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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Oh, That Confusing Japanese Language

I'm going to have some fun with a nice story written by Andrew Miller (no relation), who put forth an article on "20 Words Of English Origin That  Japanese People Often Mistake For The Real Thing". You can read his original article HERE.

I have no problem with the article. It's good, though I think some of the word choices are kind of weak - but some are really good and bear repeating here via my style(?).

Anyhow... my only critique of Andrew's article (no relation, still) article, is, as mentioned some of the weak words he chose. So... let me take up the gauntlet of challenge and slap it across someone's butt and see if I can come up with some words of my own. Even now... at this point of time in writing this... I have no clue what will pop into my head nor what words I am going to look at.I like surprises. Not really. I prefer to have my own life sort of planned out and then react to things. Unlike my writing... which is all the top-of-my-head.

(He has no clue what he is going to write about and is waiting for inspiration to hit him.)

In almost all instances, this involves Japan taking an English word and translating that word via the Katakana alphabet, which uses Japanese letters to phonetically mimic the English word.

While the main problem exists in all three of the Japanese alphabets (there is no letter "L", for example), it's not the main point of confusion. It's the use of Japanese slang in English to make a word sound cute or pronounceable.

Here's my own Top 10 strange Japanese words that are supposed to be English:.

1) Sign. If a Japanese kid comes up to you and says "sign kudasai" he or she doesn't mean 'Slippery when wet" or "Slow - Children Crossing". Rather he or she wants your autograph by saying 'sign please'. While the word is usually followed with hand gestures mimicking signing something, I should point out that for the most part, they say the word in English. So I guess that usurps most of what I said earlier. Hey... at least they say 'please'. Part of this whole situation arises because for many kids, you are the first gaijin (foreigner/outsider) they have ever seen outside of TV, movies and magazines, so to them, you could be a superstar. I said 'could be'.

2) Erru-sai. If you walk into a fast food restaurant and want a large Coke, asking for an oki-sai (large size) Coke drink will be met with stares and maybe a few 'eeeeee's (pronounced ehhhhhh). They just don't understand. They expect you to know the perfectly English phrase 'Erru-sai'.... which is a bastardization of L-size. They don't want to learn to say the letter "L" and they don't feel the need to add the 'zu' sound to the katakana word 'sai-zu'... size. But sometimes they do add the 'zu'... which is when I first understood what they were talking about.
Why don't they understand me when I say 'oki-sai'??!! Oki means large, doesn't it... or rather 'big'? I want a big Coke. I said 'coke'. It's like when I went to Las Vegas (Nevada, USA) and got married or something and I went to a McDonald's IN MY HOTEL. I wanted a Big Mac, French Fries and a Coke. Now... I thought they would speak English in 'merica. Certainly in a tourist spot like Las Vegas (also known as Vegas... that CSI town, or Lost Wages) they should speak English, right? No... the kid behind the counter taking my order was wet behind the ears and was obviously of some sort of Latino-descent. I'm going to say Mexican. Since he didn't understand my English and said "Qué (what)?" I figured I would use my Mexican-language skills (Spanish) that I had learned from watching Sesame Street off the US stations broadcasting into Canada when I was four-years-old. So I asked for 'el grande Maco por favor'. (A Big Mac, please) He said "Qué?" again. I turned and I walked away. Hungry. That has nothing to do with Japan, but I thought it was an amusing story.
Anyhow... the same holds true for a medium size (em-mu sai) and small size (es-su sai) in Japan.
Maybe they do add the 'zu' at the end... but it's a soft 'zu' and difficult to pick up.

3) Shashin. This is not a word, but is instead more of a sound effect - a Latin word known as onomatopoeia. Sound words... like Ka-pow!  Again... hand gestures are usually accompanying this word 'shasin'. The hand gestures look like someone taking a photograph. Do you get it now? Probably not. Shashin is the sound a flash makes when the camera snaps a photograph... or at least it's the sound it made in the old days when film was the de rigueur rather than digital. "Shasin kudasai"... picture please... again with the polite 'please'.

4) Sarariman. It sounds exactly as it is - salary man. This one is kind of obvious. It means a man who earns a salary... someone more white collar than blue collar... an office guy as opposed to a laborer. But it's only used in reference to men... never women.
I once asked my students - as part of their lesson - "What do you want to be when you grow-up?" I believe 17 out of 18 boys answered - Salary man. I asked the first boy to answer: "Where? Doing what?" I got a shrug of the shoulders - even when my query was translated to Japanese. By the way... the phrase is pronounced: 'sa-ra-ri-mahn'. It is important to really listen when you are being spoken to. They think they are speaking English... but really, it's Katakana English. I have no problems with it. That's just the accent and phrase they have chosen. Now... don't you get all high and mighty here. I've heard people in the US say: 'Warshington' rather than 'Washington'; 'Toitle' instead of 'turtle'. 'Terlet' instead of 'toilet'. 'Loo' - instead of 'lavatory' or 'washroom'. Where the hell does 'loo' come from, Brits? (Ed. Note: See the explanation BELOW in the COMMENTS section! Thanks!)

5) Oh-ehru. Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? I asked, and it was spelled out for me on paper: "O-L". OK... so what does it mean? It means 'Office Lady'. What's that? Those are the jobs only a woman can get in Japan, and it usually revolves around secretarial/clerking duties. Oh... and getting coffee and o-cha (green tea) for everyone... even the lowliest of lowly gaijin is ahead of the OL in the pecking order. Japan is not really where it needs to be in the Battle Of The Sexes.

6) Kii Horuda. The suspense is killing me, so let me jut say it's a key holder. What the fug is that? Something that holds keys... nope... I'm still not getting it. Then they point to the key chain dangling from their belt. That's a key chain. Do any of you folks ever use the term key holder? Did the Japanese learn that from you?

