10 Japanese Words English Speakers Get Totally Wrong

Studying Japanese? Make Sure You Know What these Words Really Mean

With the increasing popularity of Japanese animation outside of Japan, lots of fans are developing an interest in the Japanese language and many are choosing to study it at a university or self-learn through the use of books, CDs, and even video games.

Occasionally, though, due to cultural misunderstandings, miscommunications, or the rapid spread of incorrect translations through online communities, some Japanese words develop an English language usage that can be unintentionally funny, offensive, or even totally wrong.

Here are some of the worst offenders. Whether you're looking for a career in translation or simply planning a trip to Japan, make sure you know what these 10 words really mean to native Japanese speakers. Their actual usage may surprise you.

01
of 10

Baka

Handsome Japanese Male Nerd
Japanese Geek. Hill Street Studios / Blend Images / Getty Images

Due to a misguided (and incorrect!) belief in many Western fan circles that calling someone an idiot is the most offensive thing one could possibly say to another person in Japanese, the word baka is often associated with some of the highest level swear words in the English language that are too crude to mention here.

In reality, the word is a very common word in Japan used by people of all ages. While it does mean idiot or stupid, it is no stronger than the English equivalents and definitely isn't as offensive as people think it is. It can even be used as a joke when annoying someone close to you like a family member or co-worker.

02
of 10

Chibi

Cute Asian baby with robot
Chibi chibi chibi chibi CHIBI!. NI QIN / Vetta / Getty Images

The word chibi owes its popularity to the anime series Sailor Moon which featured not one but two characters featuring this Japanese word for small in their name, Sailor Chibi Moon (Sailor Mini Moon) and Sailor Chibi Chibi.

While chibi does indeed mean small it's not nearly as commonly used in Japanese conversation as people think it is. It's kind of like using incy wincy instead of small, tiny, short or little. Technically correct but will turn heads in a conversation.

Japanese Maids
Japanese Maids. MIXA / MIXA / Getty Images

A very common phrase in Japan used for welcoming customers into almost any business. Irrashaimase is often misinterpreted as meaning hello or welcome.

It shouldn't be repeated back to the initial speaker and is definitely not used to say hello to people on Twitter, which is often done with embarrassing results. More »

04
of 10

Gaijin

Shocked white woman
That doesn't mean what you think it means. Izabela Habur / E+ / Getty Images

One of the better known Japanese words, gaijin which means foreign person and should sound like "guy-jin" when said, is often mispronounced as "gay-jin" which means, gay person.

 

05
of 10

Okama

Offensive man and embarrassed woman
Offensive man and embarrassed woman. Michael Martin / E+ / Getty Images

Speaking of the word gay, the word okama is misinterpreted as simply meaning gay in Japanese while in fact, it is very much the cultural equivalent of the F-word (derogatory work for a gay person).

It is not a word you want to throw around willy-nilly as it can be quite offensive. Want to talk about gay issues in Japanese? Simply use the English word gay which now has widespread usage in Japan.

06
of 10

Yuri

Clueless Asian woman
She has no idea what you're talking about. What's a "yuri"?. Redd Room Studios / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

Often used by Western anime fans to talk about lesbian-themed manga or anime, yuri is surprisingly unused by most Japanese who will wonder what you're talking about if you use it in conversation.

While a slightly different genre, Girls Love or GL is much more well-known and easily understood.

07
of 10

Yaoi

Clueless Asian man
People won't know what "Yaoi" means. Asia Images Group / AsiaPix / Getty Images

Basically the male version of yuri, yaoi is also rarely used by most Japanese people who simply use Boys Love or BL when talking about anime or manga about gay men.

08
of 10
AdventureTime.jpg
Popular North American cartoon, Adventure Time. Cartoon Network, Madman Entertainment

Used to talk about Japanese animation in the West, anime is actually Japanese for animation which means that when a Japanese person is talking about their favorite anime series, their list could include American made series like Adventure Time, Tom and Jerry and Spider-Man in addition to the Japanese Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and Fairy Tail. More »

09
of 10

Manga

American comic book woman
American comic book woman. SaulHerrera / iStock Vectors / Getty Images

Much like anime, manga is Japanese for comic books and lumps Spider-Man, Thor and Iron Man into the same group as Naruto and Dragon Ball Z.

Anime and manga may mean exclusively Japanese content when using them in English but once you start studying Japanese or speaking to Japanese people, don't forget their real meaning.

10
of 10

Otaku

Japanese Otaku
Japanese Otaku. Thinkstock / Stockbyte / Getty Images

The most common word otaku get totally wrong? Ironically enough, it's the word, otaku.

Widely used as anime and/or manga fan in English, its actual Japanese meaning is much stronger and gives the sense that the person being discussed has an unhealthy obsession with something that consumes all of their life leaving little time for family, friends, or personal hygiene.

It's one thing to say you're a big fan of Dragon Ball Z ("Watashi wa Dragon Ball Z no dai fan desu.") but introducing yourself as a Dragon Ball Z otaku ("Watashi wa Dragon Ball Z no otaku desu.") would result in nervous laughs.

Still determined to use the word? Make sure you're understood by native speakers. Despite the English pronunciation sounding something like "oe-ta-koo", when saying otaku make sure you say the "o" the same way you would in the words hot, top and jog. The "ta" sounds more like the "tu" in tummy and the "ku" sounds like the "koo" in "Kooper".

Much like karate and karaoke, the way we English speakers say otaku is very different from the original Japanese. Thankfully, karate and karaoke haven't lost their meanings in translation.

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Stephenson, Brad. "10 Japanese Words English Speakers Get Totally Wrong." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/japanese-words-otaku-gets-wrong-144776. Stephenson, Brad. (2017, March 3). 10 Japanese Words English Speakers Get Totally Wrong. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/japanese-words-otaku-gets-wrong-144776 Stephenson, Brad. "10 Japanese Words English Speakers Get Totally Wrong." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/japanese-words-otaku-gets-wrong-144776 (accessed November 23, 2017).