“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”
‒ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Do you agree with this quote? I know I do.
Many languages have beautiful and unique words which cannot be translated precisely. These words often represent concepts which are so unique to that culture, there is simply no equivalent in any other language.
We’ve collected 12 of our favourite beautiful Japanese words with no exact English equivalent.
Of course, most of these ‘untranslatable words’ can be translated literally – after all, we did our best to provide translations in this article!
But the concepts are unique, and so they require some explanation for English speakers.
The interesting thing about these Japanese words with deep meaning is that they reveal a lot about the Japanese character. Many of these words reflect Buddhist concepts which are unknown to most Westerners, but are central ideas in Japanese society.
By learning these unique Japanese words, you are one step closer to understanding the Japanese soul.
Shinrinyoku literally translates as ‘forest bath’. It refers to taking a walk in the forest for its restorative and therapeutic benefits. Can’t you feel yourself relaxing as you soak up all the lovely green light? Scientists have actually found that walking in the forest has many health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and stress hormones. It seems the Japanese are one step ahead with their shinrinyoku practise!
Komorebi is an aesthetic Japanese word meaning ‘the sunlight filtered through leaves on trees’. This is a beautiful word to describe a beautiful moment. You can enjoy some komorebi while taking your shinrinyoku!
Kuidaore means something like ‘to eat yourself bankrupt’. The word implies a kind of extravagant love of good food and drink – so much love that you will happily spend all your money on it! It comes from the words 食い (kui – eating) and 倒れる (daoreru – to go bankrupt, be ruined).
Kuidaore has come to be associated with the Dōtonbori district in Osaka, famed for its many restaurants and nightlife spots. You have been warned!
Here’s one for the book lovers. Tsundoku is the practise of acquiring books and letting them pile up, unread. Anyone who just loves books but doesn’t have time to read them as fast as they buy them will understand this one. It uses the words 積む (tsumu – to pile up) and 読 (doku – to read). It’s also a clever pun, because tsunde oku means ‘pile up and leave’.
Wabi-sabi means imperfect or incomplete beauty. This is a central concept in Japanese aesthetics, which comes from Buddhist teachings on the transient nature of life. A pot with a uneven edges is more beautiful than a perfectly smooth one, because it reminds us that life is not perfect.
A Japanese craftsman will intentionally add in a small flaw after completing his perfect work in honour of this concept.
Another cool Japanese word, kintsugi (金継ぎ), also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い), is the practise of mending broken pottery with gold or silver to fill the cracks. This is a perfect example of wabi-sabi. Rather than rejecting a broken item, you can find a way to make it even more beautiful. This practise accepts the break as part of the object’s unique history.
Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
Mono no aware can be translated as ‘the sadness of things’. It comes from the words 物 (mono – thing) and 哀れ (aware – poignancy or pathos). The ‘sadness’ in question comes from an awareness of the transience of things, as taught by Zen Buddhism.
When we view something exceptionally beautiful, we might feel sad because we know it won’t stay so beautiful forever – but appreciation only heightens the pleasure we take in the beautiful thing in that moment.
The best example of mono no aware in Japanese culture is hanami, the ritual of appreciating the cherry blossoms each year. Cherry blossom are very special to the Japanese, but the flowers bloom for only two weeks in the springtime. We appreciate the flowers even more because we know they will fall soon.
Irusu is when somebody you don’t want to speak to rings your doorbell, and you pretend nobody’s at home. I think people do this the world over, even if other languages don’t have such a concise word for it!
Here’s a cute one! A nekojita is a person who is sensitive to hot foods and drinks. It literally translates as cat tongue! It’s made from the two words 猫 (neko – cat) and 舌 (shita – tongue). Do cats really hate hot things? I don’t know, but this cute Japanese word implies that they do!
The sad Japanese word karoshi means death from overworking. Tragically, the fact that there is a word for this in Japanese also tells you something about Japanese culture.
Karoshi is usually associated with Japanese salarymen who work in a corporate culture of extreme long hours. The Japanese Ministry of Labour official defines karoshi as when somebody works over 100 hours of overtime in the month before their death. The phenomenon reached an all time high in 2016.
If you live in Japan, this one will be very useful for you! Shoganai means ‘it can’t be helped’. It’s a fatalistic resignation to a situation that is out of your control. It is often used to mean that there is no point complaining about a situation, because you will not have the power to change it.
Some people suggest that the concept of shoganai is why Japanese people remain so stoic in the face of natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes.
The beautiful Japanese word natsukashii is often translated as ‘nostalgic’. However, whereas nostalgia is a sad emotion in English, natsukashii is associated with positive (yet poignant) feelings. Something is natsukashii if it allows you to relive happy memories of the past. It comes from the verb natsuku (懐く), meaning ‘to become attached to’, and could also be loosely translated as ‘fondly remembered’ or ‘beloved’. This warm but wistful feeling makes it one of the most aesthetic Japanese words.
Yoroshiku is probably the most common word on this list, and the word you’re most likely to come across if you’re a beginner studying Japanese! Still, yoroshiku is a great example of an untranslatable Japanese word.
Yoroshiku can mean different things in different contexts but the basic meaning is ‘please be good to me’. Of course, that sounds pretty awkward in English, which is why it’s so difficult to translate.
Depending on the context, yoroshiku or its more formal version, yoroshiku onegaishimasu could be translated as ‘nice to meet you’, ‘best wishes’, ‘I look forward to working with you’, ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. We usually say it when we first meet someone, when we ask someone for a favour, when we are about to start a project together, or when we simply want to express good will.