7) Pahn. Pan. That's bread. You can blame the Portuguese for that one. Bread is 'pao' in Portuguese. It is not related to the Spanish word 'pan' which would be the obvious conclusion... as the Portuguese missionaries bringing the word of Jesus to Japan also brought along bread (the body of Christ) some 400 years ago. Anyhow... it sure ain't English. That's okay... the Japanese just assume it's a Japanese word... but why is it written in Katakana - the language reserved for foreign things, or new words discovered after 1867. It is a foreign word... even though I am betting bread was available in Japan long before that and could have created a real Japanese word for it. Oh well... the Japanese sure as hell don't know that bread is a Portuguese word.

8) Poteto Furai. The first word sounds like 'potato'... and the second sounds like 'fry'. It does after you spend enough time being drunk in Japan. What's a potato fry? It's a fried potato... you know... French Fries... or what you British colonials call 'chips'. In North America, chips are potato chips, which you Brits call 'crisps'. (See - every country is guilty.) Of course... in the US, for a while, French Fries were called Freedom Fries by patriotic Americans pissed off with France. Canadian also called them Freedom Fries, but only when we wanted to sound stupid. Freedom Fries? Really. Hell, the Japanese are closer to the truth.
All I can tell you is that I asked for French Fries in Japan - and they had no clue what the hell I was talking about. But one sharp young man - I'll bet he's now (20 years later) a manager at McDonald's - he heard the English word 'fries' and translated that with an APP not yet invented in 1990 and guessed my pluralized word was actually the singular word for 'fry'. He didn't know what the hell I meant by 'French'. But his sister did. Oh yes, I did. At least I didn't go hungry. And... for the record... no I didn't.

9) Noto Pasokon. You won't believe this one. This is the Japanese phrase for 'laptop computer'. It's a bastardization of 'Notepad' (No-toe) and then it gets weird... Pasokon means 'personal computer'. How does 'pasokon' come from the English phrase personal computer, you ask? 'Paso' = 'Personal'; and 'kon' = kon-puta... computer. There is no singular 'C' in Japanese... and since there is no way to properly write or say a word that has the consonant 'M' followed by "Pu".. they substitute the letter "N" for 'm' because they do have a letter 'N'. Back in 1991, my students were talking about their video game system... something called a Famicon. A Nintendo Famicon. A Nintendo family computer. The wording was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which was that it was a video game system and not a computer. I should know... I had Pong, Atari and Sega video game systems long before I went to Japan in 1990. They were all video game systems (though I did have an Atari 400 and 1200XE computer which I played video games on and surfed the proto-Internet by visiting message boards back in the late 1970s and 1980s. Noto Pasokon. That word is fugged up.

10) Shi Chi-kan. This is my personal favorite Japanese word... and while the Japanese use it, none knew its etymology (the origin of a word)... but I figured it out.
It is pronounced as one word, by the way...
The Japanese sure do love tuna. But not that white meat tuna we eat from the can. They love the beautiful strips of red meat tuna that you see in sushi and sashimi dishes. That white meat I love so much? The Japanese believe it to be the garbage part of the fish and never ate it. It certainly isn't as good or costly as the red meat! But then... with more Americanisms being adopted into Japan, some poor schmuck of a Japanese finally tried white tuna... and covered in Kewpie mayonnaise, found it was palatable. To differentiate it from the elite red-meat tuna known in Japanese as 'maguro'... they needed a new word.
Well... the poor Japanese guy who was forced to eat that garbage white tuna meat from a can... he must have asked "What do you call it?" The Americans said "It is Chicken Of The Sea."
That's funny... that's the actual brand name of a tuna we can buy. Do you recall this ad line? "What's the best tuna? Chicken of the Sea!"... Chicken... Sea... Sea Chicken. Again, thanks to the severe limitations of katakana, it became 'shi chikan'. I think the Japanese believe it to be an English word or phrase that we should all know. And now we do. You're welcome.

Hmmm... I think I have come up with a great solution to understanding Japanese katakana words... get drunk! At least when you try to speak English, you can slur your words to make them sound more like katakana Japanese... though, come to think of it... it won't help YOU understand the words.

By the way... the word 'chikan'... in Japanese it means 'street groping'... and a man who performs such an act is also called a 'chikan'. Never order chicken in Japan... Saying: "Let's go to Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner", could get you arrested.

Andrew Joseph


  1. As a fully qualified Brit I freely donate the origin of 'loo' (= john, restroom, bog, etc).
    In olden days, pre-porcelain and piped sewage, chamber pots were in universal use. People used to hurl their foul contents with gay abandon out of the bedroom windows without looking to see if a passer-by was passing by. But with remarkable courtesy they preceeded the unwelcome descent of the feculent matter with the cry, "Gardez l'eau" which, as any fule know, means "Watch out for the water". (I've forgotten why it's in French but it's either because of William the Conqueror or the Galllic influence in Scotland). The helpful admonition later became anglicised to "Gardy loo" Take cover!

    1. Thank-you! As a guy born in England, but having lived my life in Canada and Japan, I didn't want to assume anything! Thank-you for the detailed explanation! It makes perfect sense! As for the French... England has been heavily influenced by France (though may be loathe to admit it!).. but I have certainly seen a lot of Brits with French names!
      We won';t even get into words like 'bog', though. I'm sure I can see the origin of that slang word.
      Take cover! More crap from me is on the way. I'm going to watch some Blackadder II now. His great grandfather was a kingggggg - although for only 30 secondsssss!

  2. Hmm.. And I always thought an OL was just the female version of a Salaryman. Learn something new everyday. (Though, I've seen quite a few Japanese movies where OL are portrayed as actual office workers like a salaryman that might have influenced my thoughts on the subject)