Japanese words may be hard to translate thanks in large part to the uniqueness of the Japanese culture.
There are several reasons Japan has a one-of-a-kind culture. For starters, the Japanese have lived on an island for millennia, where they have been isolated from the outside world for a very large part of their history.
At the same time, they have also been affected by several Asian religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
This mixture of cultural influences along with Japan’s geographical state has created an eclectic culture that is not only unique but is also hard for foreigners to understand without immersing themselves within it.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few untranslatable Japanese words that reflect the uniqueness of the Japanese people.
1. Arigata-meiwaku (ありがた迷惑)
Has this ever happened to you?
Someone wants to be nice to you and do you a favor, but you really don’t want them to do anything. In fact, you might have even actively avoided having them do you the favor, yet, despite your protests, they did it anyway.
Unfortunately, their determination to help you backfired, and the “favor” they performed just ended up harming you rather than helping.
Nevertheless, even though this individual may have harmed you, you still feel obligated to thank them due to the pressure of social convention.
Well, if this has happened to you, then you’ll be happy to know that the Japanese have a name for it. They call it “Arigata-meiwaku.”
However, if you don’t relate at all to the above anecdote, then you can jot that down to cultural differences.
You see, a big pillar of Japanese culture rests on gratitude and hierarchy, both of which compel you to say “thank you” when someone tries to help you regardless of the outcome of said “help.”
“Hanafubuki” is one of those of the words that are hard to describe.
At face value, it is made up of two distinct words. “Hana” translates to flower, while “Fubuki” is the Japanese word for snow storm. When you put the two together, you get the literal translation of “flower snow storm.”
“Hanafubuki” is used to describe the effect of cherry blossom trees when they shed their petals during spring. This is why another translation of this Japanese word is “cherry blossom blizzard.”
That said, what makes this word difficult to describe is that it is nearly impossible to put the beauty of this event into words. Even pictures and videos can’t do it justice.
The only way to truly appreciate “Hanafubuki” is to experience it yourself. You need to see the pink petals showering the ground beneath your feet to understand why “Hanafubuki” has entranced anyone who’s ever seen it.
3. Ikigai (生き甲斐)
“Iki” means “to live,” and “Kai” means result, benefit, or worth. When you put the two together, you get “Ikigai,” a compound word that means “a reason to live” or “a reason for being.”
“Ikigai” is used to describe having a purpose in life or a sense of direction. In other words, it’s the philosophy that people need to find a telos that makes their lives worth living, a goal they can strive for day-in and day-out.
The idea behind “Ikigai” is simple enough. The Japanese believe that we all need a sense of purpose in our lives to feel happy and fulfilled.
It is this purpose that will motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and devote ourselves to that which makes us feel accomplished and happy.
But, without “Ikigai,” we are liable to feel a sense of malaise and emptiness.
What’s more, you cannot force someone to feel “Ikigai.” This is something that each of us must find on their own.
Obviously, one person’s “Ikigai” does not have to be another’s. The simplest case in point can be seen in Japan in self.
While the older generation’s “Ikigai” revolved around conforming to the expectations of their friends and family, the younger generation’s “Ikigai” is more about self-development and bettering their future selves.
4. Koi no yokan (恋の予感)
For the romantics among you, this word is for you.
“Koi no yokan” is the feeling you get when you meet someone for the first time and have a strong feeling that you are going to fall in love with them. This word is not to be confused with “Hitomebore,” which is Japanese for “love at first sight.”
Rather than being a feeling of love, “Koi no yokan” is the premonition of it.
In Japan, this word relates to both the old and the young generation but in different ways.
The older generation took relationships seriously. They considered the only legitimate romantic relationship to be that of marriage, and they didn’t have the luxury of figuring out who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.
Consequently, the feeling of “Koi no yokan” was important.
Alternatively, the younger generation in Japan, especially those raised with “shoujo manga,” which is comics for teen females, use this term a lot today.
Their use of the word is undoubtedly fueled by the romantic notions fed to them by the media and the comics.
5. Komorebi (木漏れ日)
The Japanese revere nature and celebrate it in every way they can. We have already seen this when we looked at the word “Hanafubuki.”
“Komorebi” is another word that shows how much appreciation the Japanese culture has for Mother Nature.
It is used to refer to the beautiful effect of sunlight pouring through the trees as it creates a beautiful interplay between light and shadow.
You should be careful not to conflate “Komorebi” with sunlight because that would be too reductive, robbing this word of its beauty.
