Japanese Words That Grab The Olympics Limelight

The 2021 Olympics closed August 8 and the Summer Paralympics ended Sept. 5, and while we did enjoy the athletic feats on display, it eventually came time to say sayonara. Do you know why?

Well, both the Summer Olympic Games and Paralympics, a multi-sport event that draws athletes with disabilities from more than 100 countries, took place in the island nation of Japan. Sayonara is one way to say goodbye in Japan. To celebrate the Games returning to the land of the rising sun, we gathered up a few Olympics-related words that cover some of the things you are likely to see and hear as you enjoy the competitions every four years (or five, in this case).

What is the Japanese word for Olympics?

In Japanese, the name Olympics (which is an English word with Latin/Greek origins) is written in Japanese katakana, one of part of the Japanese writing system used for, among other things, foreign words. In Japanese, the Olympics is written as オリンピック, which can be transliterated in the Latin alphabet as Orinpikku. The Olympics features plenty of non-Japanese sports, so katakana is used to refer to events such as toraiasuron (“triathlon”), bare boru (“volleyball”), and tekondo (“taekwondo”).

Go for gold and explore more Olympic words and events here.

The full Japanese name used for the Olympics in Tokyo is 東京オリンピック, which reads Tokyo Orinpikku. When written, the name of the Japanese city of Tokyo uses characters from kanji, another part of the Japanese writing system using Chinese-derived character. Speaking of Tokyo …

What is the story behind the name Tokyo?

The city of Tokyo hosted the 2021 Summer Games after the event was postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, the name of this city has changed a bit throughout history.

What is now the city of Tokyo was once named Edo. In Japanese, edo literally translates to “estuary.” As you might expect, the village of Edo was located on an estuary, a location where a river meets a sea or the ocean. In 1603, the powerful shogun (“chief military commander”) Tokugawa Ieyasu moved his capital to Edo. Although the actual emperor presided over Japan from the city of Kyoto, it was the Tokugawa Shogunate that had the real power at the time and for many years afterward. After the Meiji emperor moved his capital to Edo in 1868, the city was renamed from Edo to Tokyo by imperial decree. The name Tokyo translates to “Eastern Capital,” which meant the city was—and is—recognized as the official capital of Japan.

Who are Miraitowa and Someity?

When the Olympics come to town, the people of the host country get to design the mascot for the Olympic Games. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese mascots for the 2021 Olympics were both unique and highly creative.

For the Olympic Games, the mascot was Miraitowa, an adorable robot with a blue and white checkerboard pattern. According to the Olympics website, Miraitowa’s name comes from the Japanese words mirai (“future”) and towa (“eternity”). The name refers to the wish that this year’s Olympics leads to feelings of everlasting hope for the people of the world.

For the Paralympic Games, the mascot was Someity, another adorable robot with a pink and white checkerboard pattern. According to the Olympics website, Someity’s name comes from the word Someiyoshino, a name for a type of cherry blossom, and the English phrase “so mighty.” Someity’s cherry blossom-fueled superhuman mental and physical strength represents the Paralympic athletes’ overcoming obstacles.

Give your language a boost with this introduction to Japanese slang.

What is cosplay?

Although you may not see many costumes at the Olympics, you may see people dress up as Miraitowa, Someity, and other fictional characters at some point during a trip to Japan. The hobby of dressing up as fictional characters is referred to as cosplay, or kosupere in Japanese. The word cosplay is based on the English words costume and play. Cosplay typically involves much more time, effort, and money than making a run-of-the-mill Halloween costume.

The activity of cosplay has been be traced all the way back to science fiction conventions of the late 1930s. Today, the activity is popular around the world. Cosplayers (people who engage in cosplay) are common sights at conventions and events dedicated to hobbies such as anime, manga, video games, and science fiction.

What is the significance of karate and judo?

The Olympics features two events of Japanese origin: the martial arts of karate and judo.

Karate literally translates to “empty hand” and comes from the Japanese words kara (“empty”) and te (“hand”). Karate is an ancient martial art that traces its roots back to the 1400s. The 2020 Olympics actually marks the debut of karate as a full Olympic event.

The name judo comes through Japanese from Chinese and can be traced back to Chinese words that translate to “soft way.” Judo is derived from the martial art of jujitsu and was developed by Dr. Jigoro Kano in the 1880s. Judo debuted as an Olympic event at the 1964 Olympics, which was the last time that Japan hosted the Summer Olympics prior to 2021.

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Learn about some of the words we use every day that originate from Mandarin and Cantonese.