(Un)translatables: Japanese Top Ten

by | May 17, 2019 |

(Un)translatables – my term – are words in one language that may take a paragraph to explain in another language … and still not quite get it right. (Title Image: Hokkaido University, kanji: ‘Japanese language’)

All languages have them. Japanese has some really good ones.

(Un)translatables in Japanese: The Bad

#1 . hikikomori

hiki = ‘pull’ + komori = ‘stay inside’

Shut-in syndrome. It affects young adults, mostly men, and can last for years. The shut-ins commune with the outside world only through their gadgets.


When a condition rises to the level of being named, you know you have a problem. Japan does know it.

#2. karōshi

ka = ‘too much’ + = ‘burden’ + shi = ‘to die’

Death By Overwork. Once again, here is a named condition (or, rather, named state, since you die). The US has Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is unexplained. Japan has Sudden Occupational Mortality Syndrome, which can be explained.

The causes are heart attack and stroke due to stress and sometimes starvation. It’s a complex historical and social problem which has been recognized and studied for quite a few decades now.

#3. mottainai

“Mottainai!” can be uttered as an exclamation of “What a waste!”

It is the feeling of depression you have when you have wasted something like your time or your money.

Your mother might tell you that a mottainai obake ‘waste ghost’ will come to get you if you’re not careful. Because it’s Japan, mottainai obake can be found as stickers – by which I mean that everything here turns into a sticker, sooner or later.

The concept of mottainai has been picked up by the environmentalists. In a way, then, the negative sense of the word in Japanese can have a positive impact in the world.

(Un)translatables in Japanese: The Good

#4. danshari

dan = ‘cut’ + sha = ‘throw away’ + ri = ‘leave’

Danshari is the practice of getting rid of the stuff you don’t need. The most succinct expression of it in English might be “jettison cargo.” For me, I got religion, namely Decluttering, in the mid-1990s.

The danshari movement in Japan predates the Marie Kondo phenomenon, of which she, of course, is a proponent.

My Uncluttered Ideal is the Zen Temple Genkō-an in Kyoto, built in 1346.


When we visited it, I said to Rimi, “Now, here is a place that has remained clutter-free for hundreds of years.” She laughed and said she thought the clutter was regularly removed and put somewhere else.

#5. ikigai

iki = ‘life’ + kai = ‘you find something happy, you realize hopes and dreams ‘ (phonetic note: iki+kai = ikigai)

My Japanese teacher, Sayako, mentioned this 2018 book which is apparently a big deal world-wide. The subtitle sums it up. You could also call ikigai “the reason to jump out of bed in the morning.”


I have now downloaded the book. Heck, yeah, I want to experience ikigai! (I kind think I do already. We’ll see.)

#6. kaizen

A slogan comes into my head: ‘the constant pursuit of excellence’

I remember first encountering this word through Toyota ads, probably in the 1980s or 90s.

#7. omotenashi

omote = ‘public face’ + nashi = ‘nothing’

‘every service is from the bottom of the heart, no hiding, no pretending’ = ‘generous welcome’

On my last dinner with Harasan and her family, I received a special bento box at the dinner table. There were five other people at dinner, including my son, but I was the only one to receive the bento. It was an example of omotenashi, because I was the oldest and I was leaving Japan.

This is how it looked:


Half-Japanese, half-French Christel Takigawa made an eloquent speech to the International Olympic Committee emphasizing omotenashi and intrigued the world with the way the Japanese receive guests. Not flawless skills but a pure heart in receiving someone.

Japan will host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

(Un)translatables: The Worth Knowing

Good news so far: the good (un)translatables in Japanese outweigh the bad! So, to continue:

#8. otaku

Otaku used to mean ‘a young person obsessed with computers or aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.’ Such people were at first associated with hikikomori (shut-ins, see above), and the word had a justifiably negative meaning.

However, semantic change happens all the time in language, and otaku has undergone what linguists call ‘amelioration’ or ‘elevation,’ a meaning improvement over time.

After the word ‘otaku’ was taken up by the international community, it began to refer to someone who has great interest in one thing and who might be a homebody but not a shut-in. He (or she, but probably he) may be a quiet person, but one who is sociable.

Similarly, the word ‘nerd’ once had a negative meaning, and now nerds rule the world.

#9. tokimeki


This word came up in one of my Japanese classes in connection with Marie Kondo, the danshari proponent mentioned above. Her phrase ‘spark joy’ – tokimeki – helps you decide whether or not to keep an object. If it doesn’t spark joy, then you need to get rid of it.

According to my teacher, Sayako, tokimeki is akin to the feeling of having a crush on someone for the first time.

In Japan the word seems to be overly associated with cutesy girl bands and an explosion of pinks and purples and blues. A quick Google search pulls up tons of this:

#10. wabi-sabi

wabi = ‘rustic simplicity’ + sabi = ‘taking pleasure in the imperfect’

Is it something like ‘the flaw that makes the thing beautiful’? That’s what I had thought. Sayako thought the term was more associated  with peace and tranquility. Wikipedia defines it as ‘the acceptance of transience and imperfection.’ So maybe both ideas – hers and mine – work.


See also: Japan Archives

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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