Instead, it is a celebration of the interaction between sunlight and nature.
Interestingly, the word Komorebi” is made up of three main kanji characters. The first one means tree. The second one means “escape.” And, the third one means “light” or “sun.”
Ergo, the literal translation of the word is “the light escaping the trees,” which still doesn’t do the word justice.
6. Kyoiku mama (教育ママ)
When it comes to academic excellence, the Japanese do not mess around. Japanese mothers take it upon themselves to ensure that their children progress and flourish academically, and, for some mothers, helping their children succeed is a full-time job.
When the child is still in preschool, Japanese mothers will prepare a curriculum for them, one that is filled with games, teaching aids, and plenty of activities that help them develop.
What’s more, Japanese parents will buy their children a couple of books on a monthly basis. The hope is that, before entering school, the child will be able to read, write, and perform basic mathematics.
Once the child starts elementary school, things get kicked into high-gear.
Not only do Japanese mothers participate religiously in ceremonies and school events, but they also help their children with homework and take classes, called “mamajuku,” to have a better understanding of the subjects taught at school.
Occasionally, Japanese parents will go so far as to buy two sets of school textbooks every year, one for the child and the other for the mother.
What does any of this have to do with “Kyoiku mama”?
Well, a “Kyoiku mama” is a mother who takes things to the extreme and is overly invested in her child’s academic excellence.
We are talking about a parent that identifies their self-worth with the success or failure of their child and has a hard time seeing themselves outside of this paradigm.
This sort of heavy involvement can have detrimental effects for both the mother and the child.
However, reading this, you might be thinking that even the normal level of involvement shown by Japanese mothers can be deleterious.
After all, isn’t academic excellence a personal journey that builds character and highlights an individual’s ability?
That’s not how the Japanese see it. They believe that academic achievement can only be attained through coordinated effort and cooperative planning, making academia a social rather than individual journey.
7. Shouganai (しょうがない)
The literal meaning of “Shouganai” is “there is no method” or “there is no way.”
The word itself is made up of two other words. “Nai” means “there isn’t,” and “Shou” means “way or method.”
However, “Shouganai” earns its spot on our list for two reasons.
Firstly, the way it is used differs from its literal meaning.
Secondly, understanding it can help us better appreciate Japanese culture.
“Shouganai” is used to mean “it can’t be helped.” The closest English translation would be something along the lines of “it is what it is” or “there’s nothing I can do about it,” both of which fall short as you shall soon see.
People use “Shouganai” when they are inconvenienced by something that is out of their control.
For example, if you are stuck in meeting that went a little bit too long, making you miss your appointment with your friends, then you can say “Shouganai.”
What you would basically be saying is “even though this is not ideal, there is nothing I can do about it. So, I’m going to accept it.” Think of it as shrugging your shoulders.
Although you will run into countless situations every day that warrant a “Shouganai,” you should only use the word whenever the situation is benign in the grand scheme of things.
In other words, if your friend loses a loved one, you really shouldn’t say “Shouganai.”
It is also worth noting that “Shouganai” is a very versatile term, one that you can use in a plethora of situations. Additionally, there are different versions of it, each of which is suitable for different conditions.
The more formal version is “Shikata ga nai,” and if you want to take it one more step, you can use “Shikata ga arimasen,” a fancier and more formal version.
If this is still not formal enough for you, you can go with “Itashikatanai,” which you should only use if you’re ever stuck in traffic with the emperor of Japan sitting shotgun.
So, how does understanding “Shouganai” help us learn more about the Land of the Rising Sun?
You see, “Shouganai” is reflective of a mindset that is pervasive among the Japanese.
Simply put, the Japanese believe that there are very few things we control in this world, and accepting this lack of control can be a source of power and contentment.
Ergo, they believe that, when faced with an uncontrollable situation, the best response is to control our reactions and accept our limitations.
It is difficult to discern whether this mentality owes its existence within Japanese culture to Shintoism or Buddhism.
Japan and the arts
A big part of Japanese culture revolves around art and aesthetics.
The Japanese have produced breathtaking works of art, have written about the nature of art and beauty, and have been offering the world mesmerizing poetry for over a thousand years.
Before going further, it is worth understanding how Japanese culture influenced their art.
For starters, classical Japanese philosophy perceives the world as an impermanent place. Everything changes, and nothing ever stays the same.
