Beware These False Friends Between English and Japanese!

Beware These False Friends Between English and Japanese!

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False friends between English and Japanese
Pictures: Canva
You may think you know what these words mean in Japanese. Think again! A rundown of the language's most famous "false friends".

Japan’s katakana alphabet allows the language to borrow words from English, Spanish, French, and many other countries and tongues from around the world.

Some of these words both sound like and mean exactly what you think they are. You can pick up some  パン (pan, from the Spanish word for “bread”) at a Japanese bakery or order a バーガー (baagaa) and フライドポテト (furaido potato) at a McDonald’s in Tokyo. If you hear a child refer to “mama” and “papa”, you know exactly who they mean.

However, not every Japanese loan word’s meaning matches its sound. When learning the language, you need to be careful of these “false friends.” You might end up saying something that does not mean at all what you think it does!

(A shout-out to the members of the Unseen Japan Discord server for their help with this one!)

What’s a false friend?

A “false friend” is a word that looks or sounds like a particular word in another language, but doesn’t share that word’s meaning. False friends can be found in languages all over the world. For example, in German, a “gift” is a present you’d rather not receive – it actually means “poison!” Or, if a Spanish-speaking friend calls you “bizarro,” they may be complimenting you. “Bizarro” in Spanish at one point meant brave. (According to readers, the modern meaning has more or less caught up with English.)

The presence of so many gairaigo (loan words) and wasei-eigo (borrowed English phrases) in Japanese naturally leads to a large number of false friends, especially between Japanese and English.

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Here are some of the most common ones you might encounter in daily conversation.

Japanese’s Most Famous False Friends

ホーム (“Home”)

Train platform ("home", ホーム)
Picture: bee / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Wanna go home in Japan? If so, never use this word. ホーム is actually short for プラットホーム and refers to a subway train platform. (You may also hear this one as 駅ホーム; eki homu.)

While this is often a false friend, you’ll also hear ホーム used in its English sense of home these days. But, to make things even more confusing, you might hear ホーム as the shortened form of “home base” or “homepage,” too!

マンション (“Mansion”)

Apartment ("mansion", マンション)
Picture: shimanto / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

When you think “mansion” in English, you probably imagine an elaborate house that a celebrity might call home.

However, in Japanese, マンション is nowhere near as fancy. The word refers to an apartment or condominium. While it’s possibly on the larger or more luxurious side as apartments go, it’s still nowhere that Bill Gates or Kim Kardashian might want to live. [1]

A particularly luxurious マンション might be called an ()ション (okushon). This modern slang term derives from the word oku meaning “100 million” (as in, an apartment that somehow costs 100 million yen). It’s also a word play on manshon, as man (万 ) means 10,000.

ミシン (“Mishin”, “Machine”)

Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

In English, a machine can be anything from the alarm clock on your nightstand to an enormous piece of construction equipment. However, in Japanese, ミシン has a much narrower meaning. It refers specifically to sewing machines.

A contracted form of ソーイングミシン (soingu mishin), this term first appeared in the 1950s. Advertisements used it as a form of shorthand. Branded sewing machines were referred to as “brand name + ミシン,” such as トヨタミシン (toyota mishin) for Toyota-made devices or シンガーミシン (singa mishin) for the classic Singer sewing machine. [2]

テンション (“tenshon”, “tension”)

Tension rises (テンション上がる)
Picture: IYO / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

In English, “tension” in a non-physical sense means a feeling of suspense or anxiety. In Japanese, however, it has a meaning of excitement or elation. You’ll hear this as テンション上がる (tenshon agaru), which refers to a sense of anticipation or building excitement, or テンション下がる (tenshon sagaru), which means deflation or disappointment.

In other words, if tension rises in English, that’s a bad thing. But in Japanese, it’s a good thing. (Got it? Good – there will be a quiz later.)

Power outlet (コンセント)
Picture: freeangle / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

No, no one’s asking you if they can pull up for a hug or anything. konsento means a power outlet and derives from the longer expression “concentric plug”.

