We’re going to take a deep dive into the word shigoto in Japanese. I’ll cover the meaning, break down each of its component parts into their most essential forms, and then introduce ways to use and recognize the word.
And along the way we’ll learn a bunch about words for work in Japanese, as well as the unique ways words are written and pronounced with kanji. Let’s get started with a simple, straightforward definition of shigoto.
What does Shigoto mean?
Shigoto is written in Japanese as 仕事 or しごと and means “work.” Often it is used to mean “work” in the sense of one’s job, but it can also refer to chores, a trade, someone’s handiwork, and is even used the same way “work” is in physics terminology.
Taking a Look at the Exact Meaning of Shigoto
Let’s dip into the nice and simple Sanseido dictionary for our first look at the deeper sense of the word shigoto.
Fear not, gentle reader—I’ll take you through these step by step. That first one says suru-beki-koto, or do-must do-thing. It’s a “thing you gotta do.” In effect, your work, your job.
Next up is that spiky-looking 職業, made up of the kanji for “employment” and “business,” respectively. This one—shoku-gyou—says, simply, “occupation.” Easy, right?
Lastly, we get a nice, big sentence. I’ll break it down as literally as I can without making it difficult to understand. “In mechanics, when, due to an external force, an object is moved.”
So, to give you a sense of the way the word is used, you could basically say, “Oh no! I’m late for my shigoto!”
More Work for Shigoto
If we dig into a few other dictionaries, we discover that shigoto carries a few other interesting qualities. First off, it’s what’s known as a “suru-verb.”
Suru-verbs are made by taking a noun and attaching the verb suru, which means (roughly) “to do,” at the end. Suru-verbs are often, though not exclusively, made from words of Chinese origin, and generally make things sound more formal.
Many verb concepts in Japanese have at least two forms—a suru-verb form, and a regular verb form.
This somewhat mirrors a feature of the English language. Many concepts in English have both a Germanic-origin word and a French-origin word associated with them, and typically these will be divided by how formal they are to use.
It’s the difference between “drink” (Germanic) and “beverage” (French), or “thinking” (Germanic) and “pensive” (French).
A little further down this article, I’ll show you some “regular” verbs that mirror the meaning of shigoto and how they can be used a little differently.
So, from shigoto, we get shigoto-suru, “to work.”
Shigoto also functions as what is often termed a “no-adjective” in English. As far as I can tell, this has no direct translation in Japanese, but what it essentially means is that the word shigoto can be used to modify other words by attaching the particle no to the end.
Particles are an interesting feature of Japanese. They’re typically one or two syllables long, carry no meaning on their own and they can’t be inflected in any way.
To use them you attach them to word or clause to impart grammatical information, such as noting the topic of a sentence, the direct object, or the direction of movement. In this case, no is being used to apply the idea of the word shigoto to another word.
For example, we can modify the noun henka, meaning “change,” to create the idea of “change of job” by saying shigoto-no-henka. We can modify the word for “story,” hanashi, to talk about a “work story,” or shigoto-no-hanashi.
What do the Shigoto Kanji Mean?
Alright, strap in. We’re going deeper. I’m going to break the word down into its Chinese characters, and then break those down as well. I’ll take you through the weirdness of their pronunciation and explain why it’s a bit strange.
And I’ll even do my best to go through the very origins of the word itself.
Shigoto is made up of two kanji, or Chinese characters. These are 仕 and 事.
That first kanji is where we get the shifrom and the second one gives us koto. “Koto!? But I thought it was Goto!” you exclaim furiously. Relax, I gotcha. This is where we encounter our first bit of weirdness with this word. Let me introduce you to rendaku.
Step One: A Detour Through Rendaku
The rules surrounding rendaku can get crazy complicated, and there’s a wiki article on it if you’re feeling like an intellectual self-flagellation.
But the short of it is that when, in Japanese, two words are joined into a compound, very often the consonant that begins the second word will become a “voiced” consonant.
What the difference between voiced and unvoiced? Well, let’s take the two Japanese hiragana (these are sorta like letters) く and ぐ, or KU and GU, respectively.
Notice that they both look almost identical, except for the two dashes — known as dakuten — on the second one. Most hiragana work this way. You have the base character, which is unvoiced, and then add dakuten to make it voiced.
So, try to say KU and notice what happens when you pronounce the K. It’s just a sort of tightening of the back of your tongue and a press of air. Your vocal cords don’t do anything.
Now say GU. What happens when you pronounce the G? Your throat vibrates with sound. You use your voice box. It’s voiced. That’s the difference.
So, rendaku is when the consonant shifts from unvoiced to voiced following a vowel. Like I said, there’re a lot of little rules that govern this, but it’s complicated, and not necessary to get into unless you’re specifically interested in Japanese phonology.
For our purposes, it’s enough to note the interesting fact that shigoto goes through this subtle transformation.
Step Two: The Crossfire of On and Kun
In Japanese, kanji almost always have multiple ways of being said.
Each kanji carries with it an onyomi reading and a kunyomi reading, and often multiples of each. A character like 事 can be pronounced koto, tsuka, ji, or zu.
“Hold up,” I hear you say. “That’s nuts. I mean, sure, English has some annoying homophones, but you’re telling me every kanji is basically a crapshoot of pronunciation?!” Hold your horses there.
