English loanwords in Japanese are often a source of amusement for native speakers of English learning Japanese as a second language. There’s so many of them, it seems like if you don’t know a word in Japanese, you can just guess by taking the word in English, pronouncing it with Japanese sounds, and half of the time you’ll be right! How convenient! It’s true that there are a lot of English loanwords in Japanese, but the language has also absorbed vocabulary from plenty of other languages before English became all that and a bag of chips.

Just like most other languages (except maybe Klingon), Japanese is constantly in flux, slowly becoming a bigger and bigger amalgamation of several outside languages over time. Think Katamari Damacy: bits and pieces from other languages stick to the base language forming a giant mass of mis-matched BLAH (and yet, humans manage to communicate with each other).

la laaaaa la la la la la la la la Katamari Damacy

But patterns of borrowing are not random. A language’s vocabulary is the reflection of the culture and history of its speakers, and Japanese is no exception. The distribution of foreign vocabulary is often concentrated in different fields, pointing to the significance of the relationship between the two nations (just as the borrowing of チーズバーガー shows the cultural significance of cheeseburgers in the relationship between the US and Japan). We can also observe changes in borrowing that have occurred through history.

Languages in Japanese

The Japanese language has come from many different sources in the past, and we can categorize Japanese words into three groups according to their origin: wago 和語, kango 漢語, and gairaigo 外来語. Wago are native Japanese words, while kango refers to Chinese loanwords and gairaigo to words borrowed from foreign countries other than China.

As stated above, the distribution of foreign vocabulary is often concentrated in different fields of interest. Looking at the relationships between Japan other countries through history can help us understand said focuses. But first, let’s take a closer look at the Japanese language before it became inundated with foreign vocabulary.

Wago 和語

Japanese: weather, fish, feelings, rice (lacking: body parts, domesticated animals, actions)

The term wago 和語, or Yamato-kotoba, refers to native Japanese words passed on from Old Japanese. Although wago did not come from abroad, it too reflects the cultural interests of its speakers, the Japanese.

Traditional Japanese society focused a lot of energy on farming and fishing, and the native vocabulary shows evidence of this fact. Have you ever wondered why there are so many words for weather in Japanese when all are you want to say is “there is water falling from the sky”? The native vocabulary is teeming with words related to weather, especially rain and water (this comes in handy in the Northwest), because it was important for rice farmers to know this stuff if they wanted to have successful crops and eat buckets of rice! There are also many expressions related to nature, crops, fish, rice, bodies of water, and senses/feelings. Take a look:

Wago Words for Rice

English Wago 和語
rice plant 稲 いね ine
raw rice 米 こめ kome
cooked rice; meal ご飯 ごはん gohan
cooked rice; meal 飯 めし  meshi

Wago Words for Rain

English Wago 和語
spring rain 春雨 はるさめ harusame
autumn rain 秋雨 あきさめ akisame
May Rain 五月雨 さみだれ samidare
rain during the rainy season 梅雨 つゆ tsuyu
evening rain 夕立 ゆうだいち yuudachi
light rian 霧雨 きりさめ kirisame
passing shower; streaks of pouring rain 雨脚 あまあし amaashi
taking shelter from rain 雨宿り あまやどり amayadori
rain cloud 雨雲 あまぐも amagumo

Wago Words for Yellowtail (Fish)

English Wago 和語
yellowtail less than 6-9 cm あぶこ abuko
yellowtail less than 6-9 cm つばす tsubasu
yellowtail less than 6-9 cm わかなご wakanago
yellowtail around 15 cm やす yasu
yellowtail around 15 cm わかし wakashi
yellowtail around 36-60 cm わらさ warasa
yellowtail around 36-60 cm いなだ  inada
yellowtail around 36-60 cm せぐろ seguro
yellowtail around 45-90 cm はまち  hamachi
yellowtail over 1 m 鰤 ぶり  buri
yellowtail caught during the cold season 寒鰤 かんぶり  kanburi
large, purplish yellowtail 環八 かんぱちkanpachi

And this is just the start… There are many, many, MANY more words in Old Japanese related to these topics; I haven’t even scratched the surface here. This just emphasizes how important agriculture was in traditional Japanese society. If you want to know more about Yamato-kotoba, I recommend reading Koichi’s article on the topic. Or, if you just really love rain, this article on Japanese rain words is really fun.