If you’ve never heard of a concentric plug – well, that’s because no one hardly uses them these days. The polarized plug was in heavy use during Japan’s Meiji era, though, which is where Japanese picked up this expression. [3]

カンニング (“kanningu”, “cunning”)

Cunning - a.k.a. cheating (カンニング)
Picture: ペイレスイメージズ 2 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

A cunning person is a sly, intelligent schemer, like Marvel’s Loki or Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. カンニング, on the other hand, is something that a person like that might do: that is, cheat on a test or assignment. It comes from the longer term カンニングペーパ (“cunning paper”), the Japanese term for a “cheat sheet” or hidden paper that contains the answers to a test.

These days, カンニング is also used to refer to the cue card placards that production assistants hold off-stage for variety show hosts and news anchors.

One of the first recorded uses of カンニング as a shorthand phrase is in author Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story “The Great Earthquake,” in which he describes his surviving the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake as feeling “like a junior high schoolboy who had just discovered a cheat sheet for a final exam” rather than a miracle or divine intervention. [4]

ペンション (“penshon”, “pension”)

Pension - a.k.a. vacation cottage (ペンション)
Picture: あかい弾丸 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

When you retire, you might receive a “pension” – money from your former employer to thank you for your years of service. In Japan, a ペンション is a place you can stay temporarily. Japanese ペンション are boarding houses or guest houses. They’re distinct from chain hotels in that they are typically isolated establishments and often accommodate longer stays.

This does come from a real meaning of the English word “pension.” It’s nearly nonexistent in America, but sometimes used in Continental Europe.

ビッチ (“Bicchi”, “Bitch”)

This is less of a false friend than others on the list. Both meanings are typically used in a derogatory manner towards a female-presenting person. However, the English “bitch” focuses more on a perceived negative, rude, or bossy attitude, while calling someone a ビッチ generally refers to sexual promiscuity. Fortunately, both words are beginning to undergo reclamation by female-presenting people who use them as self-chosen terms of empowerment rather than insult.

マウンティング (“Mounting”)

Woman showing off wedding ring
Picture: mits / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This is one you’ll hear less often but is, personally, one of my favorites. You hear this word and the first thing you think of is probably someone climbing onto a horse. But today, マウンティング refers to “one-upmanship” – boasting, posturing, and portraying yourself as superior compared to those around you.

Imagine a game of King of the Hill. Everyone is struggling to be the first person to climb up, or “mount” the top of the hill. Once there, they can look down on everyone else from higher ground.

This is a more recent term, as it gained popularity during the 2010s when it saw frequent use in TV dramas. It does still have some connection to horses. A person “mounted” on a horse would definitely be quite literally “above” their surroundings! [5]

バイク (“Bike”)

Man on motorcycle ("bike")
Picture: node / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

In the West, “bike” is often short for “bicycle.” Two wheels, pedals, moves under its rider’s own power. Motorcycles can be called “motorbikes,” or referred to as “hogs”, “Harleys”, or sometimes even “choppers”. Depending on region and context in the US, “bike” may sometimes mean “motorcycle”.

However, in Japan, the term モーターバイク (motabaiku) took off, got shortened to バイク, and entered the daily lexicon. Bicycles are called 自転車 (jitensha) and never バイク.

ジュース (“Juice”)

"Juice" in Japanese
Picture: K321 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

If you order a glass of ジュース in a Japanese restaurant, there’s no telling what the waiter might bring you. Yes, you might get a fruit-based, non-carbonated beverage, but you could alternately end up with Coke, an energy drink, or even simple flavored water.

Unlike the more narrow English meaning of “juice,” ジュース has become a bit of a catch-all term referring to any drink that isn’t coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Although, some alcohol mixed drinks have even gotten the ジュース moniker – possibly originating from English slang phrases such as “gin and juice.”)

This may have come about because Japanese tends to employ the European method of using ソーダ to refer only to plain carbonated water, rather than all kinds of fizzy drinks. However, the American usage of ジュース for fruit juices only has become more popular in recent years. ジュース on its own is still a bit of a catch-all term, but you can fairly easily order your desired drink by specifying the type of juice. For example, you can order りんごジュース (ringo juusu, apple juice) or オレンジジュース (orenji jyusu, orange juice.)

バイキング (“Viking”)

Close up of foods with plates in buffet of restaurant
Picture: sondem / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The Vikings were fierce seafaring warriors and explorers who once lived in the northern part of Europe. However, a バイキング in Japan is not a person at all but rather a delicious buffet meal such as might be served at a hotel.

