Exploring Japanese loanwords in English

Loanwords are words adopted from another language and there is almost no language that doesn’t make use of such terms. However, when such words are “borrowed” they do not necessarily preserve their original meaning. This is the reason why we often notice some drastic dissimilarities between the meaning of loanwords and their original definition in the “donor” language.

Today we are back with an article about the bizarre and unique words that English users have borrowed, incorporated, and made their own. The loanwords we are going to take a look at in this piece are of Japanese origin and although they sound pretty Japanese, English users rarely take a minute to think about where they came from. No, we are not going to enumerate the various examples of Japanese cuisine like sushi, ramen, tofu, wasabi, etc. We’re diving in the more interesting and peculiar Japanese loanwords that some of us use daily.


The definition of futon in English is a cotton-filled mattress usually framed in the shape of a couch, bed, or armchairs. The use of this Japanese loanword dates back to the late 19th century. In Japanese, a futon can also refer to a style of bedding that consists of a mattress and a duvet. A synonym for it in Japanese is kakebuton.


Sudoku is a puzzle game where a 9×9 grid of squares has to be filled with numbers from 1 to 9 in the right order. The journey of this Japanese loanword is quite interesting. A lot of people believe that Sudoku is a Japanese game but the first puzzle of this type has been published in a New York magazine in 1979 under the name of “Number Place”. The game then traveled to Japan, where it got renamed. The term Sudoku is actually short of sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru, meaning “the numerals must remain single”, which is the whole essence of the game. The Japanese loanword entered the vernacular in the early part of this century.

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The definition of a rickshaw is “a small, light vehicle with two wheels that is pulled by one person on foot or on a bicycle”. This word comes directly from Japanese adopting its meaning as well. The original term is jinrikisha, where jin stands for “man”, riki for “power” and sha for “carriage”. The vehicle was also created in Japan in the late 19th century.

Anime and manga

What is interesting about those two Japanese loanwords is that in Japanese they refer to the category of art in general, while in English those terms are used to indicate animation and comics of Japanese style, created in Japan. Anime in Japanese is actually short of the English loanword animēshiyon, while manga is an original Japanese word, which combines the particles man meaning “involuntary” and ga, “picture”.


Japanese loanwordsEmojis are small images and symbols used in electronic communication and web pages to express the emotion of the author. Many people believe than emoji comes from emotion, but it is actually adapted from the Japanese moji, which means “letter, character”. The particle e- is based on a Japanese ye, which means “drawing”.

As you can see, there is quite a contrast between the original meaning of loanwords and the one we assign to them in our vernacular. We’ve got these from some of our linguists, who believe people should ponder over the meaning of words and their origination more often. It is proved to be a great exercise for the mind and can also open people’s eyes about the deeper, more intimate ideas that words bear.

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