This concept of an ever-changing reality, which the Japanese call “Mujo,” can be found in the teachings of Zen master Dogen, who is considered as one of the most influential Japanese philosophers.
You can also find the same concept in the works of Buddhist priests, including Yoshida Kenko.
According to Buddhist tradition, even though we should be aware of the impermanent nature of things, this knowledge shouldn’t cripple us or cause us to despair.
Instead, it should act as an invitation to enjoy the present moment and make the most of it.
It is also am opportunity for us to be grateful for being granted this moment.
Japanese art has always tried to portray this impermanence, in one way or another.
8. Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
The first aesthetic idea we will look into is “Mono no aware,” which literally translates to “the pathos of things.” If we were to look at each word, we would find that “Mono” means “things,” “Aware” can mean “pathos,” “sorrow,” or “misery.”
Basically, “Mono no aware” attempts to capture the feeling of melancholy that can wash over us as we realize that nothing lasts forever.
It is supposed to be a bittersweet feeling, one that marks the passage of youth, the inevitable death of a romance, and the constant change of seasons.
However, feeling melancholic is not the same as mourning the impermanence of these things.
Rather, the Japanese believe that it is their fleeting nature that makes things valuable, and we should cherish and appreciate that.
After all, impermanence is the source of all beauty.
One of the biggest ways the Japanese have applied “Mono no aware” in their lives is through their appreciation of cherry blossom trees. Remember “Hanafubuki”?
Well, cherry blossom trees, or “Sakura” as the Japanese call them, are very delicate plants that only bloom for around 14 days a year.
They signal the arrival of spring. So, in addition to offering people a beautiful scene as their pink petals fall to the ground, cherry blossom trees have been a symbol of constant change.
All this said, “Mono no aware” is a very complex notion, one that deserves pages upon pages of analysis just so that it can be done justice.
It has influenced Japanese art and has been a pillar of how the Japanese see the world.
You can see the influence of “Mono no aware” in the films of Ozu Yasujiro, in the novel of Murasaki Shikibu, and the Japanese poetry of the eighth century.
9. Wabi (侘)
“Wabi” is used to describe the loneliness that comes with living in nature.
However, if “Mono no aware” were an invitation to rejoice in the impermanence of things, then “Wabi” would be an invitation to appreciate things at all times, not just during certain moments.
Put differently, instead of paying attention to the cherry blossom tree when it is only at full bloom, “Wabi” asks us to always pay attention to these gorgeous plants.
The idea is that in the eternal flux of time, the only true way we can embrace the impermanence of things is by realizing that every moment is special and that no one moment should be privileged above the rest.
“Wabi” is an invitation to appreciate understated beauty, the beauty that lies in the imperfections of things.
In fact, according to the “Wabi” aesthetic, a tool with a small imperfection can be more beautiful than a perfect one, and a well-repaired utensil is to be preferred to one that is wholly intact.
Hence, “Wabi” is a strong influence on the Japanese art of “Kintsugi,” which is the repairment of broken pottery using gold.
Aside from “Kintsugi,” “Wabi” has influenced several other facets of Japanese art. For instance, a large part of Japanese culture revolves around tea, making an art out of it, and you will find the concept of “Wabi” in full force there.
“Wabi” has also affected Japanese poetry, inspiring poets to notice the beauty in things that you and I may have never given a second look.
It has also changed how Japanese architects view space, making them rethink the interplay between light and shadows.
10. Sabi (寂)
The term “Sabi” comes from the word “Sabireru,” which when translated gives us “to become desolate.”
When it first was used in the Manyoshu, a classic anthology of Japanese poetry that dates back to the eighth century, the word connoted desolateness.
However, with the passage of time, “Sabi” came to refer to things that have aged well, become rusty, and have garnered a patina that makes them alluring.
For the Japanese, the concept of “Sabi” represents many things, the most obvious of which is the beauty born out of old age.
But, “Sabi” also brings to mind the wisdom that comes with experience and insight, and it also brings forth the feelings of tranquility, aloneness, and profound solitude.
To better understand why “Sabi” is such an integral concept for Japanese society, you need to realize that the concept has existential dimensions for them.
You see, it’s not just that the Japanese love antique things, that they like anything that looks weathered and battered by Father Time.
To the Japanese culture, old things are a connection to the past, a connection that can never be replicated by modern technology and today’s shiny gizmos.
Moreover, since old things are usually made from natural materials, they can act as a reminders of our connection to Mother Nature.
