Foreigners in Japan often encounter conversations in which Japanese terms or concepts are expressed in English in ways that, while not necessarily idiomatic, still get the meaning across effectively. One such example would be the Japanese expression 強い (tsuyoi, strong), which in addition to physical strength gets used to describe a person (or an inanimate object) with a specific type of fortitude or ability.
For example, a person with a large capacity for alcohol would be described as お酒に強い (osake ni tsuyoi), which gets rendered in English as being a strong drinker. But when a student is said to be 科学に強い (kagaku ni tsuyoi), a native speaker would probably say science is his best subject. When a type of tree is 公害に強い (kōgai ni tsuyoi), it means it’s resistant to pollution; and a person or object that is 寒さに強い (samusa ni tsuyoi) stands up well to cold weather. Or, 将棋が強い (shōgi ga tsuyoi) would describe a person who is skilled at playing shōgi (Japanese chess). And so on.
Some Japanese expressions and idioms do manage to get picked up and adopted almost as-is into English. One of the most familiar would be “to lose face.” This is a direct translation from the Japanese 顔負け (kaomake), and it finds use in all kinds of situations. When foreigners achieve mastery in a Japanese discipline such as judo or sumo, a native might remark, 日本人は顔負けする (Nihonjin wa kaomake suru, Japanese have been put to shame). Such a remark is usually delivered in a good-natured way — or not, depending on how seriously the speaker takes sports events.
Another common term for “face” is 面子 (mentsu), often written using katakana as メンツ. This irregular reading suggests the word is a fairly recent adaptation from the Mandarin Chinese mianzi, with the same meaning. A Chinese engaged in price negotiations might ask for a discount by saying 給我一点面子 (Gei wo yi dian mianzi, give me a little face.) Japanese examples of usage include メンツを失う (mentsu wo ushinau, to lose face) and メンツを保つ (mentsu wo tamotsu, to save face). Or someone might mention how diplomatic negotiations were rescued from an impasse by メンツが立つようなもの (mentsu ga tatsu yō na mono, a face-saving concession).
But when all’s said and done, trying to convey an English idiom seldom works by translating it directly into Japanese. I used to wonder how to describe a politician who, through some 暴言 (bōgen, indiscrete remark), had committed “political suicide” — that was, until I saw a newspaper headline saying that one such individual had done 自爆 (jibaku, blown himself up).
We also need to keep in mind that the words for proper nouns and even geographic names in English are not necessarily the same in Japanese. Once I and a colleague were in a taxi that wasn’t making any headway in heavy traffic. My colleague instructed the driver to take what sounded like “shooto.” I could tell from the driver’s reaction that he hadn’t understood her — shūto as far as I know is a type of baseball pitch — so I tried to help him out by saying 高速に入った方が速いでしょう (Kōsoku ni haitta hō ga hayai deshō, it would be faster to take the expressway). My colleague had referred to it by its newspaper name, the 首都高速 (shuto kōsoku, capital expressway), but in everyday speech the locals typically shorten it to kōsoku.
Another source of confusion sometimes arises concerning apparel. Japanese tend to use very specific terminology for articles of clothing, especially uniforms. While uniform does have a generic word, 制服 (seifuku), someone in a school uniform would be wearing 学生服 (gakusei fuku), one variety of which is the セーラー服 (sērā-fuku, sailor blouse) worn by schoolgirls. On the other hand, members of the military dress in 軍服 (gunpuku). When politicians and other public figures visit factories, disaster zones, etc., they often exchange their 背広 (sebiro, business suit) for work clothes called 作業着 (sagyōgi, work fatigues).
Traditional native dress, like Vietnam’s ao dai or Korea’s chima chogori are referred to as 民族衣装 (minzoku ishō, national costume). The Chinese garment referred to by Westerners as a “Mao suit” is actually a “Sun suit,” called 人民服 or 中山服 (jinmin-fuku, people’s suit or chūzan-fuku). The garment was named not for Mao Zedong but for an earlier Chinese revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. While exiled in Japan, Sun, to avoid arrest, registered in hotels under a Japanese alias, 中山 (Nakayama). His alias stuck, and he adopted the kanji for his Chinese name (read Zhongshan in Chinese). It was later applied to the suit he popularized.