps you too will begin to contribute in this way. Perhaps you might even want to come to work in Japan. In that case, knowing how to use “Osaki ni Shitsureishimasu” and “Otsukaresama desu” can definitely come in handy for you in the future!

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