Although Japanese is overflowing with words on these topics, the language also had some pretty major holes in it before all of this globalization mishy-mashy cultural mixing started happening. This included body parts (ashi means foot and leg?), names for domesticated animals, and action words. But sooner or later, (dun dun DUN!) the foreigners arrived, and those gaps were slowly filled.

Kango 漢語

Chinese: abstract concepts and academia

“And then I said to that turtle, I’ll defeat you next time!”

Chinese has been such a huge influence on the Japanese language in past that it deserves its own classification. It’s believed that Japan was first introduced to Chinese words around the first century A.D. when Korean scholars brought Chinese books to Japan. That’s a long time ago! At first, Chinese was used mainly as a means of documentation and for academic writing, but eventually it became part of everyday Japanese lingo.

Kango makes up as much as 60% of the Japanese language. Because the source of some words isn’t so clear, even words that didn’t originate in China but are written with Chinese characters or use the Chinese reading are referred to as kango. In many ways, kango can be seen as a parallel to Latinate words in English. To this day, kango is mainly used for academic words and abstract concepts. So, these are the words you’ll be seeing a lot of in textbooks and scientific readings, and of course they are mostly written in kanji (Chinese characters)! Everyone’s favorite! Though, of course, there are many casually used kango as well. The differences between kango and and wago can be seen when compared side-by-side:

English Wago 和語 Kango 漢語
yesterday 昨日 きのう kinou 昨日 さくじつ sakujitsu
language 言葉 ことば kotoba 言語 げんご gengo
play (fun) 遊び あそび asobi 遊戯 ゆうぎ yuugi

Kango are a lot more literary and academic, so you won’t be learning a whole lot of them in your Japanese 101 class or using them in conversation (unless you really want to sound sophisticated, or perhaps just snobbish?). However, this is a really interesting point that I feel many classes  fail to point out. The status of wago and kango in Japanese is very similar to Latin and German in English. Check it out:

Germanic Latinate
help aid
hide conceal
deep profound

These days, words borrowed from Chinese (and Korean) mainly fall under the categories of culturally specific items such as food. The majority of loanwords, however, come from English. What a change!

Gairaigo 外来語

Loan words coming from countries other than China are classified as gairaigo. More often than not, these words are written in katakana. These days, gairaigo are seen as stylish and cool, so you’re more likely to see them in something like Seventeen Magazine, rather than Popular Science.

Although foreign vocabulary is now dominated by English, there were times when this was not the case. Other countries, namely France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, and Spain, have claimed greater shares than English in the past, but I’ll only cover some of them here.

Note: Translations below are English translations of the Japanese terms, not of the native language in question.

Portuguese: Christianity, “modern” technology, and Portuguese products

Can I get off this boat yet, guys?

In 1542 the Portuguese became the first people to establish direct trade between Japan and Europe. Most Portuguese words entered Japanese through Jesuit priests who introduced the Japanese people to Christianity, Western science, and new products (like konpeito) throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Therefore, most of the Portuguese words in Japanese have to do with the products and customs of the Portuguese people. Here are some words you might already know or might want to remember:

ブランコ / baloiço / swing

イエス / Jesus / Jesus

イギリス / inglês /  England

かるた / cartas / cards

コップ / copo / cup

パン / pão / bread

天麩羅 / tempero / tempura

タバコ / tabaco / tabaco

ボタン / botão / button

アルコール / álcool / alcohol

オランダ / Holanda / The Netherlands

Dutch: medicine, sailing, and astronomy (oh my!)

“shmoke and a pancake?” 

Although the Dutch were not the first to make contact with Japan, they too had a huge impact on the Japanese language. In 1609, the Dutch East India Trading Company started trading with Japan, remaining the only Western country allowed to do so throughout Japan’s seclusion period (those lucky Dutch!). At one point, 3,000 Dutch words were commonly used in Japan (that’s more words than I know… in English), but that number has dwindled to 160 words used in the present day. Most Dutch loanwords are technical in nature, having to do with medical science and diseases (sharing is caring? I mean, oops.), astronomy, sailing, and beer! Yay, beer.

