21 Unique Japanese Words You Can’t Translate into English

It makes sense that the Japanese language has some of the most beautiful words used to describe deep feelings and abstract ideas that don’t have the exact English equivalent. Even the meaning behind the name ‘Japan’ is poetic — the land of the rising sun. While some of these unique Japanese words cannot be directly translated into English, once you read their definition and understand their nuance, you’ll want to use them at every opportunity you can. Plus they are a great way to show off your Japanese skills. Without further ado, here are beautiful and unique Japanese words that are worth knowing. 

unique japanese words that's hard to translate: ikigai

1. 生きがい (Ikigai): The Reason for Being

This word in particular caught the attention of mass media and has trended around the world. Ikigai describes your reason for being and your purpose in life, but it is much more than that. It is your reason for getting out of bed in the morning, the thing that motivates you and brings you joy. It is what both inspires and grounds a person. 

Okinawa, the southern island in Japan is said to have the highest number of centenarians in the world. Their secret? Of course, a healthy lifestyle plays a big part — but so does the application of ikigai. If you would like to read more about the concept of ikigai we recommend a book titled ‘Ikigai’ by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles which explores the secret to a long life and the reason for being. To learn more wisdom-filled concepts and proverbs, head to our article’s top 30 inspiring proverbs. 

2. 懐かしい (Natsukashi): Nostalgic

When you see, hear, feel, or even taste something and you want to say something along the lines of ‘this takes me back,’ you can just say just one word, natsukashi. This is one of the unique Japanese words that are short and sweet, and often used in everyday Japanese.

Natsukashii is a Japanese word that can be translated as “nostalgic”, but its meaning goes beyond that. It encompasses a deeper emotional connection to the past, often associated with fond, loving memories. While ‘nostalgic’ can also evoke feelings of sadness or bittersweetness, and natsukashii does not. It doesn’t necessarily imply a desire to return to that time, either. Instead, it expresses gratitude for having had the experience and cherishing the memories, like visiting your hometown in the countryside or recalling precious moments from the past.

unique japanese words shinrinyoku forest bathing

3. 森林浴 Shinrinyoku – Forest Bathing

Have you ever taken a walk through a forest and instantly felt refreshed? 

In Japan, it is said that entering a forest and breathing in the clean, fresh air along with the scent of the trees is therapeutic for the mind, body, and soul. In fact, aromatic substances called phytoncides. which are emitted by trees, activate the human body to boost the immune system and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression/.

Shinrinyoku was coined in 1982 by the Japanese Forestry Agency. Although it had long been practiced as a holistic health approach, the new Japanese word was created by combining the kanji for sea bathing or sunbathing with forest to create ‘forest bathing’. It was their hope that it would raise people’s admiration for nature and increase efforts to preserve forests.  

komorebi unique japanese word

4. 木漏れ日 (Komorebi): Sunlight Leaking Through the Trees

If you’ve ever thought that the way the sunlight filtered through the trees and danced on the ground was beautiful, you can now describe it in Japanese with komorebi. The kanji 木 you already know is tree and 漏れ means to leak and finally, 日 is sun, so the word literally means ‘the sun is leaking through the trees’.

kintsugi unique japanese word

5. 侘び寂び (Wabi-sabi): Beauty in Imperfection

Have you ever admired something such as an old teapot because it’s chipped and because of its tea-stained spout? Signs that it is a well-loved and essential piece of the house. If so, you already know the idea behind wabi-sabi. 

Wabi-sabi describes beauty in imperfection, it shows how simplicity, asymmetry, empty spaces, and even silence can be more beautiful and have a greater impact. It looks for wonder in the original and broken. Wabi-sabi can be found across Japanese art and culture at tea ceremonies, in paintings, and in gardens. 

6. Kintsugi (金継ぎ): Mending broken pottery with gold

Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver, also emphasizing the beauty of imperfections. The term “kintsugi” translates to “golden joinery” or “golden repair.”

The philosophy behind kintsugi is rooted in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which embraces the beauty of imperfections and the acceptance of impermanence. Instead of concealing or discarding broken objects, kintsugi treats the breakage as part of the object’s history and enhances it with precious metal, creating a unique and visually stunning repair.

