When you live in Japan, from time to time you will encounter words or expressions dropped here and there in casual conversation that might seem familiar, but which you don’t quite understand. These are wasei-eigo (和製英語 — literally “English made in Japan”): pseudo-English words and phrases used in the Japanese language that can actually be quite confusing for native English speakers. Very often wasei-eigo words are based on English loanwords, but have developed novel forms or meanings that are far removed from their origins. They are an interesting example of “false friends”: words in two different languages that look similar, but actually have very different meanings or connotations. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the most common examples of wasei-eigo, as quite often Japanese people aren’t aware that these aren’t true English words and may even use them in English conversation. Here is a short wasei-eigo list with some of the most common examples:
In English, the word “challenge” has a variety of meanings. It can be used as a noun meaning a difficult task or a problem, or as a verb meaning either questioning the truth of something, or calling on someone to enter a contest. In Japanese the word チャレンジhas evolved to have the very positive meaning of trying very hard, or to striving towards a goal. A typical example might be 「夢にチャレンジする」meaning “I am going to work hard to realize my dream”.
In English “cunning” means clever, shrewd or crafty. In Japanese however, カンニング means cheating in an examination or test. You can imagine how this came about, as it would obviously take some cunning to successfully cheat in an exam undetected!
Frequently shouted by spectators at sports events, the wordファイト is not a call for hooliganism, but a cry of encouragement meaning “Do your best! “, “Keep at it! “, or “Don’t give up! “
“High tension” (ハイテンション) is an in Japanese that means neither high stress levels nor a high electrical voltage, but simply that someone is “excited” or “enthusiastic”. If someone says to you, 「今日ジョンさんは、ハイテンションですね」they mean “You are in high spirits today, aren’t you John?”
If a Japanese person tells you they live in a マンション, do not be disappointed when it turns out they live in a simple apartment rather than a stately country house.
Salaryman & OL
Salaryman (サラリーマン) is a word that fans of Japanese manga or movies may already be familiar with. The word simply signifies an office worker or white-collar worker, but as salarymen form the backbone of the Japanese economy the word is ubiquitous in Japanese society and culture. The female equivalent is OL (オーエル) which stands for “office lady” (オフィス・レディ).
When we hear the word “Viking” in English we immediately imagine wild Scandinavian pirates in horned helmets growling aggressively and waving their swords in the air, but in Japanese the word Viking (バイキング) simply means “buffet”. And although you might assume from the name, that a “Viking buffet” might include drinking horns full of mead and roasted venison or boar’s meat all laid out on long wooden trestles, バイキング料理 (baikingu ryouri — literally “Viking cuisine”) is more likely to include tidily arranged trays of sashimi, pasta dishes, or even neatly sliced sandwiches and delicate hors d’oeuvres on cocktail sticks. This usage ofバイキング to denote buffet dining dates back to 1957 when the manager of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was traveling in Denmark. There he experienced the delights of the Scandinavian smorgasbord, and decided to introduce it at his hotel. However, the word “smorgasbord” seemed too unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce for Japanese patrons, so he took inspiration from the 1958 movie “The Vikings” which was on show in Tokyo at the time. And in this way Japan’s first バイキングレストラン (Viking restaurant) was born…