The Japanese language is unlike any other. From its distinctive form of Kanji and Kana scripts to its unique sounds, it is lyrical, beautiful, and often inscrutable. With roots in ancient Buddhist notions of life and the soul, and the attitudes of the Shinto belief system, the language also reflects Japanese concepts that are sometimes unfamiliar to most westerners.
Whether you are learning how to speak Japanese, or are just interested in learning some beautiful words and interesting ideas, this list of 25 Japanese words that express concepts and meaning is for you.
A person’s ikigai is what motivates them to lead a meaningful and worthwhile life. Essentially, it’s about one’s reason for being, and the balance between the spiritual and practical aspects of life.
The first step is to figure out your passions (the what) and then the means to achieve them (the how).
A direct translation into English gives you ‘forest bathing’, but this term does not come close to expressing the beauty and simplicity of the word.
Shinrinyoku is the self-care experience of totally immersing yourself in nature, using all of your senses to appreciate its beauty and experience its restorative benefits. It can be as simple as taking a walk in the forest, with health benefits including lower blood pressure and reduced stress hormones.
For those of us who love fine dining and a nice glass of wine, the concept of kuidaore might hit close to home. It means a person who is happy to spend all their money satisfying their culinary tastes.
Kuiadore is also associated with the Osaka district of Dotonbori, which is a famous foodie hotspot.
There are few pleasures in life that are as simple as feeling the sunlight on your face, gently filtered through the leaves of a tree. This is especially true during the optimism of spring, with the long, cold winter behind you.
Komorebi is also symbolic, used to refer to the longing you have to be close to someone who is not close enough for a visit.
The perfect time to enjoy some komorebi is when you are taking your Shinrinyoku (filtered sun on your face).
The concept of ‘imperfect perfection’ is much more familiar to Japanese sensibilities than western ones. Essentially, it is the beauty that can be found in things that are imperfect.
With strong Buddhist roots, it is a strong concept in Japanese aesthetic thought, concerning the value of imperfections.
Japan is a country that is obsessed with the changes of the seasons and the Kogarashi is the name of the cool, brisk autumn wind that lets you know that winter is on the way.
The word literally translates to ‘wilting wind’ and it is widely used to usher in the coldest months of the year.
Have you ever taken the effort to hike to the top of a high mountain or peak? If you’re lucky enough, you might have seen a wall of clouds to greet you at the top.
When the clouds part and you see the endless horizon before you, the beauty of that moment is the essence of unkai.
This is the art of sleeping soundly. In English, we might phrase it as ‘sleeping like a baby’ or ‘sleeping like a log’.
In English, the phrase ‘it can’t be helped’ is the best way to describe shoganai. It refers to a situation where is no realistic way of controlling or fixing it.
It’s a great phrase to encourage complainers to be quiet, for there is nothing they can do to help the situation.
We might be lost for words when we stand in front of a beautiful work of art or see a spectacular natural wonder. Yūgen is the wonderful feeling you get when you experience immense beauty in art, literature, or nature.
We all like to think that we love to read, but perhaps we prefer to collect the books rather than put aside the time to read them? This is the notion of having piles of unread books, left to collect dust.
Irusu is when you’re at home and someone comes to visit but you pretend that the house is empty. Not just one for the introverts, who among us has not been in an irusu situation themselves?
Some of us are more sensitive than others and nekojita is the word to describe the person whose tongue is sensitive to hot food and drink. The word comes from neko – cat and shita – tongue.
Is a cat’s tongue sensitive to heat? The word nekojita certainly implies that it does!
The Japanese are famed for their work ethic and many consider that a large part of their identity is tied to their profession. Karoshi means ‘death from overwork’ and it has a rigid definition: a person who works over 100 hours of overtime in the month before they are likely to die.
The idea of natsukashii is the positive vices you get when reliving happy memories. It is akin to the word nostalgia in English, but it is more happy and joyful than wistful and sad.
Each language has its own unique greeting and Japanese is no different. Literally translated to ‘please be good to me’, it means different things in different contexts.
It can be said when people meet, when one person asks another for a favor, or simply as an expression of friendliness.
Koi no yokan (恋の予感)
This romantic concept is the idea that when you meet another person, it might not be love at first sight, but you have a feeling that you will fall in love in the future.
In English, we might call this ‘a premonition of love’.
In French, you might say ‘bon appétit’, while Spanish-speakers would say ‘buen provecho’. A blessing to enjoy the meal in front of you, this phrase literally means ‘I will humbly receive this meal’.
But it is more than that. The word is an expression of gratitude for the food, from the farmers who grew it to the chef who prepared it.
There is no direct English translation and bimyou is a concept that is hard to define. Essentially, it is the idea that you might not care about something, or might even dislike it, but don’t want to say so directly.
It is the indirect way to say ‘no’ in Japanese, and might correlate to ‘meh’ or ‘not really’ in English.
Wa is the concept of harmony and peace, but it is more than that. It can refer to something as simple as plating your food for dinner, or a situation with more depth such as avoiding conflict or keeping the peace.
In Japanese culture, wa is all-pervasive, contributing to architectural design, traditional clothing, and even politics.
We’ve all been lost for something to keep us busy, and have gone to the fridge to see if there is something to eat. Literally translated as ‘lonely mouth’, kuchisabishii is when we eat or smoke a cigarette without thinking as a way to keep our mouths busy.
In English, we might call them nerds. They are the people who are obsessed with interests such as anime and manga, often to the detriment of their social lives and personal relationships.
Although furusato is usually translated into English as ‘hometown’, it actually is more nuanced, encapsulating a traditional and rural way of life; a contrast to the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city.
Majime conjures up descriptive words like serious, trustworthy, responsible, and earnest. It is used to describe a person who would make a great colleague or business partner, and even someone who would be great to bring home to your parents!
With its roots in Buddhist philosophy, this concept of wastefulness follows that all things are precious.
Japanese people will use the word when someone wastes food or gets rid of an object that could be repaired or reused. People can also use it in conversation when they are given a beautiful gift that the receiver might consider is wasted on them.