strange katakana 1

Why, it was just yesterday that I teamed up with Koichi to kick some Katakana butt on edufire. A rather special class, it was – none of your usual vocabulary fluff. We’re talking real, useful katakana and it’s guaranteed to knock the Christmas socks off any native Japanese speaker when they hear you, or Tofugu isn’t a wonky bean-curd fishman! So, let’s get stuck right in to this 2-part blog post – Gakuranman x Tofugu – Fluency through Katakana Special!

I went for a vintage look with the slides – what do you reckon? Is the ‘Fugu a classic fish yet or still wet around the gills?


So, there are four Japanese alphabets, but you already knew that, right? For those of you just starting out, let me explain:

Romaji – Simply Japanese written with the English alphabet. Steer well clear of this lest you want to end just floundering around in Japan. You’ll need to be able to read the signs, so at a bear minimum you should learn the hiragana and katakana alphabets.

Hiragana – The Sexy Alphabet. For Sexy People. Why? Because it’s curvaceous, dynamic and feminine. Well, not really feminine, but I like to think of it as so ;). So soft and curly.

Katakana – Hard, angular and rough. The natural masculine alphabet, right? You’ll notice that the strokes are generally straighter and the letters more rigid.

Kanji – And kanji, everyone’s favourite, originating from China. Be thankful that it’s Japanese you’re studying – the Chinese need to learn about 10,000 kanji in contrast to Japan’s 3000 basic kanji!


And here is above, just for your reference. The amazing katakana alphabet!


Now we’re getting to the meat of it! There are so many uses for katakana, you can’t even count them on one hand! You probably know that it’s generally used for writing foreign words, but what else? Perhaps you know it’s for emphasising words too? Good! But there are more uses, oh yes! It’s used to write onomatopoeia, those lovely buzz-words that sound just like they’re written, as well as scientific and medical terms that have kanji that are simply to difficult to waste time remembering. You’ll also find that katakana is used to write people’s names, joins two words together and generally compresses everything down into one tiny little word. The most popular type are the 4-syllable words!

The examples on the intro slide are nice and basic:

ズボン – Trousers (or for you Americans who can seem to distinguish between underwear and trousers, I guess you’d call them pants).
ピンポン – Ping-Pong! The sound of a doorbell.
チョウ – Very/Super/Extra – an emphatic word.
ホモ・サピエンス – Homo Sapiens. Us, basically.
ワンピース – A one-piece dress. Two words combined.
パソコン – A PC (personal computer). Two words combined and shortened into a classic 4-syllable marvel.


So what’s first? Foreign Barbarians of course! All of the following words come from various countries. Bonus points and Tofugu-shaped cookies to those readers who can identify which word comes form which country in the comment below!

ピエロ – Clown. Like em or loath em?
アルバイト – Part time work. This word is used a lot in Japan.
クレーム – A claim or complaint about something.
サイン – A sign. No, no. Not that kind of sign… The signature, autograph kind!
ジョッキ – A beer-mug. Perplexing.
チャック – A zip. Ever forget to do yours up?
スナック – A…snack?? Nope, this is a Snack Bar in Japan. Usually a place where men go to drink and chat to the owners and often women who work there.
キャスター – A newscaster. Need good vocals for this job.
コンセント – You’ll never get my consent to marry my daughter! Not quite…this consent is a mains plug that you stick in the wall.
シール – Stickers! I must get some Gakuranman ones made…
ウイルス – A virus. Used a lot in the media recently with all the chatter of flu.
ドライバー – A screwdriver! Who would have thought…


Here’s some more. Just so many to choose from!

トランプ – Cards (Trump cards). Anyone ever played trumps?
バイキング – Oh-ho. Those dastardly Vikings. But no, this means an ‘all-you-can-eat’ restaurant.
マント – A cloak or a cape. Interesting, I could have sworn it was Tofugu’s arch nemesis, Manta-ray!
マンション – An upper-market apartment. Not a mansion.
アンケート – A questionnaire!
ホッチキス – A…hot kiss? Hah, you wouldn’t want to kiss this. It means a stapler.
ノルマ – A quota (business term, I think).
パンク – Not a punk rocker unfortunately, but a puncture.
フロント – The front of a hotel. A.k.a reception desk.
メイク – Koichi’s personal favourite. Makeup.
レンジ – A range of..? Nope, microwave I’m afraid.
レントゲン – An x-ray. Woo.


