I’ve talked at length about how Japan struggles with English and why, and it continues to be a topic that is close to me: partly by nature of my job and also because I genuinely just want to see this country succeed in an area it has frequently performed in.
But it’s also just a tiny little bit motivated by frustration. Because the thing is Japanese as a language is so heavily influenced by English that a quarter of the time the locals are speaking English in some shape or form already, they just don’t realize it. Enter the concept of “Wasei-Eigo”.
“Wasei-Eigo” (和製英語) is the term for words that are formed from English words, though the words themselves are not actual English. So to be clear, Wasei-Eigo is something different from “Gairaigo” (外来語), which are loanwords that are straight up derived from the English language. For example, the word アメリカ (Amerika) is bonafide Gairaigo because it means, you guessed it, America (aka. The USA), and it is derived from the English word of the same meaning. How about a word like スキンシップ (Skinship)? Just take a moment to conjure up an idea in your head of what you think it means. The answer: It’s a word the Japanese use to describe the close relationship between mother and child, though the meaning has expanded to also mean intimacy through physical contact. Not quite what you were expecting, perhaps? Because despite the fact that ‘Skinship’ is clearly drawn from English words, it’s neither a word we use in English nor is the meaning immediately clear – to an English native, anyway.
Confused? You’re in good company: confusion is the reason Wasei-Eigo came about. During the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), Japan went under a period of rapid modernization. Railways, motor cars and people with distasteful facial hair were popping up everywhere. New technologies, ideas and concepts rained down on Japan faster than they could make words for them – literally. Up until the Meiji era words from abroad were entering the Japanese lexicon organically, Gairaigo-style (such as the word ‘Karuta’, which describes a popular card game in Japan that is derived from the Portugese words for cards, as it was they who introduced it via sailors who would play it on the docks). But such was Japan’s drive to modernize and internationalize quickly in the Meiji era that they were actively ripping words from the English dictionary and throwing them at the Japanese population faster they could process them – kind of like that special kind of person who thinks that pressing the ‘Wait’ button over and over at a pedestrian crossing will speed up the lights changing. And if you are that person – IT DOESN’T WORK, NUMPTY.
So because words were entering the Japanese lexicon at an unprecedented pace and volume, many words were divorced from their true English meaning and morphed beyond recognition to better suit the Japanese tongue. For example, the word カンニング (Kanningu). You’d be forgiven for thinking it means ‘cunning’. But it actually means cheating. So if you’re playing the card game ‘Liar’ with Japanese mates and they yell ‘Kanningu’ at you, they aren’t complimenting your game-savvy smarts but declaring you a dirty cheater. Which…is kinda the point of the ‘Liar’ game, I suppose. So maybe they are complimenting you after all? Wow, this all confusing.
The list of Wasei-Eigo is massive, and ever expanding. It’s a fun game to look at the Japanese word and try to guess what it means and where it came from. Some are easy: サラリーマン (Sarariman) is comes from ‘Salary man’ and means a white-collar office worker. Some require a bit of lateral thinking: ハイテンション (Haitenshon) means ‘Pumped up/excited’ because it is made of the words ‘High Tension’. And some are just inexplicable: ホチキス (Hochikisu) means…stapler. Yeah, I have no idea. Again, like all Wasei-Eigo words there is an original root word which when you see the route they took to making the new word you’ll have an “A-ha!” moment, but for the man on the street you will either need to think around corners to grasp the meaning, or it’s been skewed to the point that it’s impossible.
Wasei-Eigo also serves a second purpose: it puts an exotic spin on concepts that makes otherwise tricky topics easier to talk about (for example セクハラ (Sekuhara) comes from ‘Sexual Harassment’). This also courts controversy, because it can be argued that this deliberate dressing up of difficult topics as being foreign, that these aren’t pedigree Japanese issues but rather problems that have been imported from overseas, is typical of how Japan views itself as a brand apart. After all, by nature loanwords and Wasei-Eigo are written in Katakana, which is effectively a whole alphabet reserved for ‘foreign words’, even though there’s a perfectly serviceable way to express sexual harassment in Japanese: 性的嫌がらせ (Seiteki Iyagarase).
I honestly don’t think Japanese people see it that way, though. After all these are words that have been so completely subsumed into the Japanese vernacular that nobody really thinks of the etymology when they speak it. After all, how often do we consider restaurant to be a French word? In fact it’s a great irony that during wartime Japan many Wasei-Eigo words were banned by the government as they carried the taint of English and, by extension, the 鬼畜 (Kichiku, the wartime term for ‘the enemy’) and started replacing the words with pedigree Japanese terms to reinstate the purity of Japan right down to the words people use. But did nobody think to mention that Wasei-Eigo terms were so far removed from English that they’re not really English anymore, and if anything they’re more in spirit with the Japanese culture and it’s skill at adopting and adapting ideas and concepts from other places?
Silly question, really. Since when have war and common sense gone together? Not as well as English and Japanese, that’s for sure!