What these foreign words actually mean in Japanese

By on April 9, 2017

Since Japanese speakers have a tendency to shorten words by means of contractions and use many ‘false friends’ (words that look similar to a word in another language but have a significantly different meaning), understanding the correct usage of words is downright confusing. Here are a few examples:


The meaning has nothing to do with cycling.  ‘Biking’ means all-you- can-eat buffet style in Japan. In introducing Denmark’s ‘Smorgasbord‘ concept here, Imikumi Toruzo, the Imperial Hotel Manager in the 1950s,  thought the Swedish word was challenging  to pronounce. He changed it to the title of a 50s American movie he watched, ‘Viking’ (spelled with a ‘B’ ), in which the lavish meal scenes made an impression. ‘Viking’ means scandinavian pirates from the 8th – 10th century.


Kosupa is a short form for Cost performance (ko-su-to-pah-fuo-ma-n-su) strictly used in Business English. There is no ‘c’ consonant in the Japanese alphabet thus it changes to the nearest sound equivalent which is ‘k’. Collier’s dictionary defines it as the price paid or required for acquiring, producing, or maintaining something, usually measured in money, time, or energy; expense or expenditure; outlay.’   You may be surprised the usage in Japanese is not limited to  business.  Very often, shoppers would use ‘kosupa‘ to mean the ‘overall value or worth’ of something.  For example, a Japanese housewife asks a friend whether a bottle of XXX brand shampoo is worth the price.  She says, “XXX no kosupa wa dou desuka?”  Most likely, the answer will go like this:  ‘kosupa ga ii’ (It’s worth the price) or ‘kosupa ga warui’ (It’s not worth the price).


Japan started importing silky flour from the United States in the Meiji era. But because Japan also produces flour, confusing the two could lead to miscommunication. To make a distinction between the flour imported from the U.S.A. and its own udon flour, Japan called the former ‘Merikenko’.  ‘Meriken’ is for American (in katakana) and ‘ko’ 粉Japanese kanji for flour.


Men’s suit in Japanese is called: se-biro背広 (wide back), both written in kanji and katakana. It’s believed to have originated from London’s ‘Saville Row’, the mecca of  luxury wool between the late Tokugawa period and the early Meiji era.


Wondering how Jiruba got its name?  Actually, it came from the English word ‘jitterbug’ (ji–tah-ru-ba-gu), the popular American swing dance in the 20th century shortened to Jiruba due to pronunciation issues.


Abeku comes from the French word ‘avec’ or ‘with’ in English both used as a preposition. Japanese however use it as a noun to refer to “ two people together” or ‘a couple’ usually in a romantic setting.  Only old people use it.  The younger generation say ‘kapuru‘ (couple).


Purin (pronounced as pue-ring) is actually ‘pudding’.

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