What is Japan famous for? Quite a lot of things actually. From iconic landscapes like Mount Fuji and beautiful cherry blossoms to traditional tea ceremonies, pod hotels and bullet trains, there’s an amazing variety of exotic attractions people think of when you mention Japan.
But you may not have thought many Japanese words have crept into our language. Let’s celebrate the land of the rising sun and take a look at 10 fascinating Japanese words we all use in English.
Kanji Meaning: 台 (たい) means “table” or “pedestal,” and 風 (ふう) means “wind.”
Typhoons are common during late summer and early autumn in Japan, often causing minor damages in the southern Okinawa islands and disrupting transportation in large cities. Just the sound of the word alone makes me think back to 2003 when my son and I were visiting Japan for a nephew’s wedding and ended up landing in Tokyo during a typhoon. We learnt that evening that the airport was shut moments after our flight landed. The turbulence prior to landing certainly wasn’t the most pleasant experience. However Japan itself was absolutely beautiful.
Kanji Meaning: 津 (つ) is “harbour” or “port”, and 波 (なみ) means “wave”.
Pronunciation Tip: In Japanese, the t is pronounced, unlike in English.
Unfortunately, Japan has had more than its fair share of tsunamis. We commonly use the Japanese word to describe these devastating natural disasters in English. As you might imagine, Japan has an up-to-date tsunami warning service which currently sends signals from 180 seismic stations across Japan. They also have a system that overrides whatever is broadcasting on TV to issue tsunami warnings.
We all know this fun activity, but the word originally came from the kanji 空 (から), meaning “empty,” and the katakana オケ, coming from the English “orchestra”. If it’s ever my turn on the microphone, I often wish it was an empty room, that’s for sure. Although it originated in Japan, this pastime is now popular around the world, especially in Asia. It’s fun for all ages and even if your singing’s not great, you won’t be the only one!
Kanji Meaning: 絵 (え) means “picture” and 文字 (もじ) is “character” or “letter.”
You know what these are! Emoji are those little pictures you can use on your smartphone or computer to communicate an emotion or message. This actually originally came from Japanese, literally meaning “pictograph”. They are very useful for conveying your feelings about a message you are sending, to avoid misunderstandings. For instance, you might be making a joke but without that laughing emoji 😂 it might be taken the wrong way! Personally, my favourite emoji is the party popper 🎉
Kanji Meaning: 折 (おり) means “to fold,” and 紙 (がみ) is “paper.”
This old Japanese art literally means “paper folding” and is hugely important in July’s Star Festival in Japan. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s we used to make Fortune Tellers out of paper, also known as Cootie Catchers or Whirlybirds. The most popular paper creation is probably the crane, considered in Japan to be a mystical creature that lives for a thousand years, and to fold a thousand origami cranes will bring good luck, healing and wishes come true.
Kanji Meaning: 豆 (とう) is “beans” and 腐 (ふ) means “ferment” or “rot.” It may sound a bit gross, but the Japanese have cleverly mastered several dishes involving fermenting various foods.
Pronunciation Tip: In Japanese, the “toe” sound is longer than the “fu,” which is very short.
Tofu is made from soybeans and is a delicious addition to many sweet and savoury Japanese dishes, as well as dishes in other countries. In Japan, there are still many professional tofu makers.
When we first introduced the word tofu into our crosswords, we heard from several puzzlers who had never heard of the word until then but soon afterwards noticed it was written up in health food shops, recipes and café menus.
Kanji Meaning: 照り (てり) means “shine” and 焼き (やき) means “grilled.” Perhaps this kanji was given to it because the sauce glaze makes the chicken look like it’s “shining.”
Teriyaki sauce is made of soy sauce, sake (or mirin), sugar and ginger and has a unique flavour. It is used in Japanese cuisine as a marinade for chicken, beef etc and every Japanese kitchen would have some in their pantry. I often use it when cooking a stirfry – delicious!
Kanji Meaning: 禅 (ぜん) literally means “silent meditation.”
Zen is a branch of Buddhism that emphasises self-control and meditation in the lotus position. It also involves chanting, mindfulness and strict breathing techniques.
Kanji Meaning: 俳 (はい) means “poem” or “actor,” and 句 (く) means “clause” or “passage.”
You may have studied haiku in school; they’re traditional Japanese poems. The many stanza and syllable rules make them unique in the world of poetry. Anyone can make a haiku, as long as you remember the 5-7-5 rules: a 3-line verse, with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 in the third. The lines don’t rhyme but the words should convey a meaning or emotion about life. Such as this one:
Crosswords make my day
They make me calm and happy
Till my pen runs out
Try making one and send it in, we’ll print the best ones.
Kanji Meaning: 布 (ふ) means “linen” or “cloth” and 団 (とん) is “group.”
Pronunciation Tip: Say a very short “u”; it sounds more like “fton” in Japanese.
Have you ever slept on a futon? They can either be very comfortable or very uncomfortable, depending on what kind it is and how many layers are involved. Futons have been a traditional bed in Japan for centuries, therefore it’s unsurprising that English speakers borrowed this word to describe them. However, we also use this word in English to describe couches that also have fold-out beds. Apparently, the futon evolved because families would often share rooms, leaving little space to sleep. So they rolled out mats to sleep on, which they stored away during the day.