7. 物の哀れ (Mono no Aware): The Pathos of Things

Japanese people use unique Japanese words to describe the fleeting beauty and passing of things, such as mono no aware refers to the fleeting beauty and passing of things. It can be used for the bittersweetness of fading beauty. The phrase demonstrates how beauty is subjective, and that it is our senses of the world around us that make it beautiful. It is often used to invoke appreciation for the seasons such as the cherry blossoms, which are so beautiful but only around for a few weeks. It shows how everything is transient and can serve as a reminder to live in the present and cherish the small things. 

8. 風物詩 (Fuubutsushi): A Reminder of a Particular Season 

In the spirit of mono no aware, Japan loves to celebrate each season as it comes. Many restaurants, cafes, and stores sell items according to the season. In autumn, you’ll likely find chestnuts, kuri, roasting in the streets, and in winter sweet potato trucks selling stone baked imo. Fuubutsushi can be used when something reminds you of a particular season or when you do something as a ‘tradition’. For example, when you see fireflies during the summer, you could say: 

風物詩は夏の蛍の光です。
Fuubutsushi wa natsu no hotaru no hikari desu.
The flickering lights of fireflies in summer are a fuubutsushi.

9. 浮世 (Ukiyo): Fleeting life

浮世 (Ukiyo) comes from two characters: 浮 for “floating” and 世 for “world”. Ukiyo is a unique term in Japanese culture that originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) and refers to the “floating world” or the “world of the transient.” It was used to describe the lifestyle, art, and entertainment of the urban common people, particularly in the pleasure districts of cities like Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka.

Ukiyo was characterized by a focus on the fleeting pleasures of life, including the pursuit of leisure, entertainment, fashion, and indulgence in the arts. It was a world that celebrated the transient nature of existence, with an emphasis on living in the present moment and finding beauty in the ephemeral.

10. 積読 (Tsundoku): Book Hoarder

The kanji 積 comes from the verb tsumu (積む) which means to pile up and 読 as you already know comes from the verb to read yomu (読む). A tsudoku is a bookworm that loves books so much that they buy them to the point where they pile up. Often it is the case that they have not read them all but keep on buying more. 

11. 木枯らし (Kogarashi): Cold Wintry Wind 

Kogarashi describes the icy cold wind that sweeps over the nation from the end of autumn until winter is over. When you feel kogarashi it lets you know winter has arrived. The kanji literally means a wind that kills trees and it is often a turn of phrase used in Japanese poems or in novels. 

12. 花霞 (Hanagasumi): A Hazy Curtain of Flowers

If you’ve ever seen a group of cherry blossoms from afar it can look like a white mist, this is described as hanagasumi. The first kanji, 花, is for flower and the second, 霞, means hazy or blurry. When you drive through the mountains and see cherry blossoms in the distance, they resemble little white clouds and have been the muse to artists across Japan on numerous occasions. 

13. 花吹雪 (Hanafubuki): Flower Snow Storm

There is nothing quite as magical as hanafubuki when the wind picks up and scatters handfuls of cherry blossom petals into the air in a delicate little snowstorm. Some say that if you can clap your hands and grab one of these floating petals you can make a wish. 

14. 風花 (Kazahana): A Flurry of Snow on Clear Sky 

Contrary to a flower snowstorm, kazahana is snow but is a Japanese term used to describe when snow falls with the backdrop of a clear sky, giving the impression of hanafubuki — flower petals falling from the sky. 

unique japanese words we cant translate in english

15. 花水月 (Kyouka Suigetsu): Flower in the Mirror, Moon on the Water 

This turn of phrase is used to infer something that is visible but cannot be touched just like the reflection of a flower in the mirror or of the moon on a lake. Kyouka suigetsu can be used to describe a variety of things that cannot be expressed in words, only admired, and is therefore used to describe particular emotions or beauty. 

unique japanese words

16. 食い倒れ (Kuidaore): Eat Until You Become Bankrupt

This is one of the unique Japanese words that are essential to all foodies. Kuidaore quite literally means to eat until you become bankrupt. It’s for those whose hobby is to find new restaurants and try new foods. Osaka, otherwise known as the world’s kitchen also has another nickname ‘kuidaore no machi’ (食い倒れの街), the town where people eat until they are bankrupt. In other words, Osaka food is so delicious it is irresistible so beware!

