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Gairaigo: All You Need to Know About Loanwords in Japanese

By Maia Hall Oct 20, 2021

You may have heard the phrase ‘loanwords’ before (gairaigo in Japanese), perhaps even in the context of the Japanese language. Every language on the planet has loanwords, and they are important and interesting linguistic and cultural building blocks that make our lives and the way we are able to describe them to each other easier and more colorful.

All About Gairaigo, Japanese Loanwords

This article aims to break down loanwords in Japanese – their origin, patterns, common loanwords, history and cultural and societal significance – in a way that even someone who is not necessarily a linguist can understand and appreciate!

What Are Gairaigo?

Loanwords are essentially words that are ‘borrowed’ from one language and absorbed into another. Although the word ‘borrowed’ here is a little misleading (the recipient language does not usually give the word back to the donor language!), loanwords usually start off as ‘unnatural’ words in the recipient language but sometimes get fully adopted. Loanwords contribute to the continuously evolving nature of languages around the world and are an important example of linguistic globalization and cross border interaction.

As you may be aware, the Japanese language has relatively a lot of loanwords, and it is possible to spot patterns, trace back to the origin of loanwords and the historical and societal context of the time, and even predict the introduction of new ones as time goes by as well. Linguists around the world are endlessly fascinated by the topic of loanwords in Japanese, and it’s not difficult to see why!

gairaigo loanwords in japanese

In Japanese, loanwords are called ‘gairaigo’ or 外来語, which literally means ‘language that has come in from outside’ (a very literally description of loanwords if I ever did see one!). Another word you may have come across is ‘wasei-eigo’ or 和製英語, which is the term for ‘false friends’ or potentially misleading Japanese pseudo-Anglicisms. This is when a Japanese word sounds like it has been borrowed from English but in fact has a different meaning in Japanese (although the root may be similar) than in the original English. One such example is the word ‘kanningu’ カンニング, which sounds like it should mean ‘cunning’ but in fact means ‘cheating’ in Japanese.

What Kinds of Words Are Usually Borrowed in Japanese?

In Japanese, loanwords are mostly used to express concepts or things for which there is no original Japanese equivalent. Sometimes, they are used to be fashionable, or to follow a trend. Even if there is a direct equivalent, there can often also be a 50-50 balance of loanword-Japanese word usage, such a ‘miruku’ ミルク and ‘gyuunyuu’ 牛乳 for ‘milk’.

In Japanese, there are often also three different terms for one item or concept, and depending on the context, it is not unusual to see different usage. These three forms are: the kanji character compound word originally taken from the Chinese that is no longer really considered to even be a loanword, the simple Japanese phrasal word (often including hiragana characters), and the loanword borrowed from a different language altogether. The formality and rigidity of these three forms decrease as we move along from the Chinese word to the loanword. One clear example of this are the three forms for the idea of a ‘meeting’ or ‘conference’.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese

The original Chinese, ‘hard’ word for this would be ‘kaigi’ 会議, meaning ‘conference’. This has connotations of a very structured, organized and official or important gathering of people. If you are talking instead about a simple and more informal meeting, it might make more sense to use the Japanese word ‘uchiawase’ 打ち合わせ which encapsulates the nuances of this more. Finally, the loanword ‘miitingu’, coming from the English word ‘meeting’ might be used in an even more informal setting, depending on the context. Here we see a stark example of the slight variations in meaning depending on whether or not a loanword has been used.

The General Linguistic Pattern of Loanwords

If you are an English speaking learner of Japanese, you have almost certainly come across and perhaps even had a chuckle over the way some originally foreign words are pronounced when said in Japanese. For example, ‘dry cleaning’ when said in Japanese is ‘dorai kuriiningu’ ドライクリーニング, with additional vowels slotted in here and there. Loanwords in Japan are pronounced using Japanese pronunciation rules and the inventory of available syllables. Because in Japanese, most syllables (except ‘n’ ん) all end in a vowel sound, consonant clusters such as the ‘dr’ and ‘cl’ in ‘dry cleaning’ cannot exist in the same way and vowel sounds must be slotted in between or at the end. If your name ends in a consonant sound or includes a consonant cluster, you may have noticed this pattern in the way it is pronounced in Japanese. The usually monosyllabic ‘Tom’ becomesトム ‘Tomu’ with two syllables!

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, laundry

Other substitutes in terms of pronunciation must also occur when a particular sound does not exist in Japanese. For example, the English ‘th’ sound is often replaced with ‘s’ in Japanese. For example, ‘serapii’ セラピー (‘therapy’), the ‘v’ sound, which is sometimes accommodated for by the non-native addition of the two dashes ‘tenten’ on the katakana ‘u’ as in ‘video’ ヴィデオ, or the ever-confusing non-distinction between ‘l’ and ‘r’, such as ‘r/lajio’ ラジオ (‘radio’) and ‘r/laion’ ライオン (‘lion’).

