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Japanese words

June 14, 2017

I was thinking recently about the extraordinary number of Japanese words that have found their way into English in the last three or four decades. I don’t mean loan-words, but words that are in everyday use, which would not when used in normal prose be written in italics (the key sign that a foreign word has not quite made itself at home). Examples include, but are not limited to: anime, bento, bonsai, emoji, futon, geisha, haiku, hara-kiri, ikebana, judo, karaoke, karate, kimono, koi, manga, origami, samurai, sashimi, satsuma, shiitake, sudoku, sumo, sushi, tempura, tsunami and umami.

The point is that these are not just words; in many cases we have the actual things as well. Yet familiar as the things may be, they still retain a distinctive air of Japanese-ness. Can any other Asian language rival this impact on English? I don’t think so. Clearly Japan is a cultural powerhouse – extraordinary when you consider that its population is about a tenth of China’s, or India’s.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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4 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    I think the difference is that the Japanese words still sound Japanese whilst a lot of Indian words have been assimilated into English,i.e. bungalow, jungle, shampoo, pyjamas, avatar, loot, dinghy, etc, to the extent that they aren’t thought of as coming from a different language.

  2. Avirup Chaudhuri permalink

    Indian languages have had a big influence too. To give two examples : the government tried to justify not releasing a report on urban pollution on the basis of the purdah (Urdu ) rules that apply during election campaigns; Theresa May could retire to a bungalow (Hindi ) when she ceases to be Prime Minister.

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    Yes, and there is a lot of Japanese culture on the television at the moment. I have a particular interest in this due to my passion for origami – now an extremely sophisticated art, rather than a nerdy childhood pastime (see the website of Robert Lang, or my own more modest efforts on Flickr where I fold as MAB1961). I have noticed the way in which the word ‘origami’ (which literally means ‘fold paper’ in Japanese) has become adopted to cover any ingenious design which involves folding, such as a Brompton bicycle or my iPad cover that folds into a triangle to form a stand.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    Robert Harbin’s origami programme in the late 60’s seemed quite exotic. I never progressed beyond water bombs (which he didn’t cover) so his various birds and animals were beyond me.

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