17. 口寂しい (Kuchisabishii): Lonely Mouth

Kuchisabishii is a unique Japanese word that literally means ‘lonely mouth’. Have you ever had that moment where you’re not particularly hungry, but you’re in the mood to snack on something? Kuchisabishii refers to a person’s desire for something in their mouth, but this doesn’t always have to be food, too. It can also refer to desires, comforts, compulsion, addiction, and loneliness. For example, kuchisabishii can be used when you’re itching for cigarettes, alcohol, and other things. 

unique japanese words shouganai

18. しょうがない (Shouganai): It Cannot be Helped

Shouganai can be heard in everyday Japanese when something cannot be helped or when you have no other choice. When the situation or course of events cannot be changed, people say shouganai. However, be careful when you use it. as some people dislike this word as it also carries a negative connotation. Sometimes, they interpret it as ‘you won’t even try’ or ‘you won’t put any effort in because it cannot be helped’. So only use this for things that truly cannot be helped.  

unique japanese words omotenashi

19. おもてなし (Omotenashi): Hospitality That Goes Above and Beyond 

Omotenashi is closer to a concept than a part of unique Japanese words. In Japan, where hospitality truly goes above and beyond, it is no wonder that there is a word to describe the spirit of great hospitality. However, omotenashi is more than going the extra mile. When practicing omotenashi, one expects nothing in return and can treat an important person without self-interest. Furthermore, through the use of gestures and small touches, guests are made to feel welcome. There are no strict rules for these gestures but for example, a bright smile and making small conversation when greeting someone such as commenting on the weather is said to be in the spirit of omotenashi.

unique japanese words mottainai

20. 勿体ない (Mottainai): Waste Not, Want Not

Especially when it comes to food, Japan has a very ‘waste not, want not’ attitude. In Japanese culture, it is polite to try to finish all of your food and for some people, this means down to the last grain of rice! 

Recently, mottainai has been used for recycling campaigns and towards the ongoing eco-friendly movement, with word being used on packaging and on posters to promote awareness. For example, instead of replacing something, you repurpose it. Mottainai means ‘waste not, want not’, or in other words: it can still be used, and you don’t want to make waste. 

21. 恋の予感 (Koi No Yokan): Premonition of Love

Akin to ‘love at first sight’ but also not quite. A premonition of love is a feeling someone gets when they first meet someone and although they don’t feel any love at that time, they have a feeling, an inkling if you will, that eventually, they won’t be able to help but fall in love. 

Conclusion

One of the many benefits of learning another language is being able to express your emotions or describe a situation in words that you do not have in your mother tongue. We hope that you’ve found unique Japanese words you didn’t know you needed until just now. 

Looking to expand your Japanese vocabulary and improve your speaking skills? Look no further than Coto Academy! Our carefully designed courses offer a cozy learning environment in Tokyo or Yokohama, with flexible, part-time classes to suit your schedule. Contact us by filling out the form below and get a free level check!

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What are some beautiful and unique Japanese words that do not have direct translations in English?

Here are some examples:

  1. Tsundoku (積ん読): The act of buying books and letting them pile up unread.
  2. Wabi-sabi (侘寂): The beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and simplicity.
  3. Komorebi (木漏れ日): The sunlight filtering through the trees.
  4. Ikigai (生き甲斐): The reason for being, a sense of purpose in life.
  5. Shinrin-yoku (森林浴): Forest bathing, the practice of immersing oneself in nature for health and relaxation.
  6. Kintsugi (金継ぎ): The art of repairing broken pottery with gold, emphasizing the beauty of imperfections.
  7. Mono no aware (物の哀れ): The bittersweetness of the fleeting nature of life and its beauty.
  8. Natsukashii (懐かしい): A nostalgic feeling for something from the past.

What do these unique Japanese words reveal about Japanese culture and aesthetics?

These words reflect the Japanese appreciation for the beauty of impermanence, simplicity, and nature. They highlight the importance of mindfulness, finding joy in everyday moments

Can these unique Japanese words be used in English conversations or writing?

Yes, these words can be used in English conversations or writing to convey nuanced meanings that may not have direct translations in English.

References
Wen, Y., Yan, Q., Pan, Y. et al. Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review. Environ Health Prev Med 24, 70 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-019-0822-8
Takeda et al., Good Mind Healing and Health Keeping Effects in The Forest Walking. Heart’s Original (2008). Available at: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/shinzo/41/4/41_405/_pdf/-char/ja


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