ビール / bier / beer

ドイツ / Duits / Germany

ドロンケン / dronken / drunk (not really used, but cute)

ゴム / gom / rubber

ハム / ham / ham

ハトロン / patroon / pattern

カミツレ / kamille / camomile

コーヒー / koffie / coffee

メス / mes / scalpel

モルモット / marmot / Guinea pig

お転婆 / ontembaar / tomboy

ペスト / pest black / death

オルゴール / orgel / music box

ピストル / pistool / pistol

ピント / punt / focus point

ピンセット / pincet / tweezers

アロエ / aloë / aloe

French: culture, diplomacy, and art

Yup, the first car in Japan was French.

In the late 1800’s, English replaced Dutch as the language of foreign relations. French was also studied heavily during this time due to its status as an international language in the fields of diplomacy and culture during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period. A lot of French words have to do with art and fashion, as you might expect (ooh la la!):

アベック / avec / romantic couple

アンケート / enquête / questionnaire; survey

アンニュイ / ennui / boredom

バイク / bike / motorcycle

バリカン / Bariquand & Marre / barber’s clippers

デッサン / dessin drawing / rough sketch

エスカレーター / escalator / escalator

コンクール / concours / a contest

コント / conte / a funny story

マロン / marron chestnut / brown eyes

マゾ / masochiste / masochist

ズボン / jupon / pants, trousers

ゼロ / zéro / zero

サボる / sabo(tage) + -ru (Japanese verb ending) / to skip class, to goof off

ルポ / repo(rtage) / reportage

ロマン / roman / novel, romance

レストラン / restaurant / restaurant

ピーマン / pīman / bell pepper

ピエロ / pierrot / clown

ペンション / pension / a resort hotel, cottage

German: medical science and sports

“Don’t look down zere, mister!”

French wasn’t the only language studied in Japan during the Meiji period. After Japan opened its doors to the West in 1868, many Germans moved to Japan in order to work in the new government as foreign advisers. During this time, the Germans contributed many terms to the fields of medical and military science. Japanese also absorbed many sports related words from German, many of them involving mountain climbing.

アイゼン / eisen / crampons, metal pins of climbing shoes

ピッケル / (eis)pickel / ice axe

ザイル / seil / climbing rope

アルバイト / arbeit / part-time job

エネルギッシュ / energisch / energetic

ガーゼ / gaze / gauze

ゲレンデ / gelände / ski slope

ギプス / gips / cast

ヒステリー / hysterie / loss of self control; hysteria

ホルモン / hormon / hormone

カルテ / karte / medical record

オペ / operation / surgical operation

レントゲン / röntgen / X-ray

リュックサック / rucksack / backpack

テーマ / thema / theme

Of course, loanwords have been taken from many other languages, too; these are some of the major ones. Other languages that have contributed substantially to Japanese include Ainu, Russian, Spanish, Korean, and Italian. Below I’ve listed a few more miscellaneous gairaigo, just for the fun of it.

イクラ / ikura / salmon roe (Russian)

ノルマ / norma / quota (Russian)

ラッコ / rakko / sea otter (Ainu)

トナカイ / tunakkay / reindeer (Ainu)

パンツ / pants / underwear (British English)

ロマンスグレー / romance grey / silver-grey hair (British English)

ウィンカー / winker / turning signal (British English)

アメリカンドッグ / American dog / corn dog (British English)

ライフライン / lifeline / infrastructure (British English)

パパ / papa / dad (Italian)

As you can see, the vocabulary of a given language is determined by the cultural interests of its speakers, and the loanwords a language absorbs depends strongly on the nature of the connections between the two communities involved. As globalization continues to happen, more and more words are being adopted and traded. Who knows what language we’ll be speaking tomorrow. I hope it’s Klingon.

Learning Japanese by source is not only fascinating, it can be a good way to form connections in your mind so you can remember words better! At least, that’s worked for me. If you know a word from a language that wasn’t mentioned here, or if you know any other cool gairaigo/kango/wago, let me know is the comments section below!


