Common Loan Words in Japanese

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The Japanese language has borrowed many words from foreign countries, firstly from China as early as the Nara Period (710-794). Gairaigo (外来語) is the Japanese word for "loan word" or "borrowed word." Many Chinese words were mixed into Japanese to the extent that they are no longer considered "loan words." Most Chinese loan words are written in kanji and carry the Chinese reading (on-reading).

Around the 17th century, the Japanese language began to borrow from many western languages. For example, from Portuguese, Dutch, German (especially from the field of medicine), French and Italian (not surprisingly many are from the fields of art, music, and food), and most of all, English. Today, English is the origin of most modern loan words.​

The Japanese use English words to express concepts for which they have no equivalents. However, some people simply prefer to use English expressions for practically or because it is fashionable. In fact, many loan words have existing synonyms in Japanese. For example, the Japanese word for "business" is "shoubai 商売", but the loan word "bijinesu ビジネス" is also used. Another example is "gyuunyuu 牛乳(Japanese word)" and "miruku ミルク(loan word)" for "milk."

Loan words are generally written in katakana, except the ones of Chinese origin. They are pronounced using Japanese pronunciation rules and Japanese syllables. Therefore, they end up quite different from the original pronunciation. This makes it hard to recognize the original foreign word.

Many loan words are often abbreviated in ways they wouldn't get abbreviated in their original language.

Examples of Loan Words

  • Maiku マイク ---- microphone
  • Suupaa スーパー ---- supermarket
  • Depaato デパート --- department store
  • Biru ビル ---- building
  • Irasuto イラスト ---- illustration
  • Meeku メーク ---- make-up
  • Daiya ダイヤ ---- diamond

Multiple words are also shortened, often to four syllables.

  • Pasokon パソコン ---- personal computer
  • Waapuro ワープロ ---- word processor
  • Amefuto アメフト ---- American football
  • Puroresu プロレス ---- professional wrestling
  • Konbini コンビニ ---- convenience store
  • Eakon エアコン ---- air conditioning
  • Masukomi マスコミ ---- mass media (from mass communication)

A loan word can be generative. It may be combined with Japanese or other loanwords. Here are some examples.

  • Shouene 省エネ ---- energy saving
  • Shokupan 食パン ---- loaf of bread
  • Keitora 軽トラ ---- light commercial truck
  • Natsumero なつメロ ---- a once-popular song

Loan words are often combined into Japanese as nouns. When they are combined with "suru", it changes the word into a verb. The verb "suru (to do)" has many extended uses.

  • Doraibu suru ドライブする ---- to drive
  • Kisu suru キスする ---- to kiss
  • Nokku suru ノックする ---- to knock
  • Taipu suru タイプする ---- to type

There are also "loan words" that are actually made in Japan. For example, "sarariiman サラリーマン(salary man)" refers to someone whose income is salary base, generally the people work for corporations. Another example, "naitaa ナイター," comes from the English word "night" followed by "~er", means baseball games played at night.

Common Loan Words

  • Arubaito アルバイト ---- part-time job (from German arbeit)
  • Enjin エンジン ---- engine
  • Gamu ガム ---- chewing gum
  • Kamera カメラ ---- camera
  • Garasu ガラス ---- glass
  • Karendaa カレンダー ---- calendar
  • Terebi テレビ ---- television
  • Hoteru ホテル ---- hotel
  • Resutoran レストラン ---- restaurant
  • Tonneru トンネル ---- tunnel
  • Macchi マッチ ---- match
  • Mishin ミシン ---- sewing machine
  • Ruuru ルール ---- rule
  • Reji レジ ---- cash register
  • Waishatsu ワイシャツ ---- solid colored dress shirt (from white shirt)
  • Baa バー ---- bar
  • Sutairu スタイル ---- style
  • Sutoorii ストーリー ---- story
  • Sumaato スマート ---- smart
  • Aidoru アイドル ---- idol, pop star
  • Aisukuriimu アイスクリーム ---- ice cream
  • Anime アニメ ---- animation
  • Ankeeto アンケート ---- questionnaire, survey (from French enquete)
  • Baagen バーゲン ---- a sale at store (from bargain)
  • Bataa バター ---- butter
  • Biiru ビール ---- beer (from Dutch bier)
  • Booru pen ボールペン ---- ballpoint pen
  • Dorama ドラマ ---- TV drama
  • Erebeetaa エレベーター ---- elevator
  • Furai フライ ---- deep frying
  • Furonto フロント ---- the reception desk
  • Gomu ゴム ---- rubber band (from Dutch gom)
  • Handoru ハンドル ---- handle
  • Hankachi ハンカチ ---- handkerchief
  • Imeeji イメージ ---- image
  • juusu ジュース ---- juice
  • kokku コック ---- cook (from Dutch kok)

Nationality is expressed by adding "jin 人", which literally means "person", after the country name.

  • Amerika-jin アメリカ人---- American
  • Itaria-jin イタリア人 ---- Italian
  • Oranda-jin オランダ人---- Dutch
  • Kanada-jin カナダ人----- Canadian
  • Supein-jin スペイン人---- Spanish
  • Doitsu-jin ドイツ人---- Germany
  • Furansu-jin フランス人---- French