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English but not English: Understanding Wasei Eigo in Japanese

In a previous blog post, we discussed the use of English-language loan words in the Japanese language. Generally referred to as “gairaigo” (外来語 [imported+word]), changes in pronunciation, abbreviations, and contractions can make these words very difficult for non-Japanese speakers to understand when listening and reading.

While briefly mentioned in the above link, in today's blog post, we take a slightly different deep dive into a similar yet different use of English in the Japanese language: “wasei eigo” (和製英語 [Japanese-made English]. Sometimes written in English and sometimes in katakana, one of the three Japanese “alphabets” that is used for writing foreign text, these words and phrases can be even more confusing than gairago because not only is their pronunciation often changed but they are also used in ways and combinations that do not exist in standard usage.

Time for a quick quiz! Without looking it up on the Internet, what do you think the following Japanese words mean? Remember, all of them are made from English words!

Hocchikisu, buraindo tacchi, and sukinshippu

And the answers are... cue drum roll... “stapler,” “touch typing,” and “skinship.”

Hocchikisu (ホッチキス) is actually “Hotchkiss,” the name of an American company founded in 1895 that manufactured staplers.. A similar example in English would be the use of the brand name “Kleenex” for tissues or the company name “Xerox” for photocopiers.

Buraindo tacchi (ブラインドタッチ) or “blind touch” makes sense once you discover the meaning.

But, wait, what the heck is sukinshippu (スキンシップ) ? Is it really English?

Well, it is, but it isn't. While “skin” and “ship” are English words, they have been fused together to create a new word in Japanese. Sukinshippu is a combination of “friendship” and “skin” and refers to close, physical contact with family or close friends. (We thought that was quite a nice one.)

However, this use of pseudo-loan words and phrases is not unique to Japanese. All languages are dynamic and change in response to internal and external cultural and societal influences. An example from English would be a “double entendre,” a word or phrase that has a double meaning. The phrase combines an English word with a borrowed French word to come up with something unique that is also in common usage.

Let's take a short look at the history of wasei eigo, how it's used, and how it's changing even now.

The only constant thing is change

In the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912), when the country began to transform from an isolated feudal society to a more open one, Japan was eager to take advantage of what it could learn from the rest of the world, with a specific focus on Westernizing. During this time, change was dramatic as new ideas and knowledge were quickly absorbed by society at large. As many of these new concepts had no equivalent in Japanese, their foreign labels were quickly adopted, sometimes creating confusion and mistakes in pronunciation, meaning, and usage.

The newly opened borders meant that English-speaking people and their language became more and more familiar to Japanese people, so they naturally began to experiment with different ways of using it.

Thus, wasei eigo (和製英語 [Japanese-made English] was born and is still with us today, ever-evolving.

Exotic and a little bit racy...

While there are no rules for who creates new wasei eigo, who uses it, or even how it is used in Japan, one of the most common occurrences is in advertising and marketing. One main reason for this is that English can sound cool, hip, or fashionable to Japanese consumers, even if it is grammatically or otherwise incorrect.

Perhaps the most famous one that confuses many American visitors when they go into a convenience store is amerikan doggu (アメリカンドッグ). Don't worry; it's just a corn dog.

One of my favorites that I see every day near my house is the vending machine that proclaims “COST DOWN!” Who doesn't like a “lower price?”

Wasei eigo is also often used for taboo or risqué topics. The “foreignness” of the words creates a separation or allows for a safe and neutral discussion of something that might otherwise be awkward or controversial.

Perhaps the most infamous example of the above in Japan is rabu hoteru (ラブホテル or ラブホ). If you can'st guess what “love hotel” means, you can always Google it.

Japanese local eateries (Yoshokuya: 洋食屋) or coffee lounges (Kissaten: 喫茶店) serve this popular menu item - naporitan (ナポリタン). Do you know what it is?

The wasei eigo of 2021!

In November of last year, 日本の英語を考える会 (the Association for Considering English in Japan) conducted a Twitter survey to choose the wasei eigo word that symbolized 2021.

In preparation for the vote, the Association solicited submissions for candidate words from domestic and international participants and supporters, from which the top four were chosen.

Coming in fourth with 9% of the vote was “boriyuumiii” (ボリューミー). Meaning “voluminous or large in quantity,” this “wasei eigo” is created by adding the letter “y” to the end of “volume.” It can be used to describe a hearty meal or a bulky package.

Third place with 10% was “mainapointo” (マイナポイント), an interesting response to the digital transformation that is slowly happening to Japan, a traditionally paper-focused culture. In 2016, the Japanese government began issuing a social security and tax identification number to its citizens, called “My Number (マイナンバー).” In 2020, to encourage the adoption and use of the My Number program while giving the economy a consumer boost, the government created the MyNaPoint (My Number Point) system to allow people to make electronic payments.

Second with almost double the vote, “mauntosuru” (マウントする) or “to mount” is an expression that means “showing off one’s superiority over others.” For example, if you proudly tell a friend that you got a perfect score on a test, they may say, “点が良かったからってマウント取るなよな。” (“Don’t mount me just because you got a good score.) or “言ったそばからすぐマウントしてくるママ友が苦手だわ~。” (“I hate mom friends who mount me immediately when I say something”)

And the winner is...

As mentioned before, wasei eigo is often created in reaction to sudden and dramatic change. Obviously, it could be easily said that in the last two-plus years, the COVID-19 global pandemic has played that role.

Fittingly、 the winner of the Twitter survey for the wasei eigo of 2021 was “wizukorona” (ウィズコロナ) with 62% of the vote. This combination of “with corona” can be used as a noun or an adjective and is unique to Japan. Some examples would be “ウィズコロナ時代を生き抜く” (“surviving the ‘with corona’ era”) or “ウィズコロナとアフターコロナに向けた出口戦略” (“exit strategies for ‘with corona’ and ‘after corona’”).

SIJIHIVE: Your wasei eigo experts!

Knowing how, where, and when gairaigo and wasei eigo are used in Japan can be difficult and requires a thorough understanding of the culture, business, and marketing. Companies looking to expand into Japan would be wise to tread carefully in this ever-changing linguistic and cultural landscape when trying to create an effective message to reach potential customers.

That's why, here at SIJIHIVE, our multilingual and multicultural staff can bring their years of experience to the table and will work closely with you to create content that connects with Japanese consumers and increases sales.

Please feel free to contact us today to discuss how we can work together to make yet another success story!


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Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.

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