Japan is famous for its (attempts at using) English. Although there are times when the English you encounter in Japan is flawless, there is also quite a fair share of incredibly unusual English. I explained last time that Japanese do study English in their compulsory education and beyond and that even though they do spend years focusing on this as their primary foreign language, this “English” is still alive and well in Japan. I’d like to dig a little deeper into this and show that the reason for the unusual English encountered in Japan can be attributed to two potential causes: gairaigo and wasei eigo. (Of course, these aren’t the only reasons for such English.)

Gairaigo (外来語) are borrowings. These are often imported just as they are from the source language, but are obviously modified to work with the Japanese phonetic system. In recent decades, Japanese has borrowed a large number of words from English, but historically it has borrowed from a number of other European languages, including German, French, and Portuguese.

Gairaigo are usually comprehensible to speakers of the language from which they are borrowed, but one thing that can puzzle native speakers is the ways in which these are abbreviated. For example, the word for the popular snack potato chips has been borrowed from English as poteto chippusu, but as is probably obvious, the length of the word is relatively longer than the original English. English speakers would likely abbreviate this as simply chips, but Japanese speakers would abbreviate this as potechi. Both are equally valid ways to abbreviate the words, but to English speakers, the Japanese abbreviation would be totally unthinkable.

One additional issue with gairaigo is that Japanese often clump them all together as coming from English, regardless of their actual origin. Thus, you may be talking to your Japanese friend learning English about their plans for the day and they may casually drop into their conversation the following line:

“I’m going to go to my arubaito later.”

Arubaito? What the heck is that? If you speak or are in any way familiar with German, you might recognize this immediately as coming from Arbeiten (work). However, Japanese use this in a slightly different way. It is often used to refer to part-time jobs worked by college students. Thus, what your friend may have wanted to say was actually that they are going to go to their part-time job. Japanese also makes use of the English word part-time job, but often abbreviates it as paato (“part”) and uses it for part-time jobs worked mainly by housewives. By the way, our arubaito above can also be abbreviated as baito. Native German speakers may be scratching their head in confusion.

The second type of English is wasei eigo (和製英語). Literally, this means “English coined in Japan.” This English would be totally incomprehensible overseas, but some of it has gained currency in recent years. Let’s take a look at four examples.

  1. Rabu hoteru (ラブホテル), often abbreviated as rabuho (ラブホ), comes from the English words love and hotel. It’s probably fairly obvious the type of activities that go on in this hotel–couples often use these hotels to get in their… *ahem* alone time together. We’d often treat this as a motel in our translations, but you may also encounter them as love hotels, since they have gained currency overseas.
  2. Sarariiman (サラリーマン) comes from the English words salary and man. This one is also slowly gaining currency overseas, but we would probably prefer to use the English terms salaried worker, white-collared worker, company employee or businessperson. We would prefer to use the genderless alternatives to this, but in Japanese this specifically refers to males. The female equivalent is OL (オーエル, ooeru), derived from the initials of the English words office and lady. Apparently this term came into use around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but was predated by the term bijinesu gaaru (ビジネスガール), often abbreviated as BG. To English speakers, however, BG was often confused for meaning bar girl, and therefore fell out of popular use.
  3. Haafu (ハーフ) comes from the English word half. This doesn’t mean the half of something, but more of someone. This term is often used in Japan to refer to a person of mixed Japanese and non-Japanese blood. It feels rather derogatory to call someone “half” in English, so we would often refer to this person by their mix–e.g., “He’s half-Spanish, half-Japanese.” Remember the musician I discussed in the last Translation Challenges post? In the Japanese, he was often referred to as haafu.
  4. Nyuuhaafu (ニューハーフ) combines the English words new and half. You might guess that this is a “new” type of haafu discussed above, but you would be a little bit off. It does refer to a person, but has nothing to do with their ethnic background. Instead, it refers to a male-to-female transgendered individual. The word is said to have been coined in the 1980s by the musician Keisuke Kuwata.

The list of wasei eigo is endless, so I will save some to present in future Translation Challenges posts. These can be particularly challenging for the bilingual editor because the longer they live in Japan, the more desensitized they become to them. Wasei eigo is obviously not English, but it starts to make sense and feel like it could actually be English, so it occasionally slips through the editing cracks.

Have you encountered any wasei eigo in your life or manga reads? Feel free to share them with us in the comments below!