The Languages of Japan

Read All the Posts in This Series:
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 1: Where the Japanese Language Came From
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 2: Twisting Words
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 3: Why They Do It


    Thanks Sarah W. I feel smarter. Reading through the borrowed words, you can see how many borrowed words English has used.

  • Christopher Stilson

    Since I’ve had a chance to see infant language development close-up, I’ve wondered whether the process by which loanwords are accumulated in a language follows a similar pattern. It would certainly explain the eccentricities of certain loanwords which appear to be only half-adopted, or where the word has been borrowed to refer to a different concept which may or may not be related.

    For instance, my son (14 months) knows that ‘neko’ and ‘kitty’ mean the same thing. Rather than picking one or the other to call his plushies and any living four-legged furry thing he comes across, he portmanteaus them into ‘kiko’. On the other hand, I think he’s heard me ask ‘oishii desu ka?’ when trying to get him to eat things he’s not sure about so often that he thinks ‘oishii’ just means ‘food’.

    Of course, if you try to apply that on a macro-language scale, you run into etymologically unsound territory (such as how some people insist that ‘kangaroo’ actually means ‘what are you pointing at’ or some such). But even that is made more complicated by the fact that it sometimes happens (the country I live in is called what it is because some explorer mistook the name of his guide’s village for the name of the whole surrounding territory, after all).

  • Lilo

    There are some wrongs in the Dutch-English translation but overal this was really interesting!

  • TangSooPap

    Thanks for researching this…very interesting! Looking forward to part 2.

  • Sergio

    On the main picture of the post, I love the south-american version of the portuguese flag. A quick wikipedia search could do the job.

  • jonniez

    The first word in Japanese I learned that comes from German was (アル)バイト [Arbeit]. I was really surprised that they had taken from German at all.

  • Akira Uchimura

    Very interesting and complete post.

    I only have a thought on the word サボる. The origin of it is right, but I see it more of a slang word.
    I would love to see a post made by you researching on ギャル語 and new words off the streets. :)

  • ニク

    Not sure where it comes from, but カッパ has more or less the same meaning in Swedish and Japanese.

  • Fabian

    It’s pretty funny that I as a German learn German words from an English-speaking website, which deals with Japanese language :-D Namely I had to look up what “Gaze” is… Ok, but I’m still not sure if “aizen” really exists – even the dictionary doesn’t know it…
    Anyway – thank you for another great post!

  • Rystoy

    There are a lot of Japanese people in Brazil (most outside of Japan) and so a Brazilian Portuguese does have quite some influence on a portion of Japanese speakers. I agree that Portugal in the early days was much more prominent

  • Rystoy

    I really loved this post! Thanks so much for assembling all of this information in a clear and interesting manner, it really allowed me to grasp the connections you were trying to make :) I really appreciated the comparison to English words of Latin and Germanic origins, really helped to build some perspective!

  • Sarah

    oh really? I don’t know German at all so that’s interesting.. could it possibly a very old word?

  • Sarah

    thanks, I’m glad! When I first made that connection a felt like I understood Japanese a lot more lol, I think it’s super cool how there are similar patterns throughout languages :DD

  • Sarah

    Oh, thanks for saying something! Would you mind telling me which ones are wrong? I know absolutely zero Dutch :D

  • fegrax

    It’s “Eisen”…


    Some movie told me, Brazil has the largest Japanese population living outside of Japan.

  • Sarah

    Thanks! I’ll fix that!

  • Ana

    I love this post! I’m Portuguese, moved to USA to go to college, where I studied Japanese (I also took Latin, French, and Dutch in high school, as well as understand Spanish due to its similarity to Portuguese). I did learn that Japanese borrowed a lot of words from Portuguese like bread and cards but some other words I had no idea, so thank you for writing this! I just want to point out that the Portuguese word for tobacco is tabaco, not tabako. K Y and W are foreign letters adopted in the recent years, just like Japanese adopted foreign words. Thank you once again

  • Sarah

    Wow sounds like you’re a language master! lol cool I had no idea about the letters K,Y, and W, and thanks for fixing my Portuguese spelling hehehe.