It’s weird and a little challenging, but it’s not a total crapshoot—except when it is. Let’s take a look at why this is and how it affects the reading of shigoto.
Roughly fifteen-hundred years ago the Japanese had a spoken language, but no writing system. Then they took China’s writing system from them wholesale and worked a little voodoo on it to adapt it for their day-to-day use.
Each character was given a reading based on how it sounded in Chinese. For example, the onyomi pronunciation of the kanji for “water,” 水, is sui, while the Chinese pronunciation is shuǐ.
“But what about the multiple readings?!” I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it! See, China is huge, and the language changes from place to place. One region might pronounce a character one way, and another a different way—and the Japanese just said, “Screw it, let’s take ‘em all.”
“The kunyomi! The kunyomi!” Well, before they had kanji, they still had their own way of saying things. So, they just attached the Japanese word to the Chinese character. So, for a character like 水, the kunyomi reading would be mizu.
Now, there’s a few simple rules that are pretty reliable for telling you when to use either the onyomi or the kunyomi (though none I know of to tell you which onyomi or kunyomi to use once you’ve got the first part figured out!).
For this article, I’m only going to point out one rule that’s usually pretty reliable.
When you have a compound kanji word (i.e. two or more kanji stuck together) and no hiragana stuck to the end, then both characters will use the onyomi. It just makes sense that way—that’s how Chinese is written, and those sorts of compounds are taken from Chinese.
But shigoto doesn’t follow the rules. Shigoto is written with both on and kun readings. Shi is the onyomi reading of and koto is the kunyomi reading of 事. You just have to know by heart how to read this one. No hints.
Step Three: But What Do the Kanji for Shigoto Actually Mean?
仕 is made up of two component parts known as “radicals.” To the left is a man and to the right is a samurai. So, it shows a man serving a samurai. This illustrates the idea of “attending upon” or “serving.” It inherits that shi pronunciation from the radical on the right.
事 is a bit trickier in divining its origins. It’s also a bit nebulous in its definition. 事 encompasses the ideas of “thing,” but mostly in a non-material sense. It’s the “matter” in “what’s the matter?” It’s the “business” in “I’ve got business to attend to.”
So, together, these make up the idea of “a matter to attend upon.” Y’know: work.
Secret Step Four: The Etymology of Shigoto
I had to dive into a Japanese etymology dictionary for this one, so I’m coming back with some roughly translated info. Use caution with this trivia nugget before trying to school your Japanese sensei on the meaning of shigoto.
Basically, shigoto originally meant just “doing.” It later came to carry the sense of actual “work” and “labor.” There has been suggestion that the 仕 in shigoto was merely ateji—or a character used only for its sound and not its meaning (or vice versa).
However, it’s suggested that during the Edo period there was some linguistic cross-pollination between two common words: 仕る, “to serve,” and 為事, which was the written form of shigoto at the time, via the word 為る.
Basically, 仕る plus 為る, divided by 為事 equals 仕事. Or something like that. My specialty was not in translating etymology dictionaries that discuss arcane and archaic forms of words.
Either way, this potential cross-pollination muddies the evidence regarding the ateji nature of 仕.
Okay, this last section was pretty nerdy, and a bit speculative, but I hope somewhat interesting! Let’s take a look at some more ways we can talk about work as well as a few more ways to use shigoto.
The Many Uses of Shigoto
A quick scan of an online Japanese-to-English dictionary shows at least 72 different compound words using shigoto. These should help you wrap you head around how the word is thought of and used in Japanese by examining some of its derivative forms.
仕事場 – shigoto-ba = place of work
仕事中 – shigoto-chuu = in the midst of working
手仕事 – te-shigoto = manual labor
仕事量 – shigoto-ryou= one’s workload
仕事探し – shigoto-sagashi = job hunting
針仕事 – hari-shigoto = needlework or sewing
庭仕事 – niwa-shigoto = gardening
The list goes on and on, but these are a few useful ones to get your started on learning more about the essential meaning of shigoto.
The Words of Work: Beyond Shigoto
So, what are some other ways to discuss work? You can say that you hataraku, which means to work or labor.
You could be more specific and say that you ～tsutomeru, which means that you “work for ～” or “are employed at ～.”
If you want to be more general, you could say that younasegeru, or “earn money.”
Perhaps you need a more servile term, like tsukaeru, which suggests “serving someone” or “attending up someone.”
Or maybe you want to drive home your efforts with a word like rousuru, which means more explicitly “to labor.”
If you just want to mention your job itself, you could pull out that word from earlier: shokugyou, which means “occupation, profession, career.”
You could also refer to your part-time job with the word arubaito, often shortened to baito, which comes from the German word for job, “Arbeit.”
Get to Shigoto!
Time to put what you’ve learned into practice—time to do a little shigoto!
Try to think about how you could apply the word to tasks around you and how you might choose to use shigoto or another one of the words we introduced.
And when you come across more Japanese, think about what we went over today with regards to all the neat trivia on ateji, onyomi, kunyomi, rendaku, and more.
This was a whopper of an article, covering tons of the background of Japanese grammar, and all for one tiny word! At least now you’ll never forget the meaning of shigoto!
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.