Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
Most people know that geisha, kimono and haiku are Japanese words, but did you know that typhoon, tsunami and tofu are also Japanese words? Here are a few other Japanese words we hear in our everyday lives: shiitake, karate, karaoke and Pokemon. Let’s have a look at the meanings of these words.
Japanese is called an agglutinating language because new expressions can be made by connecting existing language elements together. Japanese is written using kanji and each kanji represents one or more ideas. Thus Japanese nouns are often created by putting two or more kanji together and the new word’s meaning is related to the combination of these meanings.
Tsunami for example is written with the kanji for harbor and waves, tsu and nami since in the past the waves arrived without warning and did most damage in harbors.
Another natural force, the typhoon, is also made with two kanji. This is pronounced taifuu in Japanese and is written with kanji for tai and fuu. The first kanji means standing and the second means wind. Despite having high wind speeds, typhoons travel quite slowly so the meaning can be imagined from the combined elements – a typhoon is a wind that seems to stands in one place for a long time.
Typhoons can be very destructive and every year thousands of trees are toppled by them. It’s not all bad news though because typhoons can lead to fresh, wild shiitake mushrooms! In the wild, shiitake mushrooms are generally found on the decaying trunks of fallen Japanese oaks. Shii-take literally means oak-mushroom. Take means mushroom and shi is a type of Japanese tree related to oak trees.
Here’s another food from decay – tofu. Tofu breaks down into tou-fu meaning beans-rot. It might not sound appetising but tofu is actually soured soy-bean milk so “bean rot” is a pretty accurate description.
Tofu can be part of a healthy lifestyle and doing karate can really improve your fitness too. As a pure martial art, karate has the meaning of empty-hand. “Kara” means empty and “te” means hand.
The kara in karaoke also means empty but “oke” is a Japanese abbreviation of “orchestra”. So karaoke means empty-orchestra. It might seem a strange name to English speakers but the idea seems to fit – an orchestra without humans.
Pokemon is our last example. Foreign words are often absorbed into the Japanese language and reused in strange and unfamiliar ways, like the word orchestra in karaoke. Pokemon comes from POcKEt-MONster.
I hope this article has helped you make a little more sense of Japanese words and made learning Japanese seem a little less monstrous!
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