1. Kuchisabishi
    Design: Saiko MiyasatoKuchisabishi
  2. Otsukare
    Design: Saiko MiyasatoOtsukare
  3. Shouganai
    Design: Saiko MiyasatoShouganai

7 Japanese words and concepts anyone can relate to

Learn these common everyday terms from Japan – they will make your life easier and more fulfilling

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen
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As hard as we try to translate the exact nuances of a word or phrase from one language to another, sometimes we can’t help but wish certain Japanese words existed in the English vocabulary. While each word has a specific nuance to it, you’ll be surprised by how relevant they are to our daily life regardless of where you live.

From Japan’s favourite greeting to a specific word reserved for when you don’t feel like answering the door (no, it’s not ‘go away!’), these words carry so much depth that you simply can’t translate them into a single and compact word in English.

RECOMMENDED: Learn Japanese for free online

Kuchisabishi
Photo: Charles Wright/Unsplash

Kuchisabishi

Eating even when you’re not hungry is a habit that many people admit to having. Some attribute it to boredom, others call it comfort eating. In Japan, however, you’re likely experiencing kuchisabishi, or ‘loneliness of the mouth’.

Smokers trying to kick their cigarette habits are also likely to feel kuchisabishi – and they  might turn to chewing gum as most people do when mitigating their urge to smoke or comfort eat.

Shouganai
Photo: Malin/Unsplash

Shouganai

Shouganai’, or ‘can’t be helped’, is most often used when you’re acknowledging something that is out of your control and you’re resolving to make the best of it. ‘Shouganai’ is when someone you like doesn’t seem to reciprocate your feelings, or when it rains on a day you planned a picnic. It can also be used as encouragement for when you’re reminding someone that they shouldn't dwell on things they can’t change. 

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Otsukare
Photo: cheetah/photo-ac

Otsukare

More than ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’, Japanese people most commonly use ‘otsukare’ when greeting one another, especially at work. It simultaneously acknowledges seeing someone for the first time that day while also acknowledging their efforts.

Meeting a friend after a long workday? ‘Otsukare’. Picking up a phone call from a coworker? ‘Otsukare’. Going home after playing football with your mates? ‘Otsukare’. It’s saying ‘good work’, ‘good game’, ‘you must be exhausted!’ and ‘well done’, all in a single word – that’s just the kind of versatility we could use more of.

Bimyou
Photo: Jaelynn Castillo/Unsplash

Bimyou

Bimyou, or what can loosely be translated to as ‘lukewarm’, is like the Japanese equivalent of ‘meh’. The word can be used to describe anything that is mediocre, subpar or ‘not quite there’. You can use ‘bimyou’ to describe books or movies that fail to impress you, but it can also be used for more abstract concepts like an awkward window of time  when you've got a few hours to spare at an airport but just not enough to leave and come back, for instance  or a dubious weather forecast.

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Mendokusai
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Mendokusai

Some people describe cooking their own meals to be ‘mendokusai’. For school children, homework is especially ‘mendokusai’. The word generally refers to anything remotely dull or tedious that you are obliged to deal with or can’t avoid. However, ‘mendokusai’ can also be used to describe certain people or situations. Anyone mixed up in unnecessary drama or having to deal with a particularly difficult person are entitled to roll their eyes and exclaim that it’s all too ‘mendokusai’.

Mottainai
Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Mottainai

Having a hard time parting with clothes you never wear or throwing out expired condiments? ‘Mottainai’ is a colloquial term used when confronting the feeling of regret that comes with wastefulness. ‘Mottainai’ doesn’t only refer to items that you toss in the bin, but also perfectly good things that are left unused or sitting in storage. The term can also be used to describe a waste of talents or missed opportunities.  

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Irusu
Photo: Mollie Sivaram/Unsplash

Irusu

‘Irusu’, a word combining the Japanese terms for ‘here’ and' ignore’, is used to describe a situation where you’re home but don’t feel like answering the doorbell. If you have a sneaking suspicion that the person at your door is there to sell you another subscription plan you don’t need, you might feel tempted to just ‘irusu’.  

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