In some parts of the world, language seems as tightly regulated as medicine — the government decides which words are and aren’t allowed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in Israel there is Academy of the Hebrew Language that regulates Hebrew. It makes sure that new words and concepts stay true to the cultural heritage of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture.

I’ve been reading a book about North Korea recently (Nothing to Envy), and have watched a few of the excellent Vice documentaries, and they all drive home the point that language is tightly controlled there in a very different way. The government punishes those that speak out against the state, and language is peppered with phrases praising the Kim family, the Communist Party, and North Korea itself.

Photo by fresh888

Fortunately, Japanese is far from the censored language of North Korea. There isn’t any central authority that controls Japanese, so it’s changed and evolved very organically.

The only thing that could be considered even government control of language is the lists of common kanji that the government publishes like the jouyou kanji; but those reflect kanji’s actual usage more than the government’s desires to have people use them.

Instead, Japan swallows up foreign words indiscriminately. Obviously, that’s not unique; we forget that a lot of languages borrow heavily and shamelessly from other languages. You can see this both in English’s use of Japanese words that made it into English dictionaries (which Koichi covered a few years ago), to the incredible influence of Chinese on Japanese writing.

But to a lot of people, Japanese seems especially open-minded to outside influences. The number of loan words (外来語 or gairaigo) used in everyday Japanese can be pretty astounding, and takes from a ton of different languages.

For one, you have 和製英語, or “Japanese-made English.” These are words and phrases that don’t see a ton of usage in English-speaking countries, but are used fairly regularly in Japanese. Words like サラリーマン (salaryman), ガード マン (“guard man”), or スキンシップ (“skinship”) all are derived from English words, but wouldn’t strike many native English speakers as very natural-sounding or commonplace.

Photo by luke chan

Japan’s loan words obviously aren’t limited to English; other languages pitch in a bunch too. The words イギリス (England), パン (bread) and even てんぷら (tempura) come from Portuguese words. (Believe it.) German helps out with アルバイト (part time job), which comes from the German word arbeit.

Why does this all happen? Most of it has to do with trade, harkening back to when Japan’s only exposure to the outside world was through a handful of designated trading ports.

I’ve also heard people talk a lot about how Japanese culture is really good at taking something foreign, changing it a bit, and turning it into something very Japanese. After all, if mayo is a normal topping for okonomiyaki, anything’s possible, right?

  • vongizzle

    Even Mayo has been Japanised (?), tastes more like salad cream to my (very) delicate British pallet..

  • Kintaro

    I would love an explanation (article anyone?) on where arigatou came from (sorry, work computer so I can’t do Japanese text). I heard while living in Japan it maybe came from the Portuguese word for thank you, obrigado. It definitely sounds similar, especially when you say it like a Brazilian or Portuguese person would with a hard ‘r’. I had a Japanese class in my undergrad that went through the many parallel words Japanese had with Hebrew, too. Any knowledge on anything about that? I always thought that the Japanese, so so so so so, was a break-off from English. But that’s just my little attempts at seeming smart.

  • Kintaro

    Nobody squeal on my work ethics. I’m sure there are other tofuguns (tofugujin?) out there who do the same.

  • BOLT

    アルバイト could also stem from the Dutch word ‘arbeid’, which means the same, sounds almost identical and historically it would make more sense… I don’t know, just an idea (no evidence to back it up I’m afraid).

  • zoomingjapan

    Gawd, there are so many words in Japanese where Japanese people think that they’re originally English just because they’re written in Katakana.
    They always find it utterly interesting when I explain to them that most medical terms come from the German language such as カルテ、メス、レントゲン…
    You already mentioned アルバイト, but エネルギー is another good example.
    They think it’s from the English “energy”, but when you look at the pronunciation, you should be able to figure out it’s not.
    パン is another good ones. I think it’s from Spanish or Portuguese (or both).

    And the most hilarious things are the ones where they think it’s English, but it’s totally not.
    Best example I can think of right now is ホチキス (stapler) – I remember you wrote about that quite a while ago?! ^^

  • zoomingjapan

    Not, it’s from the German language.
    You’ll find more information about its origin in some good Japanese dictionaries as well.
    But of course it COULD come from that, but in fact it doesn’t :)

  • Michael Chmielecki

    According to this article, it’s merely coincidence. (I’ve seen that stated in some other things I’ve read, too, but it’s much easier to just Google it up than look for the hard copies.)ありがとう

  • Mescale

    You just need to make your words more difficult to steal. case in point, they haven’t stolen

  • Musouka

    ウイルス comes from German, I think. That kind of makes sense given the influence of 蘭学 on many fields including medicine.

