I have lived in Tokyo, Japan for over 9 years, and along the way, I have learned a lot of really fun Japanese words.
What is Japanglish?
Japan and English share a lot of words. In English, Japanese words like sushi, manga, typhoon, and teriyaki are all commonplace words, and words like karoshi and senpai have even entered English Dictionaries in recent years.
In Japanese, many English words are used in daily conversation, but they don’t sound so English to the untrained ear. Words like hamburger (ハンバーガー), mic (マイク), and engine (エンジン) are all easy to understand, but Japanese often shortens words or pronounce them quite differently, making words like レジ (cash register), ボールペン (ballpoint pen), and スーパー (supermarket) a bit difficult for native English speakers to initially understand.
But beyond that, the Japanese language is also special in that it has created many of its own unique English words that the internet often dubs “Japanglish”. These are words that either aren’t used correctly or don’t exist in the English language at all but are English-rooted words. We will be looking at 10 commonly used Japanglish words that native English speakers will have no idea what they mean upon hearing them for the first time.
- オールマイティー (Almighty)
In English, the term “almighty” is one of complete and immeasurable power. This word is almost exclusively used to describe God in many religions, so when a Japanese person uses this word during a game of cards, what in the world are they referring to?
The answer; the wild card.
In Japanese, the term used for the wild card in a poker game is “almighty”. When a native English speaker hears this, they might immediately assume the person saying “almighty” may be asking God for help during their poker game, but in reality, they may be in possession of the wild card.
- ペーパードライバー (Paper driver)
At first glance, a native English speaker may assume that this means a person who drives a piece of paper, but this is a very fun Japanglish word that describes a very specific person.
The answer; a person who has a license, but never drives.
A paper driver is someone who only owns a license but lacks a car or has no desire to actually drive a car, even if they own one. Paper drivers are usually ones who lack confidence or experience behind the wheel, so despite having a driver’s license, they still depend on public transportation.
- レベルアップ (Level up)
Any young English speaker or gamer will recognize this word as something pretty common, and they may even consider it to be a borrowed English word. They may need to recall where they first saw this word; in what game… made by which Japanese game company? Yes. Level up is a Japanese made English word often directly translated in video games the same in both Japanese and English. It has become so common in English, one would just assume it’s meaning is directly tied to video games, right? Wrong.
The answer; to improve.
In Japan, level up isn’t just a gaming term, it’s a term for all of life. I can level up my language ability, I can level up my cooking skills, I can level up at work, and I can level up my life experience. Anything that can be improve can “level up”.
- マイブーム (My boom)
There are a lot of Japanglish words that start with “my”, including マイペース (My pace) and マイバッグ (My bag), but both of these may be easily understood by native English speakers upon first hearing them. “My boom”, however, may be more confusing. “My boom” sounds like my explosion, maybe tied to being very angry.
The answer; my current obsession.
“My boom” is simply the hobby or interest that you are currently invested in. It can be a major brand, a new video game, the latest album from a hot star, or even something like romance novels. The expression we use in English is actually, “I’m into…” or “I’m obsessed with…”. For example; “I’m into rock music” or “I’m obsessed with the new Marvel movies.”
- マンション (Mansion)
This may be one of the most shocking words to learn in Japanese, because the difference is absolutely grand. If a Japanese person says, “I live in a mansion,” the native English speaker is going to be thrown back in disbelief.
The answer; a condominium/apartment.
The Japanese “mansion” actually comes from the old British English usage when mansion meant both a large house and a luxurious flat, but usage changed since then and mansion exclusively refers to a large house today. But in Japanese, the word “mansion” is still used to refer to condominiums and larger apartments.
One of these acronyms may sound silly to younger English speakers, because OG can mean “original gangster” in pop culture. However, since there is a B and a G, maybe it’s “original boy” and “original girl”?
The answer; “old boy”/”old girl”
Originally, OB was used to refer to company retirees, but nowadays, it has been expanded to include people who have finished school and moved on to the work world. Current college students, for example, can refer to graduates as “OB” or “OG”, especially individuals from the same college club.
- スキンシップ (Skinship)
A native English speaker may see this and immediately begin questioning the combination of words. Is it skin + friendship? Skin + kinship? I don’t know! What is it?
The answer; physical contact/intimacy.
The term was originally coined in Japanese to describe the intimacy or closeness between a mother and child. However, this has evolved over time to mean any physical intimacy, such as holding hands, hugging, snuggling, or even parents washing their kids in the bath.
So what is your love language? Might it be skinship?
- モンスターペアレント (Monster parent)
This looks like a very scary word, right? Does this imply that the parent is abusive towards the child? Does the child see the parent as a monster?
The answer; A parent who makes unreasonable demands on behalf of their child.
A monster parent, similar to a helicopter or snowplow parent in America, is someone who radically goes to bat for their child when something goes wrong. Failed a math test? Monster parent to the rescue! Boss being unfair? Monster parent to the rescue! College professor giving you a hard time? Monster parent to the rescue!
- フードファイター (Food fighter)
In English, a food fight is when you throw food at each other, so a food fighter must be someone who throws food. That must be right.
The answer; a competitive eater.
In countries like America, the competitive eating circuit isn’t so popular outside of the hotdog eating competition in July. However, in Japan and many other Asian countries, eating competitions are a pretty big deal, and there are numerous pseudo-celebrities who are “food fighters”. But they only eat the food. They don’t throw it.
- チャームポイント (Charm point)
A charm can mean an ornament on a necklace or bracelet, so it could be the point of one of those. Or maybe it’s when the magician finds the point that controls you. What could a charm point be?
The answer; A person’s most attractive feature.
The meaning comes from the English word “charming”, to attract or delight, and the charm point is something about the person that is very fascinating. It could be something physical, like a person’s eyes, cheekbones, or even chin. It could also be something else, like someone’s strength, ability to serve, or even compassion. It’s simply something that makes them special.
Japanese is a wonderful language with lots of diversity infused within it, and these Japanglish words really bring a lot more uniqueness to the language. What did you think of these words?
© 2019 Jason Reid Capp
Jason Reid Capp (author) from Myrtle Beach, SC USA on June 15, 2019:
Thank you for the comment! I have been compiling a list of Wasei Eigo since I moved to Japan almost 10 years ago. There are some fascinating words, so many I didn't even include.
I might turn this listing into a series, actually. My current list is at 230 words, so I have plenty to work with. haha
Takako Komori from Yokohama, Japan on June 15, 2019:
Very informative! As an English teacher living in Yokohama, I am aware of these Wasei Eigo and find them quite amusing!