12 Japanese Loanwords That Rode The Wave Straight Into English

According to some experts, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for a native English speaker to learn. In fact, the ranking scale used by the US Foreign Service estimates it takes 88 weeks to master general professional proficiency in Japanese (as compared to 24–30 weeks for French or Italian), in part due to the three different writing systems used.

But it doesn’t take a lot of time to master the Japanese words you already know. That’s right, the Land of the Rising Sun has loaned many a word into English, and you may not even have realized it. While many will instantly recognize the words on our list as Japanese, a lot of these loanwords have become so integrated and common in English that we don’t process their Japanese origins as such.

tycoon

The word tycoon means “a person of great wealth, influence, or power.”

Tycoon is an English variation of the Japanese word taikun, which comes from Chinese words meaning “great prince.” The Japanese taikun was used to refer to the shogun when he was introduced to foreign dignitaries. Commodore Matthew Perry heard the word when he helped initiate trade between the US and Japan in 1854. He brought the word back to America, where it became the tycoon we use today. As an added bit of fun, President Abraham Lincoln’s advisors loved the word and commonly referred to Lincoln as “the Tycoon.”

skosh

Skosh is a slang word used to mean “a small amount.” For example, you might ask for a skosh more pepper in your soup.

Skosh comes from the Japanese sukoshi, which means “a little bit.” Skosh entered the English lexicon during the Korean War. American soldiers heard the Japanese use the word sukoshi and adapted it as the word skosh to refer to small or little things.

tofu

Tofu is a cheese-like food made from unfermented soy milk. The name tofu comes from Japanese but the food itself is traced back to ancient China. The Japanese first referred to this food as okabe, but began to refer to it as tōfu during the 14th century. The Japanese term ultimately comes from (as many do) the Chinese word dòufu, formed from the words dòu (“bean”) and (“turn sour, ferment”).

 

Do you know these English words that originated from Chinese languages?

futon

A futon is a foldable cotton mattress that can be easily stored during the day. The Japanese futon is equivalent to the Chinese pútuán, which means “rush-mat seat.”

In Japan, people have slept on the floors of homes since ancient times. At first, people either slept directly on the floor or on mats made of straw or hemp that could be stored away during the day. During the Edo period, the modern version of the futon emerged due to the increase of cotton production. This warm, comfortable mattress-like bedding became popular and is still widely used in Japan today.

tsunami

A tsunami is a huge sea wave caused by earthquakes or underwater volcanic activity. The Japanese word tsunami is formed from tsu (harbor) and nami (wave).

As an island nation that is located right in what’s known as the Ring of Fire, Japan experiences a lot of earthquakes and tsunamis. In fact, Japan is spread on or near four different tectonic plates so it is especially earthquake-prone. Many Japanese buildings are built to specifically withstand earthquakes.

 

Learn about other types of monstrous natural events with this look at hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, and typhoons.

honcho

A honcho is a leader or a boss. An especially assertive or decisive leader may be referred to as the “head honcho.” The English honcho comes from the Japanese hanchō, which refers to a leader of a squad or a group. Hanchō is formed from the words han (“squad”) and -chō (“eldest” or “chief”).

The word honcho is traced back to World War II. American soldiers, particularly prisoners of war, started using the word after they heard Japanese soldiers refer to squad leaders as hanchō. American soldiers would again use honcho during the Korean War and the word would pick up steam among the general populace following the war.

emoji

As anyone reading this probably already knows, emoji are the faces, symbols, and pictures used in text and electronic messaging. The word emoji comes directly from Japanese and literally translates to “pictograph.” It comes from the words e (“picture” or “drawing”) and moji (“character” or “letter”).

Japanese artist Sigetaka Kurita is often credited as the “father” of emoji. In 1999, Kurita designed a set of pixel art for Japanese mobile carrier NTT Docomo that could be used in texting on their mobile phones. Other companies would copy NTT Docomo’s idea and the rest is history. Today, Kurita’s original set of pixel art is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It turns out, though, that Kurita’s emoji set may not have been the first as carrier Softbank released their own set of emoji in 1997.

 

Explore Dictionary.com’s extensive collection of emoji definitions right here!

sudoku

A sudoku is a number puzzle made of 81 squares in a 9×9 grid with the goal to fill every column, row, and square with the numbers 1 through 9. The word sudoku comes from the Japanese words sūji (“number”) and dokushin (“being single”).

Contrary to popular belief, sudoku puzzles don’t actually come from Japan. Although versions of the puzzle have been traced back hundreds of years, the modern version popular today was created by puzzle maker Howard Garns for Dell Magazines in 1979. Originally called “Number Puzzle,” sudoku picked up its Japanese-inspired name due to the puzzle’s popularity in Japan during the 1980s.

karaoke

Karaoke is the act of singing along to the track of a song, usually after the vocals have been removed. The English word karaoke is based on the Japanese words kara (“empty”) and oke (meaning and ultimately based on the English “orchestra”).

The invention of the karaoke machine is credited to Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue. In 1971, Inoue created a machine that played his songs without any vocals. Inoue never patented his machine, so he has never earned royalties for the numerous karaoke machines still commonly used to sing along to classic tunes. (We won’t comment on the quality of said singing here.)

dojo

A dojo is a school or hall used to teach martial arts. The word dojo comes from the Japanese dōjō, a word for a Buddhist seminary. This word comes from the Sanskrit bodhi-manda, meaning “seat of wisdom.”

Martial arts practitioners are likely to run into several other common Japanese words while training in a dojo. Whether you’re learning karate or judo, it is important to listen to the teachings of your sensei (“teacher” or “master”).

koi

Koi are colorful variations of the common carp that are native to Japan. The Japanese word koi comes from the Japanese for, well, “carp.”

It is thought that modern koi date back to the 1800s, when colorful carp were caught and bred by Japanese rice farmers. Japanese koi can be found in many rivers and ponds throughout Japan and are commonly bought for their beautiful colors. Koi are actually distant cousins of the goldfish, another fish commonly used for decorative purposes.

ninja

A ninja is a name for a person trained in martial arts, weapons, and stealth who performed secret operations during feudal japan. The word ninja is based on the Japanese words nin- (“endure”) and -ja (“person” or “agent”).

Although they have been heavily romanticized by (and sometimes problematically portrayed in) Western popular culture, the ninja did actually exist. Ninja were hired by Japanese nobles to commit secret missions, such as espionage and assassination. The ninja did everything in secret, and much of what we know of them comes from stories and tales passed down through generations of ninja clans.

Take our quiz!

Ready to showcase your sensei-level language skills? You can review the terms with our Japanese loanwords list, which will also generate flashcards and a spelling quiz to help you learn the vocabulary. When you’re ready, try our quiz. We like to think you’ll enjoy it as much as sudoku!

 

Take a word journey through another country with this look at 16 French loanwords!