Okay, so let’s check out some hot little onomatopoeia. Ka-ching!

ペチャクチャ – A rabble of chattering grannies.
ピカピカ – Shiny and sparkly. Most likely where the yellow poke-rat got his name.
パンパン – A bloated full stomach. Go figure.
コグコグ – To drink in gulps and gulps.
ニコニコ – *Grin*
ペラペラ – (Italian Voice) I’m-a so pera-pera. Means fluent!
フワフワ – Floaty-light or airy. Also used to describe sickness when you feel faint or drunk.
プンプン – Ever seen those cute Japanese girls that fail trying to look angry by puffing their cheeks out? Yup, that’s pun-pun. Anger.
ブツブツ – Mumble-mumble-mumble. Sources say Koichi does this a lot.
ドンドン – Rapidly. We’ve gotta get going! Up the pace!
ゲロゲロ – Ribbit-ribbit. I love frogs. Anyone know if there are any frogs that are bioluminescent?
パクパク – Chomp-chomp. Munch-much.

Well, how are you doing back there? There are some pretty tricky words here, but don’t let them faze you if you are having trouble keeping up! When you’re ready for more, head on over to for the continuation and find out splendid words like ‘a flash of pants’, ‘handsome middle-aged man’, ‘close physical contact’ and the euphemism for being fired!

But that’s not all! The second part to this Katakana Special can be found here on Unusual Katakana Words

Michael is the author of a fantastic blog called Gakuranman (schoolboy coat man), who writes about Japan, bioluminescence, and how to learn Japanese. Of course, when he isn’t looking at colorful sea creatures, you can even find him on hanging out with neon birds on Twitter. If you missed our fantastic live class, be sure to catch us next time by signing up at eduFire!

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  • Jonadab the Unsightly One

    Interesting. I wonder how old the word マンション is. Depending on when it came over, the meaning might make more sense than you think. (The English word mansion has shifted meaning significantly over the last several hundred years. It used to refer to any place where somebody lived.)

  • Pingback: Four Japanese Words For Summer (And Gifts From The Venerable Gakuranman) | Tokyo Traveler

  • Pingback: Japanese Words That Make It Into English Dictionaries

  • Pingback: Japanese Words That Make It Into English Dictionaries | Tokyo Traveler

  • gec

    More interesting: what languages and words do the words come from (i.e. zubon is obviously not English). Check out the origin of カチューシャ (alice band) for kicks.

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  • dating parents

    I am interested in it for a long time! I was reading the katakana and trying to figure out how they got the meaning for that. I guess it makes sense that words came from languages other than English. Is piero French or Italian for clown?

  • world travel forum

    I am interested in it for a long time! English words on the board. I even threw in “made in Japan” katakana words. Needless to say it was a real eye opener for my students, and for the Japanese teacher I worked with.

  • Rorobeautiful Sunshine

    um wow so im a beginner at this nd im totaly confussed is there a video of this cuz i learn by sight

  • Rorobeautiful Sunshine

    um wow so im a beginner at this nd im totaly confussed is there a video of this cuz i learn by sight

  • Rorobeautiful Sunshine

    um wow so im a beginner at this nd im totaly confussed is there a video of this cuz i learn by sight

  • Jtiger87

    Just have to correct you here. ローマ字 is the “latin alphabet” .  Or is often called the “Roman alphabet”…  and English happen to be one of the languages who elvolved from it. =) (But I guess you know this by now, since it’s 2 years ago since you wrote this. lol) Never seen it called 英字 though.. 

  • Anonymous

    Strange Katakana Words OH! it’s very hard for me to learn japanese..!!

  • Sergiu

    I was looking for some katakana words and I found you… again… :-))

    Great article, Michael! Thanks! ;-)

  • Peter Payne

    Excellent post, will tweet.

  • akinyele brandley

    Katakana sucks!!!!!