Kid looking surprised with English words around him
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English words that have completely different meanings in Japan

Don't be fooled by familiar words like 'Viking' and 'mansion' – they've got a life of their own in Japanese

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen

Japan has an entire alphabet dedicated to words borrowed from abroad, known as katakana. It's common to use English or other foreign vocabulary to refer to everyday items such as pens or t-shirts, but some borrowed words have entirely different meanings in Japan. These words are referred to as wasei eigo in Japanese – English words that have taken on a whole new life in Japan. Save yourself from getting lost in translation by studying up on these commonly used Japanified terms with different meanings.

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In Tokyo, most people live in mansions, but that's only because 'mansion' (pronounced as 'manshon') in Japan refers to what the rest of the world might recognise as an apartment building. The word 'apartment' or apato is also used in Japan, but it's more often used to describe structures of two to three storeys as opposed to a high-rise building.

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Tension, in English, is normally something you would want to avoid, like stress or emotional strain. In Japan, however, 'tension' (pronounced as 'tenshon') refers to the state of feeling buoyant or high in energy. People often use phrases such as 'high in tension' or 'good tension' to comment on someone's noticeably happy disposition.

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The word 'fight', often a physical exchange or argument in the west, is used as encouragement in Japan. People often use 'fight' (pronounced as 'faitoh') interchangeably with ganbare ('do your best') when cheering someone on at a sports competition or inspiring them to keep working on a difficult assignment.

Martial arts
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The origin story of the word for 'buffet' in Japanese dates back to the 1950s when a Japanese hotel manager travelled to Sweden and experienced a smörgåsbord-style meal for the first time. The manager decided to introduce the all-you-can-eat experience to guests back in Japan, but felt that 'smörgåsbord' was a little too difficult to pronounce. Instead, he took the word 'Viking' (pronounced as 'baikingu' in Japan) from the title of a film that had just been released locally. Apparently, the name seemed appropriate since both smörgåsbords and Vikings come from Northern Europe.

Coffee barista
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The German word for work is also used in Japan, but it refers to a more specific type of labour. The Japanese say arubaito or simply baito, when referring to a part-time job or a position that pays by the hour.

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Old phonograph records are often called vinyl records after the polyvinyl chloride used to make them. But in Japan, 'vinyl', which is pronounced as 'biniiru', means the plastic shopping bags you get at supermarkets or konbini. So before you tell people about your big vinyl collection at home, make sure they know you're talking about records.  

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Rather than a bitter thirst for vengeance against someone who has wronged you, seeking 'revenge' (pronounced as 'ribenji') in Japanese is a more personal pursuit, where you try to succeed at something for a second time. Didn't get the score you wanted on that test? Get your revenge by studying for the next one. Failed at making soufflé for the first time? Seek revenge by making one that rises the way it's supposed to.  

Air conditioning
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Warmer weather increases the use of coolers everywhere, but the coolers here are not the kind you can pop your drinks into for chilling. Instead, 'cooler' (pronounced as 'kuuraa') in Japanese refers to the vital indoor air conditioning units that save us from fainting in the sweltering summer heat. 

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