Reportedly, the term バイキング was chosen because hotel owners wanted to evoke the “smorgasbord,” a Swedish tradition in which many varieties of food are served in a single meal. However, they found the word too difficult to render in katakana. “Viking” was picked as the simpler alternative.

True but relatively useless friends

There are also a number of words in Japan that aren’t exactly “false friends”. They’re English terms and they mean just about what they say. They’re just never used in English the way they’re used in Japanese. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

マイペース (“mai peesu”, “my pace”)

Man driving at his own pace
Picture: freehand / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

A マイペース person takes life at their own speed – often a slower or more relaxed one. They do things their own way, hold their own opinions, and don’t let others around them influence them. This person will often be fairly confident and comfortable with themselves and their way of life. A マイペース person can also be gentle, soothing, and not particularly prone to emotional ups and downs – making them pleasant and even relaxing to spend time around. [6]

While this phrase does come from two English words, “my pace” is not something most English speakers would say. There isn’t really an equivalent English phrase, although if you’re マイペース you might say “go your own way,” a phrasing popularized by a Fleetwood Mac song. Alternately, you could say you’re “your own person” or “an individualist.”

マイペース is also pretty much the exact opposite of “go with the flow,” which is someone who adapts to the pace of others around them rather than setting their own.

NG

Woman holding up a sign with an X
Picture: プラナ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

It’s no good – literally! The shorthand phrase “NG” comes from the English words “no good” and means, well, that something isn’t good. It’s often used as roughly the equivalent to the Japanese phrase ダメ (dame). You might tell someone “NG” if they ask to hang out on a day you’re busy or need a favor that you can’t complete. This short, snappy phrase sees frequent use in text conversations on apps such as LINE.

While you can definitely call something “no good” in English, the abbreviation “NG” is more likely to make English-speakers think of the National Guard or starting a New Game. Recently, “NG” has taken on a bit of a mixed meaning in Japan as well, as the video game community does also use it to mean “New Game.”

SNS

Social networking services (woman holding phone looking at her socials)
Picture: metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Sorry Not Sorry? Save New Ships? South North South? Nope – “SNS” in Japanese is short for “social networking service.” This refers to any social-based site that allows users to have distinct accounts protected by passwords, such as Facebook or Twitter. While “social networking service” is technically a term that exists in English, it’s much more common to see sites of this type referred to as “social media” or simply “socials.”

SNS as an abbreviation caught on because ソーシャルネットワーク (sosharu nettowaku) is such a mouthful. Like other abbreviation-based loan words, SNS sees most frequent use in text-based conversations. For example, if you’re connecting with a new friend via LINE and want to share your Facebook or Twitter usernames, you can just say “My SNS is @UnseenJapanSite” rather than the clunkier “I’m @UnseenJapanSite on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.”

Conclusion: Japanese False Friends

These are just a few of the “false friends” hiding in the Japanese language. As global communication increases and Japanese continues to borrow more words from other languages, it is likely that more and more false friends – or semi-false friends like マイペース – will continue to pop up.

It’s important to keep false friends in mind when studying Japanese and traveling to Japan. Otherwise, you might get disappointed when drinking ジュース in your マンション isn’t the luxury experience you hoped for, or accidentally sign up for a less-than-relaxing バイク tour of your favorite landmark that could really テンション上がる your day – and not in a good way!

Can you think of any other “false friends” that aren’t on this list? What are some of your favorite Japanese false friends? Did you ever learn about a false friend in a particularly funny way? Let us know – they might even show up in a future article!

10 Useful Japanese Social Media Slang Terms Worth Learning

Sources

[1] Nihon Bunka. 【和製英語】マンションは英語?日本語? Link

[2] JA Wikipedia. ミシン:歴史 Link

[3] カタカナEnglish : コンセント&Consent. Wovn.io

[4] Akutagawa Ryunosuke. 大正十二年九月一日の大震に際して. Link.

[5] Weblio. マウンティング. Link.

[6] Oggi.jp 「マイペース」とは?「マイペース」な人の長所・短所、付き合い方を紹介. Link.

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Kay Benton

Kay is a longtime Japan enthusiast and former participant in the JET Program. Their favorite thing to do when traveling in Japan is visiting as many onsens as possible.

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