Loanword representations in Japanese are also generally based on how the original word sounds rather than how it is spelled. For instance, ‘iced caffe latte’ (which is actually an Italian word borrowed into English in the first place!) is not ‘aisuto kafe rate’ アイストカフェラテin Japanese, but instead ‘aisu kafe rate’ アイスカフェラテ. Whereas in English, the adjective is sometimes ‘iced’ and not just ‘ice’, in Japanese, it is based off sound alone.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, conbini

Another interesting characteristic of loanwords in Japanese is their orthographic representation, or in layman’s terms, how they’re written. Loanwords in Japanese are almost always expressed in the visibly jagged katakana alphabet, making them easy to recognize even for the most elementary of Japanese speakers. For example, the Japanese word for ‘apartment’ would always be written in katana as アパート (‘apaato’) and never in hiragana as just あぱーと.

However, there are exceptions to this generalization over time, as some words that may originally have started off as a loanword (or indeed arguably still are, of course) are so integrated into Japanese that it has become commonplace to write them out in just hiragana. One example of this that is often seen in front of combini (a loanword in itself!) convenience stores is the Japanese word for cigarettes, ‘tabako’, written more commonly in hiragana as たばこ instead of in katakana タバコ. The word, of course, stems from the originally Spanish (but now also English) word ‘tobacco’.

Loanwords are by no means limited to being entirely borrowed. Sometimes in Japanese, there will be a combination of the Japanese and loaned words. Even a mix of kanji and katakana charctaers! For example ‘shokupan’ 食パン meaning ‘loaf of bread’ includes the kanji for ‘eat’ and the word ‘pan’ borrowed from the Portuguese ‘pão’ meaning ‘bread’. Also ‘shou-ene’ 省エネ meaning ‘conserving energy’, with the kanji for ‘conserve’ plus the shortened version of the loanword ‘enerugii’, or ‘energy’.


gairaigo loanwords in japanese, bread


As in this 省エネ example, many loanwords in Japanese are also abbreviated, or shortened, in a way that they might not be in the original language. This phenomenon is called ‘truncation’ in the field of linguistics. There are predictable patterns to this as well. For example, ‘jiipan’ ジーパン is a loanword derived from the English ‘jean(s) pants’ (albeit a slightly odd phrase in English). The first sounds are taken and squished together to make a shortened version of the otherwise longer ‘jiinzu pantsu’ ジーンズパンツ. Another example is ‘amefuto’ アメフト ‘American Football, which un-shortened would be ‘amerikan futtobooru’ アメリカンフットボール – quite a mouthful! Truncation is perhaps as a result of the above-average word-length of borrowed words in their unclipped form relative to natively Japanese words, either due to the arbitrary and relative shortness of Japanese words in comparison, or more often because of the additionally inserted vowel to adapt the combination of sounds to fit the structure of Japanese pronunciation.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, football

The History of Loanwords in Japan

Loanwords in Japanese originate in many different languages, from English (which is said to make up about 80% of all gairaigo), Portuguese (like ‘pan’ パン meaning ‘bread’), German such as ‘arubaito’ from ‘Arbeit’ meaning ‘work’ (or in the Japanese form, ‘part-time work’), Dutch, French, Korea, and a myriad more! Taking a step back and looking at loanwords and their origins, it is sometimes even possible to group them into broad themes. For example, many natively French and Italian loanwords are used for food, drink, art, music, and culture; many natively German loanwords are used in the field of medicine. This reflects the characteristics of the original native cultures and the flow and trade of material objects and ideas throughout history.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, pasta

The reason for variation in loanwords is often attributed to the large influx of English words in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as Japan underwent significant modernization after a long period of isolation. This all happened very quickly and with it came heavy Western and other cultural influence.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, map

Mainstream media and cultural trends also play a role in dictating how, why and how quickly loanwords cement themselves into everyday usage. Today, words are constantly being produced in the media in ways that make them seem fashionable, modern or cosmopolitan. After much common use, their meaning although at first might have been confusing or fluid, take form and become commonplace. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, loanwords are more often used among younger generations or those who keep up with the constantly changing face of linguistic and social trends.

New products, brands and ideas emerge from across the world in this age of globalization, and languages often cannot (or do not) evolve at quite the same speed. Names for concepts and themes are therefore quickly swept up by other countries, cultures and languages, resulting in the ever-increasing bank of gairaigo. For example, a recent global phenomenon that is very much in the limelight is ‘fake news’. The formal (originally Chinese) Japanese word for this is ‘kyogihoudou’ 虚偽報道 or simply ‘nise-nyuusu’ (another combined loanword!). However, more instantly recognizable even in Japan is the English form ‘feiku-nyuusu’ フェイクニュース as it is much more widespread in both the media and private conversations.

gairaigo loanwords in japanese, phone

What’s Your Favourite Japanese Loanword?

Do you think you now know more about loanwords in Japanese? Will you start to recognize them in your own surroundings or even in your own speech when you use Japanese? What are some of the gairaigo words you use or hear the most? Also what Japanese words do you use in English? There are some used worldwide that most people use without noticing they are actually from Japan! Loanwords and their evolution are so fascinating because they truly mirror society’s interconnectedness and constant fluctuation. Take a moment next time you’re out and about to notice the widespread use of gairaigo in everyday life in Japan!

Maia Hall // UK

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This post was originally posted on Sep 12, 2019 and was edited and reposted on 20th October 2021.