Words pertaining to love, romance and sex inhabit a region of the Japanese language fraught with peril.
In contrast to English and Spanish, where phrases such as “I love you” can roll lightly off the tongue, the Japanese equivalent — ai shite iru (愛している, I love you) — carries more weight. That’s why many shy away from it, letting it be understood through a telepathic broadcast known as ishin denshin (以心伝心, silent communication).
But sometimes wordless transmission just doesn’t cut it and you have to speak in no uncertain terms. Especially when navigating the linguistic terrain of romansu (ロマンス, romance) in Japanese, the more lightly you tread, the better. One of the most effective ways to achieve lightness of step is with English loanwords, which Japanese happens to be chock-full of.
Nowhere can words get stickier than in the arena of physical contact. Though the gesture of affection is preferable to talking about it, sometimes there is no substitute for the word itself. That’s when kisu (キス, kiss) and hagu (ハグ, hug) come in handy, not to mention kisu māku (キスマーク, kiss mark, or hicky). Further along the continuum is sekkusu (セックス, sex), which also goes by ecchi (エッチ, H). Some say this mysterious lone capital letter is a stand-in for the Japanese term hentai (変態, perversion), which true or not, does nothing to diminish the Roman character’s tantalizing aura of foreignness.
So why is it that loanwords are indispensable when talking about such delicate matters in Japanese?
“These words are easy to use without running into problems because they are non-threatening, flexible, and full of mystique,” says Frank E. Dalton, author of “Japan’s Built-in Lexicon of English-based Loanwords” and a professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.
Dalton explains that as the dynamic of male-female relationships began changing after World War II, a vocabulary gap opened up and loanwords came pouring in through the mass media to fill it.
In some cases, the loanword ousted the existing one, as kisu did with seppun (接吻, kiss), now unbearably old-fashioned. In other instances, the Japanese and the loanword took on different nuances. The native dakishimeru (抱きしめる, hug) sounds serious and heavy, whereas the loanword hagu has an air of lightness to it (and just two syllables versus its counterpart’s lengthy five to boot).
“That was a needed nuance,” Dalton tells me. “If there had been no new word, that would have left a big lexical gap and awkwardness. But since hugging has become a little more common, you need to be able to express that without the baggage of dakishimeru,” once a euphemism for sex itself.
Another case of a loanword that overtook a native rival is sekushī (セクシー, sexy), now much more in use than iroppoi (色っぽい, sexy). And sometimes loanwords are adopted to denote a concept that Japanese has yet to account for on its own, as is the case with fechi (フェチ, fetish), the most well-known variety of which is ashi fechi (足フェチ, foot fetish).
When it comes to a kappuru (カップル, couple) going out on a dēto (デート, date), if they really hit it off, such a romantic event could be endearingly described as rabu rabu (ラブラブ, love love), which resides in the semantic neighborhood of lovey-dovey.
The creation of a new word in its own right is known as wasei eigo (和製英語, made-in-Japan English) as opposed to gairaigo (外来語, borrowed words), which pretty much stick to the meaning of the original.
A few other examples of true Japanese coinages include the inspired chāmu pointo (チャームポイント, charm point, or most attractive feature), the tongue-in-cheek bājin rōdo (バージンロード, virgin road, or the aisle in a wedding chapel that a bride walks down), and the nostalgic, now outdated chīku taimu (チークタイム, cheek time, or slow dancing).
And at the end of the night lovebirds might wind up in a rabu hoteru (ラブホテル, love hotel, which caters solely to the amorous demographic). If things take off from there, maybe someday the guy will puropōzu (プロポーズ, propose), become a fianse (フィアンセ, fiance), hopefully not suffer from marijjiburū (マリッジブルー, marriage blues, or pre-nuptial jitters), have a weddingu (ウェディング, wedding), go on a hanemūn (ハネムーン, honeymoon) and then live happily ever after.
Although English loanwords dealing with romance-infused topics can put a comfy distance between the speaker and what is sometimes the unspeakable in Japanese, at the end of the day, some things are just better left unsaid. But when that’s not an option, the best word for the job is likely to be one that was borrowed and wholeheartedly embraced.