This is another unique, untranslatable Japanese word that even beginners should know. Japanese people always say itadakimasu before eating. Since we don’t have an equivalent word in English, we often borrow from another language to translate it – the French phrase bon appétit!
However, even this is not a true translation. The key meaning of itadakimasu is gratitude for the food. When you say itadakimasu, you are thanking everyone and everything involved in putting the food on your table – from the farmers, the shopkeepers and the chefs to the food itself. Perhaps, spiritually, it’s closer to saying the Christian tradition of saying grace before a meal.
Itadakimasu comes from the verb itadaku (頂く / いただく ), which is the humble form of the verb ‘to receive’. You can also say it when receiving a physical object, or asking for a favour.
The dictionary has several translations of bimyou: subtle, delicate, doubtful, complex. As if that isn’t vague enough, bimyou has another kind of usage as a Japanese slang word.
Japanese people often describe something as bimyou when they don’t care or don’t really like it, but they don’t want to say that directly. It can also be a way to say something is unnecessary or a little bit off. And if you respond to an invitation with bimyou, that’s basically an indirect way to say no in Japanese. Depending on the context, in English we might say ‘meh’, ‘not really’ or ‘hmmm…’.
Thanks to reader Curi for suggesting this beautiful Japanese word! Yūgen means something like ‘profound, mysterious beauty’. It is often used in the context of a deep emotional response to art, literature, or the beauty of the natural world. It also can imply a level of sadness at the suffering of the human condition.
This is the feeling you might get when you watch a beautiful sunset or stare out at the ocean, and think about how small you are in the context of the universe. Yūgen has a big influence on Japanese art forms such as landscape painting and Noh theatre.
Ikigai is a beautiful Japanese word that refers to one’s life purpose or reason to live. This is another one where we often borrow the translation from French, because we lack the words in English: raison d’être.
It’s the thing that gives us a reason to get out of bed each morning. It could be work, a hobby, family or something else. Some experts suggest that ikigai is one reason why people live so long in Japan.
Of all the Japanese words with meaning in this article, ikigai is one that could literally change your life!
Wa can be translated as harmony or peace. It can carry meanings such as avoiding conflict, preserving social unity, and visual harmony (for example, presenting your food beautifully on your dinner plate!)
Wa is a central concept in Japanese culture that affects everything from architecture to workplace politics. In fact, it is so central in Japan that wa is the old name for Japan, and it is used to refer to Japanese style things (as opposed to western/foreign). Some useful Japanese words using ‘wa’ in this way are:
- 和風 (wafuu) – Japanese style (e.g. food, restaurant)
- 和室 (washitsu) – Japanese style room
- 和服 (wafuku) – traditional Japanese clothing
- 和紙 (washi) – Japanese paper
Koi no yokan (恋の予感)
In English, we often talk about ‘love at first sight’. Koi no yokan is slightly different: it’s when you meet someone and perhaps you don’t fall in love straight away, but you have a very strong feeling that you will fall for them in the future! It can be translated literally as ‘love’s premonition’.
The cool Japanese word kuchisabishii translates literally as ‘lonely mouth’. Sounds cute, right? It’s used when you eat mindlessly, perhaps because you’re bored, rather than hungry. Your mouth is lonely and you’ve got to fill it up! You can say it about cigarettes as well as food.
Mottainai can most simply be translated as ‘wasteful’, but the full meaning goes deeper than that. Like many of the words on this list, mottainai has its roots in Buddhism and the concept that all things are precious.
You will typically hear people say it if someone wastes food, or throws away an object that could be reused. You can also say it about yourself to seem humble. For example, if someone gives you a gift and you say mottainai, you’re saying ‘don’t waste this beautiful object on me! I’m not worth it!’ Similarly, you could say it about your partner, to mean that you don’t deserve such a great person in your life.
Bureikou is a situation where you can be completely at ease: all pressure’s off, you can say and do what you like, and you don’t have to worry about status or hierarchy. An example of a bureikou is a company party when bosses and employees get drunk together and can speak as equals. Since social hierarchy is usually very important in Japan, holding a bureikou party is a way that bosses can encourage their employees to relax.
Coincidentally, this word is easy to remember because it sounds a bit like the English word break.
The kanji of furusato (故郷) mean old (故) village (郷). It is usually translated as ‘hometown’. However, although at first glance this word seems to have a simple translation, I would class furusato as an untranslatable Japanese word because it carries a lot of nuances that are missing from the English word!
For a start, furusato has rural connotations. While it can be used to describe someone’s literal hometown or birthplace (especially by people from the countryside), it is sometimes used to talk about the Japanese countryside in general. It’s a romantic, nostalgic word and conjures images of a traditional way of life.
People born in Tokyo would not describe the city as their furusato, but they might use that word to talk about their grandparents’ place in the country. The feeling is something like a ‘spiritual homeland’. Furusato is a common theme in Japanese music, literature and art.
Majime is an adjective that is usually translated as ‘serious’. Again, while at first glance this seems easy to translate, it’s kind of an untranslatable Japanese word because it has slightly different connotations in Japanese than in English. Other ideas evoked by this word are earnest, responsible, reliable and trustworthy.
In English, ‘serious’ can often feel negative. If you describe someone as serious, you might be saying that they are too uptight and don’t know how to have fun. But in Japanese, majime is a positive quality that means you respect and trust someone. You would want to hire a majime employee for your business, or take a majime partner home to meet your parents!
Majime can be shortened to maji (マジ), often used in the format maji de?! (マジで) which is slang for ‘seriously?/no way!’
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Do you know any beautiful or untranslatable Japanese words? Share them with us in the comments!
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