Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Japanese Words That Don't Translate Into English

Photo: Jessica Spengler on Flickr

Japanese Words That Don't Translate Into English


Most of you who have tried to learn Japanese know that it is a truly difficult language for native English speakers to master. According to a Voxy study it takes around 2,200 hours of study to become proficient in the language when compared to just 575 with Spanish which is closer to our native tongue.

Perhaps it is the three writing systems that the Japanese use, or the limited sounds, but us native speakers often struggle – only the truly dedicated will reach that hallowed turf of becoming fluent (I’m nowhere near!).

To top the things on the difficulty scale off, there are many interesting words in the Japanese language that simply don’t translate well into English.

We’ve compiled a list of just five to get your head around and learn off by heart...

5. 木枯らし Kogarashi

Photo by bill lapp on Flickr
Once the leaves turn the beautiful reds, yellows and browns that are associated with autumn in Japan, you may feel a cold wind that is labelled "Kogarashi" by the Japanese.

Kogarashi can be translated to the much longer ‘cold wind that lets us know that the onset of winter is upon us’ in English. Perhaps another translation could be ‘a chill in the air’ - that said, English speakers use that phrase all year round.

4. 木漏れ日 Komorebi

Photo by Tommie Hansen on Flickr
Have you ever wandered through a wood or forest on a beautiful sunny day? Chances are that you have and you will have experienced ‘Komorebi’ without ever knowing about it.

Roughly translated, Komorebi means ‘sunshine filtering through trees’ and is a classic example of Japan’s fascination with nature and the elements.

Such is the beauty of Komorebi it can often be found in Haiku and Japanese poetry.

3. 引きこもりHikikomori

Photo by Fuzzy Mannerz on Flickr
With the advent of modern technology such as the internet, TV and games, the Japanese have created a unique word to describe a person who has withdrawn themselves from society as a result of their reliance on the aforementioned things.

The Japanese Government classifies these people as ‘Hikikomori’ because they do not leave their house (even their bedroom) for a period of six months or longer, with an estimated 700,000 cases as far back as 2010.

2. 金繕い Kintsukuroi

Photo by NelC on Flickr
What happens when you drop a piece of beloved pottery? In the West, we’d reluctantly throw the pieces in the trash whereas the Japanese have a long tradition of repairing damaged pieces.

"Kintsukuroi" is the art of repairing pottery with gold, silver or platinum to join the broken pieces with the accident being considered a part of the pottery’s history.

The result of the repair is an even more beautiful piece than it was before sustaining the unfortunate damage.

1. 森林浴 Shinrinyoku

Photo by Sarah Marchildon on Flickr
Roughly translated into English ‘Shinrinyoku’ means a short, leisurely visit to a forest or wooded area or ‘Forest-bathing’. This heartwarming 'forest bath' is a gratifying activity meant to cleanse your body and soul. The Japanese have a long-held belief that Shinrinyoku greatly improves physical and mental health so is a popular pastime in the country.

According to World Bank data, 68.5% of Japan is covered with forests so it is only natural that a word sprang up to describe such leisurely visits.