  • Tokyo_Ben

    “Japan’s loan words obviously limited to English;” Small error here? I think it should be “…obviously aren’t limited…”

  • Hashi

    Yup, I accidentally a word. Thanks!

  • Hashi

    All of the dictionaries I looked at said that アルバイト comes from German, although both Dutch and German are in the same language family so I’m sure there’s some crossover.

  • Hashi


  • ジョサイア

    I never had a problem remembering パン because it was a word that I found quite ironic when I was learning Spanish(In high school)

  • ジョサイア

    How do you be aトフグ人?
    Don’t give me a little Timmy example…

  • mannagerr
  • ジョサイア

    パン is from Spanish…I know that…But maybe Portuguese also…

    P.S. You can clearly see the flying disk shaped object above the パ, Now I’m not saying its aliens but…

  • Shollum

    Challenge accepted.

    I did good?

  • Willian Pestana

    I think フラスコ was derived from Portuguese. (Frasco/Flask)

  • Hashi

    Yup, that’s what the dictionary says too!

  • Hashi

    Heh, schwantz.

  • S.Droas


  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    “Home stay” is an interesting one. It’s a bit of Japanified English, but then that Japanified English caught on in America. I was at an international kind of meeting at my university and a professor mentioned how he did a home stay in Spain or something. I’m used to hearing of people doing “home stays” in Japan, but I hadn’t realized how common place the word was outside of the Japan context.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I really want “kitsch fest” to be a single term, but I know better than to get my hopes up like that.

  • Reptic

    Yea, there are definitely some Japanese words that aren’t English but certainly sound it. Three that come to mind are “sou” like you said, which is used similarly to “so”, “namae” which sounds like name, and “mou” which can mean more (also motto sounds a little similar too). There’s probably more words out there too, and though they’re just coincidences, at least they help with memorization.

  • Jonathan Harston

    Whereas, English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.

  • linguarum

    ありがとう sounds like obrigado, and it has a somewhat related meaning, so the theory sounds plausible. But early forms of the word ありがとう appeared in Japanese writings way back in the 1000s, about 500 years before Portugese came on the scene.

    As far as the Hebrew-Japanese connection, there’s an interesting Japanese documentary you can see on YouTube:

  • Cat

    There are also words that don’t mean what they think they mean. I mean, tension max? Mean.

  • linguarum

    In the WWII era, there was a short-lived attempt to keep Japanese pure and rid the language of any words of foreign origin.

    But today there are so many borrowed words it’s crazy.

    Words like サイズ puzzle me. I can understand modern words like “lithium-ion” do not exist historically in Japanese, and so they have to be borrowed into Japanese. But why borrow a word like “size”? Surely the Japanese had a way of referring to proportion prior to contact with English. There are many other examples like this, where Japanese borrows a word, although there seems to be no good reason to.

  • WhiteRice

    pan is also a French word for bread.

  • HokkaidoKuma

    I got one one question: what is a skinship? Is that like a ship made out of human skin? If that’s true, gross!

  • aedeur

    As サイズ is mainly used for garments, I guess they adopted it together with the western style clothes. I don’t know a lot about Kimonos and other Japanese clothes, but maybe the concept of sorting the size of clothes by giving them numbers came to Japan together with スーツ and シャツ…

  • aedeur

    This “documentary” is so weird… I saw it some time ago (I’m not sure if it’s the same one) and the “linguistic” examples they give are incredibly made up. For instance, they use similarities between Katakana and the hebrew alphabet to prove that there’s a connection, but isn’t it common sense that the Kana derived from the Kanji?

  • Hashi


  • Hashi

    Yup, the dictionary says that it comes from German too!

  • Daruma

    I never really got why イギリス is said to come from Portuguese. The word “igirisu” is too different in both writing and sound from the word “Inglaterra” for me to believe it.

  • Daruma

    Thinking about it, it does sound like the Portuguese word “Inglês”, that means English. But it sounds like “English” as well. Now my head is confused with these clear signs of alien action.

  • ジョサイア

    Might also be a Russian word!?!?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    As we all know, the best way to keep Japanese free of anything non-Japanese was to write everything in Chinese characters. It’s like they just forgot where kanji come from, or something.

  • ki-nn

    It should be noted that イギリス is used for the UK, while イングランド refers specifically to England, as Welsh friends of mine would certainly point out.

  • Shollum

    Especially since Hebrew and Japanese look absolutely nothing alike. My response to them if they gave me that reason to my face would be “What you been smokin’ man!”.

  • Shollum

    Becoming closer by touching. I figure it’s a mix of the words ‘skin’ and ‘friendship’. Since Japan isn’t big on being touchy feely with strangers, more touching would suggest the relationship is becoming closer and thus encourage it’s advancement.

