The language of a country says a lot about its culture and this is especially true for Japan.
It is no secret that the Japanese language is hard to learn. It’s not only the grammar or the vocabulary that makes it so difficult, but also certain phrases or expressions that have no English equivalent. Today we want to highlight five expressions that are unique to the Japanese language.
We are not only going to explain these words or phrases to you, but also show how they are important to Japanese culture and how well established they are in the Japanese mindset. This article should not only educate those of you that are trying to learn Japanese but also entertain everyone who is interested in the land of the rising sun. Enjoy!
5. 合コン – Goukon
Goukon is a Japanese phenomenon that could be best explained as a group blind date. The word itself is a combination of the words goudo (mixed) and konpa (group meetings).
These informal get-togethers are especially popular amongst singles in college and in workplaces. The general idea is that an equal number of guys and girls get together and get to know each other better. This process is made easier with delicious food and usually not an insignificant amount of alcohol. Even though the whole meeting does not necessarily have to result in anything serious, many participants hope to meet someone to start a relationship with.
Goukons are a great way to meet a partner in Japan since many people are too busy to find one. Between classes and club activities or hectic work shifts it is hard to just go out and meet someone on the streets. That might be why Goukons have become a recent phenomenon in Japan. It is an easy way to find people of similar interests while having the security of being with a group of friends.
4. 物の哀れ – Mono no aware
Mono no aware is an old Japanese term that originated in the 18th century during the Edo period. Its first occurrence was in the infamous The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari), sometimes referred to as the world’s first written novel.
Literally Mono no aware can be translated as a sensitivity or appreciation of things. In context it means the awareness of the transience of all things, similar to the Carpe Diem philosophy. This leads to a bigger appreciation of the moment and everything that is happening around you right now.
Nowadays Mono no aware is associated with a couple of traditional Japanese events. The annual cherry blossoming is a great example. Sakura season is a beautiful sight and one of the first indicators of spring; however, it only lasts for a couple of days and soon the pink flowers disappear from the landscape. That’s one of the reasons why Japanese people appreciate the sight of the sakura so much. Similarly, this term is still used in some traditional Japanese meals where each dining experience is viewed as a unique event that should be as comforting and delicious as possible.
3. 空気読めない – Kuuki yomenai (KY)
Moving on to a more contemporary word, let’s talk about KY.
KY is the abbreviation for Kuuki yomenai or “cannot read the air”. This term refers to a person who just cannot read the atmosphere and behaves out of order or inappropriately. It can be used for one’s behavior in a specific situation or also to a person as a whole if he or she seems to lack certain social skills.
For Japanese culture the well-being of the people surrounding you has top priority. No matter where you are – at school, at work, with your friends – you will always be part of a certain social circle and it’s important that the harmony is not disturbed. If you “cannot read the air” you might make another person uncomfortable and that’s something that should be avoided at all costs. Since many Japanese people are too polite to point out your misbehavior you need to be able to understand the small signs they are sending you.
2. 本音と建前 – Honne and Tatemae
Honne and Tatemae is another Japanese expression that is important for social interactions amongst Japanese.
This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the two faces of Japan. Tatemae is the face or rather facade you show on the outside. It includes being as polite as possible and sometimes not showing your discontent with a situation in order to not ruin the harmony of a group. Honne on the other hand describes your true feelings and desires. They are usually hidden and only expressed in private when it seems appropriate.
Knowing when to show Honne and when to show Tatemae is really important. As I have mentioned, Honne is usually reserved for private gatherings or friends and family. One example of a situation where Honne can be expressed is after work when you and your colleagues go out to eat and drink at an izakaya. After a couple of drinks and soothing small talk it’s alright to express your displeasure with a new work strategy or project. At work, however, it might be better to hold back your opinions so that your supervisors don’t lose face.
Be careful not to mix up the two of them and to only show Honne when it seems appropriate; otherwise you risk becoming unpopular in your group.
1. 仕様がない – Shou ga nai
Last but not least we have one of my favorite Japanese expressions: Shou ga nai.
Shou ga nai or Shikata ga nai means “It can’t be helped”. When your camping plans get cancelled because of unexpected rain or when all trains are running late and you are late to work you just say Shou ga nai. More precisely it can be translated as “It is beyond my control, so it can’t be helped”.
This might seem like a harmless every-day expression, but it describes an important part of Japanese mentality. Japanese people are often seen as hard-working and very efficient and Shou ga nai doesn’t play an insignificant part in their productivity. When other people might start complaining about a situation or start pitying themselves a Japanese person will only say Shou ga nai and continue his work.
Being able to move on from an unpleasant situation without starting to overthink is a helpful trait, not only in your workplace but also in everyday life. Next time you become upset about something that cannot be changed try saying Shou ga nai and move on; you might find a little bit of Japanese peace.
This concludes our Top 5 phrases that are unique to the Japanese language. I hope you could see how these phrases are well established in Japanese culture and how they shape the mindset of Japanese people.
There are a lot more unique Japanese expressions that didn’t make it onto this list. Many of them are used in day-to-day life as set phrases you use when you leave the house, meet someone new, are about to eat, leave your workplace and for many other occasions. Even though these phrases might sometimes be translated to English they still have a different gravity in the Japanese language.
What do you think of Japan’s unique expressions and are there any other phrases that surprised you? Also, let me know if there are any words in your language that cannot be translated to English. Feel free to share your linguistic experiences in the comment section down below.