If you want to appreciate the effect “Sabi” has had on Japanese art, you needn’t look farther than the domain of architecture.
“Sabi” has inspired the Japanese to choose natural materials for their buildings, materials that age well. Even their design of the toilet has been influenced by “Sabi.”
11. Yūgen (幽玄)
This may be one of the hardest words to translate on this list. It’s definition is very contextual, and the emotion that it tries to capture is ineffable. Nevertheless, let’s try to understand the word all the same.
“Yugen” was originally taken from Chinese philosophical texts where it meant “deep” or “mysterious.”
Later on, when the Japanese used it, the term described the sublime depth that can be found in the simplest of things. When used with poetry, “Yugen” referred to the profundity inherent in the vaguest of references.
If all of this still doesn’t make sense to you, then all you need to know is that “Yugen” is used to talk about a deep sense of beauty within the universe around us, a universe where human suffering may be inevitable, yet there is beauty in that as well.
And, once we are aware of this beauty, something gets triggered in us, something so strong and visceral that words cannot begin to describe.
“Yugen” describes the feeling you get when you look up at the night sky and watch a tapestry containing billions upon billions of stars, and as you are observing this scenery, you are struck by how small you are and how you are essentially riding on a large rock hurtling through space, revolving around another star 93 million miles away.
“Yugen” requires our active participation and engagement with the world around us. It asks us to use our imagination and find the beauty that can hide in plain sight.
You see why this concept may be difficult to explain?
However, we need to try to understand it because it does form an essential part of Japanese culture and is a pillar of Japanese aesthetics.
“Yugen” is part of the reason why Japanese culture prefers allusive suggestion over explicit and complete statements.
It has also influenced Japanese art in numerous ways. It enriched No drama, which is a great theater tradition.
In fact, “Yugen” was considered as the highest principle within No drama. “Yugen” also affect landscape painting, changing both how artists saw landscapes and how viewers engaged with paintings.
Bonus Word: Yoroshiku (よろしく)
Of all the words in this list, yoroshiku is probably the most common, and yet also one of the least easily understood.
Yoroshiku is actually the adverbial form of yoroshii, which just means “good; all right; will do.” In practice, you’ll hear yoroshiku used in this uncomplicated way quite a lot. However, the rabbit hole goes deeper.
In regular use, yoroshiku has no direct way to be translated, but acts as a way to engender goodwill between people, either when first introduced, or when making a request, or on special occasions.
You’ll hear it (and use it!) every time you meet someone new, usually with onegaishimasu added at the end, and sometimes with dozo added to the beginning (tack these on for extra politeness!).
“Hi, I’m Edwin. (Dozo)-yoroshiku-(onegaishimasu).”
There’s no natural way to translate it, but if we wanted to do it awkwardly, we might say it means, “Let’s get on well!”
You can also use yoroshiku to soften a request.
“I have to leave early, can you close the shop yourself, please? Yoroshiku!”
Or, you can use it when working on something together to wish well on your joint project. “Okay, so I’ll do the powerpoint, you make the handouts. Yoroshiku!”
It’s good for any situation where you’ll be interacting with a person for some time to come.
“I’m honored to be marrying your daughter and be joining your family. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!”
“Glad to have you working with us on the new client. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
It’s also used at New Years, to wish well on the year ahead. The full expression is:
“This year as well, let’s work well together.”
And, if you want to say something akin to, “Say hi to X for me!” yoroshiku is there to save the day.
oji-chan ni yoroshikutte ne
Say hi to Grandpa for me, ‘kay?
Haha wa yoroshiku to-itte-imashita.
Mom says hi.
shain-no-minna-sama nimo yoroshiku-otsutaekudasai
Give my regards to all the employees!
The beauty of language
Here at Linguablog, we have always tried to appreciate words and their power to bring us closer together.
However, I have always felt that the true beauty of language can be seen when it becomes more than just a conduit for your ideas.
Language can be truly awe-inspiring when it can transport to a different place or a different time, when it can teach you about a different culture and give you a taste of what it might be like to live among them.
In this article, we have focused on the Japanese culture, and by looking at a few words that were unique to this culture, we were able to walk away with a much deeper understanding of this truly unique society.
Obviously, you can never learn everything there is to know about a society from a few words, but they might just be enough to give you something to talk about the next time you make a new Japanese friend.
If you still have some appetite for more untranslatable words, why don’t you head over to our article on 11 Untranslatable German Words? You won’t believe #4 is an actual German word… but it certainly is!
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.