  • Ana

    No problem! But the Brazilian flag instead of the Portuguese one still bothers me =p Since the Portuguese language does come from Portugal and English comes from England ;)

  • Tora.Silver

    Did someone say…

  • Stella

    Katamari Damacy! Oh man, that was one of the first real video games I ever played. Even my mom played it. It was AWESOME. However, seeing as the only game consoles we own are the PS2, Wii, and a few DS Lites, I have yet to play the rest of the series.

  • Eudaimonia

    Then you’d have to find out from which country the words originally come from, for example: Many of those words are actually Greek… cartas, thema, energetic , but ok.

  • HokkaidoKuma

    Another great article Sarah. Really loving your work and you def have a fascinating way with words. Keep it up!

  • Doublevil

    Very interesting article, thank you. I found the the wago part particularly captivating.

    I noticed a few weird things in the French loan words though.
    First, “bike” is absolutely not used in french. Are you sure バイク is a french loan word?
    Second, “pīman” should be “piment”, I guess.

    Also, there is a “light rian” typo in the rain table. Though Light Rian may be the name of a local superhero of some sort.

  • Sergio

    I supposed the article was about Japanese-Portuguese language interaction in the 16th century, not about the Japanese emigration to Brazil in the 20th…

  • Sergio

    Well, I suppose English speakers don’t even care about such trivialities. But I can well imagine the reactions about an English language article where the Australian, American or Canadian flag were used as symbols…

  • Sergio

    Well, don’t forget Latin, which would include almost all the garaigo words from Portuguese, Spanish and French, and about 60% of the english garaigo…

  • Vladimir Pervokvaker

    No Russian? Words like taiga, ikura, vodka or kimbinat… =(

  • kotegawa

    So who came up with the idea of naming tiny apartments “mansion”?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Hobbits, I imagine.

  • Aya

    Thank you for pointing it out! :) Changed it.

  • マイク

    Someone was a Bleach fan, hehe.


    I ended up singing the theme before reading the entire article.


  • SweetInari

    I agree with Doublevil – it is “piment” and “bike” is not a French word.

    The word than be close to this is “bicyclette”, but not “bike” :)

    Also, “sabotage” does not mean to goof off or skip class in French. It means to destroy something, it’s like sabotage in English ;)

  • Iago Rodrigues

    Great article. I envy your ability to put things out in such a simple way ^^,

    Just one minor correction in the Portuguese section: “inglês” means English (nationality and language), not the country (Inglaterra = England).

    Keep up the good work, I really enjoy reading your texts.

  • Aya

    I’m not sure if there are Filipino words used as garaigo… But I do know a few Tagalog loanwords like: 鞄/kaban (bag/sack or rice), じゃんけんぽん/Jack-en-Poy (rock-paper-scissors), 鞄/haba (width) and おとうと/toto (younger brother). Kinda funny, because I use/hear these words growing up and I only realised they were Japanese when I started studying the language. Great post, Sarah! I learned a lot. :)

  • Floris

    Nice article, I like it alot and recently I read and watched alot of things about this.

    i found a few little mistakes:

    モルモット / marmot / Guinea pig ( A guinea pig is called a “Hamster” in dutch. A marmot is a groundhog.)

    お転婆 / ontembaar / tomboy (ontembaar means untameable. A tomboy is a girl with boy like characteristics/behaviour.)

    ペスト / pest black / death (The ‘/’ sign should be placed after “pest”

  • Furorisu

    Like it alot!

    Here are some little mistakes I found:

    モルモット / marmot / Guinea pig (Marmot is a groundhog, and a guinea pig is called a “Hamster” in dutch.)

    お転婆 / ontembaar / tomboy (Ontembaar means untameable. A toyboy is a girl with boylike characteristics / behaviour. )

    ペスト / pest black / death ( The ‘ / ‘ sign should be placed after “pest” pest = black death.)

  • MitoDS

    イギリス means “The UK” not England in modern usage.
    Also, the British English for “Winker” is “Indicator” not “Turning Signal”.