    At least, that is the best I can tell after years of reading it in manga. We all know that mangaka like to exaggerate things though, so I have no idea what exactly it entails in real life.

    Be assured that it isn’t a boat made with a human leather shell anyway.

  • heliosblue

    This reminds me to a Japanese TV show where one celebrity said 大きさ instead of サイズ and the host and everybody else laughed at him for being weird. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but I think it wasn’t about clothes.

  • Andrew Zhygmanovsky

    no connection to Portuguese word whatsoever, as far as I know
    the origin of arigatou is pretty simple
    ありがとう (or 有難う, if written in kanji) is the short version of 有難うございます, which is actually a honorific form of an adjective 有難い (you can form such honorific form with every い-adjective, but it doesn’t happen often in modern language)
    which is in turn is a verb 有る (though it’s usually written in hiragana – ある) with the suffix -がたい(-難い)which is somewhat more formal version of -にくい and has a meaning kind of “hard to do sth”

  • Raymond Chuang

    I’m not surprised Japanese have borrowed many foreign words. After all, they imported Western-style cuisine during the Meiji period and turned it into the very distinctive “youshoku” cuisine by the 1920’s–anpan, curry rice and Hayashi rice are very distinctive to Japan.

  • Jonadab

    Actually, it’s more the vocabulary roots than the grammar. But yeah, English has pretty much absorbed Latin, Greek, and French wholesale, plus a sizable chunk of Mexican Spanish.

  • Jonadab

    Americans consistently use the word “England” to mean the whole country. (That _used_ to be the case in England as well; the shift to calling it “the UK” occurred well after the colonies became independent.) So for an American the most natural translation for “イギリス” is “England”, and, indeed, this is the translation usually given in Japanese-English dictionaries. Americans almost never refer specifically to イングランド, but if we did we would say something like “England proper” or “England the province”.

  • Naomi Peck

    from what I learnt in Japanese linguistic class, it’s purely Japanese – but it’s to do with the dialectal differences between east and west.

    as Andrew has said, it’s sourced from the word arigatai which means ‘thankful’ in English. What happened is that due to east/west dialectal differences, the easterners pronounced it as arigatai while the westerners pronounced it as arigatou. And because the west had Kyoto, what was considered as the centre of culture and politeness, the east borrowed this way of saying it ‘politely’ and it eventually became ‘thank you’.
    You can see similar things in other words as well – omedetou (cf omedetai) and ohayou (cf hayai), for example. Other ‘polite’ things they borrowed include -oru which is now part of the honorific system, whereas in the West, it’s simply iru. So there we go.

  • aneiyo

    “taking something foreign, changing it a bit, and turning it into something very Japanese.” I’ve heard this cultural trait referred to as いいとこ取り, but I don’t know if that’s quite right.

  • Hashi

    I’ve only heard about this trait talked about in English, never in Japanese, so it very well could be! I’ll have to look into it.

  • Ber

    In Brazil it’s pão, almost the same pronunciation

  • Indramon

    All nouns in German are to be written with capital letters. “Arbeit” is the correct form. :)

  • Phil Bone

    Actually to correct the comment that English doesn’t borrow, English consists of about 30% French! Think about any words that end in -ary e.g. secretary, library, vocabulary and words that end in -tion e.g. conversation, supposition. Note also the English spelling of colour and many other instances of the diphthong “ou”.


  • Kaimax

    Instant Mary Poppins Nostalgia.

  • Rienk

    らんがく (蘭学; rangaku ) comes from oranda gaku, or Dutch learning. Dutch as in The Netherlands (commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as Holland). During the Edo period, all Christian foreigners were expelled from the country, with the exception of the Dutch. The Dutch were the only European power still allowed to trade with Japan, from the trading post called Dejima. It is through trade with the Dutch that a lot of germanic words entered the japanese language. Even コーヒー. Now, a lot of dictionaries do not readily make the distinction between old german and dutch, even though during the rangaku period these were already two separate, germanic languages.

  • Lưu Vĩnh Phúc
    Great Britain (por: Inglez); United Kingdom”
    according to

  • Raphael Barros

    I kinda think more like スーパーカリフジリスティクエスピアリドーショス。

  • Shollum

    The ‘li’ part gets kind of cut, so it sounds more like ‘luh’ with the ‘uh’ being kind of like how, in US English at least, we say ‘what’.

    And then you forgot the ‘fra’ and just put ‘フ’. In my small amount of experience, things that have ‘fra’ in them get turned into ‘フラ’.

    The ‘ショス’ is better. I wasn’t really thinking about diphthongs by that point. However, there shouldn’t be any extension on the ‘ド’ since it’s artificially extended in the song for the rhythm, like the following ‘atrocious’.

    Good job though.