What is Wasei Eigo?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Do you sometimes hear Japanese people uttering English words that sound more like Japanese? Do you see English words written on merchandise whose meanings are somewhat obscure? Well, that’s probably Wasei Eigo in action.

A sort of homegrown English has made its way into written and spoken Japanese, and this is what Wasei Eigo is. Wasei Eigo (和製英語) could be translated any number of ways: Japanese English, Japanized English, Japanese anglicisms, Japanglish, or Japanese-inspired English. Wasei (和製) means “Japan-made” and Eigo (英語) means “English language.” Just as the kanji characters indicate, Wasei Eigo isn’t quite English and isn’t quite Japanese—it’s a unique creation!

A telltale sign that something is Wasei Eigo is that it is written in katakana. Read more here for an overview of the Japanese language and the hiragana, katakana, and kanji writing system of Japan.

The following is a summary of how Wasei Eigo came to be and what this unique cultural phenomenon is all about.

The History of Wasei Eigo

Every language has loanwords from contact with other people and cultures, and Japanese is no exception. Japan has just taken English loanwords and pseudo-loanwords to a higher level!

English words have long been affiliated with fashion, food, entertainment, and modern culture in Japan. English words are seen and heard everywhere on the latest products and brands, popular songs, and everyday phrases. By the way, it’s not just English, but also vocabulary from other languages such as French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese that stand out in Japanese sentences.

English first cropped up in Japanese when Japan opened its doors to the outside world during the Meiji Era (1868). Early on, business owners started promoting products using English catch phrases and other foreign words. Take a loanword like hochikisu (ホチキス or ホッチキス), which means office stapler—originally from the US company Hotchkiss. Hochikisu is an English word with Japanese phonology that filled a semantic void because the item did not previously exist in Japan. Hochikisu is a quintessential example of Wasei Eigo.

In addition to English as a language of trade, English has been taught to Japanese school children for many years—these days, from about the 5th grade on. Japanese people are quite familiar with English from a young age. Even if they aren’t as comfortable with functional, conversational English, youngsters like to play around with the English language and create neologisms.

Wasei Eigo derives less from formal avenues, like education and geopolitics, and more from pop culture and brand marketing within Japan. Sprinkling English words and phrases into Japanese gives it a modern, hip, youthful vibe. Using another language to convey romance or vulnerability is also a nice way to ditch one’s inhibition. Maybe that’s why you hear pop singers in Japan crowing “please, Baby” and “I love you” in a string of Japanese. (If you want to know more about expressing love in Japanese, check out How to Say I Love You in Japanese!)

It should be emphasized that a native English speaker does not automatically understand the meaning of Wasei Eigo. In the case of hochikisu, the brand name became the name for the object, such as with the word Kleenex. Oftentimes, the original meanings have morphed into a different idea entirely.

What are Examples of Wasei Eigo?

Classic loanwords often retain their basic original meaning, and the Wasei Eigo phrase is pretty clear. Take the word “salaryman” (sarariman サラリーマン ), which means “office worker” or “white collar worker” in Japanese. Wasei Eigo, on the other hand, is more of a pure Japanese invention, such as “ice candy” (aisu kyandei アイスキャンディー) to mean “popsicle” or “Viking” (baikingu バイキング) to mean “smorgasbord buffet.”

There is a tendency to shorten longer English phrases to two, three, or four syllables to better match the phonology and morphology of Japanese. Also, words almost always end in a vowel in Japanese (a notable exception is the “n” sound), so Wasei Eigo follows this trend. A perfect example is potechi (ポテチ) for “pota(to) chi(p).” Another illustration is “mass communication” or “mass media” being referred to as masukomi (マスコミ).

A fun—and perhaps confusing—thing about Wasei Eigo is that the phrase can be half English and half Japanese. Karaoke (カラオケ)is a portmanteau that combines the Japanese word for “empty” (kara 空) with the first part of the English word “orchestra” (oke オケ). Another example is that a high-level employee can be called an erito shain (エリート社員 ), or “elite worker.” In this case, “elite” is written in katakana and shain, written in kanji, means “company worker.”

But beware—Wasei Eigo is often used to sugar coat taboo Japanese concepts! A risqué example is “cabaret” being abbreviated to kyaba and “club” being shortened to kura, resulting in kyabakura (キャバクラ) for “hostess club.” Another example is “image club” (imeji kurabu イメージクラブ), which relates to a brothel that involves costumes.

The next time you see or hear a not-exactly-Japanese but not-quite-English phrase, take a second and make sure you ask a Japanese person what it really means!

More Wasei Eigo Translations

The talent has an open car. (The celebrity has a convertible.)

Your ideas are one pattern. (Your ideas are repetitive.)

In our company, OLs are allowed to wear jipan. (In our company, office ladies are allowed to wear jean pants.)

That Y Shirt makes you look smart. (That white dress shirt makes you look slender.)

I need a new noto pasokon. (I need a new notebook/personal computer aka laptop.)

Can you go to the konbini and get me a sando or an American dog? (Can you go to the convenience store and get me a sandwich or a corn dog?)

You might image down if you go to a pink salon. (Your reputation might take a hit if you go to an erotic club.)

Japanese Words in English

English borrows words from many languages, too! Japanese words like kimono, sushi, futon, honcho, and karate are understood by English speakers, even though English speakers tend to butcher the original Japanese pronunciation.

Take the Japanese word ninja (忍者). The native Japanese word for ninja is shinobi, but westerners seemed to have latched on to the alternate word ninja. Nin (忍) means to “hold back, endure, stifle, hide.” Ja or sha (者) means “person.” This is because ninja were so stealthy and silent that they could wait in the wings and then appear out of nowhere. They were said to be masters of invisibility, martial arts, and shapeshifting—just like this Color Changing Yunomi Teacup: Ninja Design, whose image turns to a frog when hot and to a ninja when cool enough to drink!

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Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!