  • Brandon Beasley

    Here the correction for the french part…..

    avec / with
    アンケート / enquête / Groupment of imformation ( this word has many meaning)
    アンニュイ / ennui / missing something or someone
    バイク / motocyclette / motorcycle
    バリカン / Bariquand & Marre / barber’s clippers ( never herd that in french , and im a native speaker)
    デッサン / dessin / drawing
    エスカレーター / escalier roulant / escalator
    コンクール / concours / a contest
    コント / conte / story
    マロン / oeil brun / brown eyes
    マゾ / masochiste / masochist
    jupon / skirt
    ゼロ / zéro / zero
    サボる / sabo(tage) + -ru (Japanese verb ending) / to destroy
    ルポ / repo(rtage) / reportage
    ロマン / roman / novel
    レストラン / restaurant / restaurant
    ピーマン / piment / bell pepper
    ピエロ / clown / clown
    ペンション / pension / money you get when you retire

  • Tadashi

    In the chapter 6 of the book “The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People” (about the Japanese-Jewish common ancestry theory) there is a study of similar words between Hebrew and Japanese. Although is only a theory, some words really seems similar, like אַת [ata] and あなた.
    A preview of this chapter is available at google books:

  • Elise

    “orel”, isn’t a music box but an “organ” (like the instrument in the church).
    “ontembaar” means “untameable”
    in “Pest” the “/” is in the wrong pace. it should be “pest / black death”
    “punt” simply means “point”, not “focus point”

  • Laura

    “エネルギッシュ”! Energisch! Honestly?!
    How cool is that?! I can’t wait to tell this to one of my friends who aren’t interested in my blabbering about Japan at all.

    However, this article was super interesting. I just love Tofugu so much.

  • Bence Kovács

    “half of the time you’ll be right!” and in the case of the other half, they feel bad about not understanding it. :)

  • Bence Kovács

    パプリカ – Hungarian

  • Sarah

    Hey thanks for the corrections, I’m glad you liked it! It looks like there has been a lot of confusion, but marmot in Japanese means Guinea pig. The last term is the English translation of the japanese word, not the translation of the Dutch.. I didn’t realize it would be interpreted that way. Thank you though, I’m learning Dutch now! lol

  • Sarah

    Helloooo, thank you loads for the corrections. However, it looks like I really confused everyone with my translations. The last term is the English translation of the Japanese word, not the translation of the native language (in this case French). That’s why there are so many discrepancies. I didn’t realize it would be interpreted that way. Thank you though, and now I know some French :DD

  • Sarah

    Russian is in the miscellaneous section! Thanks! Some of my favorite words are Russian loanwords.. not many people know that ikura came from Russian, right? : )

  • Reader

    I really enjoy your articles, but I think you need to proofread better. There are so many little mistakes… words left out, words doubled, mistyped punctuation, etc.

  • Johnny

    Great article, but is gohan (御飯)wago (和語) ?
    “Go” is the onyomi of 御 and “han” is the onyomi of 飯。
    “Meshi” is the kunyomi of 飯 so it should be wago.

  • echo

    Such a cute article <3 I will be working on gairaigo phonology in cognitive linguistics this year, so I had a lot of fun reading the cultural parts :) Only little thing : chili pepper is spelled "piment" in French ^_^

  • Kanrei

    About foot and leg meaning the same, we have that too in some swiss dialect, that they use the swiss german word leg for both leg and foot. How irritating was that, when someone talked about leg and means foot.

  • Kenate

    In this list only 1st are japanese words right? balaico is romaji for ブランコ and swing translation or ,,ブランコ” means both balaico and swing?

    ブランコ / baloiço / swing

    イエス / Jesus / Jesus

    イギリス / inglês / England

    かるた / cartas / cards

    コップ / copo / cup

    パン / pão / bread

    天麩羅 / tempero / tempura

    タバコ / tabaco / tabaco

    ボタン / botão / button

    アルコール / álcool / alcohol

    オランダ / Holanda / The Netherlands

  • James A

    イギリス actually refers to the United Kingdom. England is イングランド. There is a huge difference between England and the United Kingdom.