Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at the origins of half a dozen Japanese words that have found wide usage in English.



This word became familiar to millions of Americans of my generation as the title of a 1963 hit song by Hisashi “Kyu” Sakamoto (坂本九). It was originally titled “上を向いて 歩こう” (“Ue o muite arukō,” literally, “walk while looking upward”), leading a writer in Newsweek to quip that naming a sentimental romantic Japanese song thusly was analogous to calling “Moon River” “Beef Stew.”

The story behind the actual dish is interesting as well. Around the mid-19th century, when Japan began loosening its policy of national isolation, Westerners began arriving in Nagasaki, Kobe, Yokohama and other ports. At this time few Japanese habitually consumed meat, and some believed that preparing beef in a 土鍋 (donabe, an earthenware vessel) would leave behind a permanent residue, ruining it for other purposes.

So, the apocryphal story goes, someone came up with the idea that a metal 鋤 (suki, shovel), carefully washed beforehand of course, could be held over a fire to cook the mixture of beef, tofu, onions, etc. And thus came the word すき焼き or 鋤焼き (sukiyaki, “shovel cooking”). True or false? Nobody’s really sure. But so says the Kōjien dictionary.

Zero (fighter plane)


How did the Zero, the feared Japanese fighter plane of World War II, come by such a strange name? Simply enough, “zero” refers to a date.

Japan’s founding mythology holds that the legendary 神武天皇 (Jinmu Tenno, Emperor Jimmu), the first emperor of Japan, ascended to the throne on the 11th day of the second month, 660 B.C. It’s still observed by the national holiday called 建国記念日 (Kenkoku Kinenbi, National Founding Day).

In the 15th year of Showa, 1940, special celebrations were held to mark the 2,600th year since Emperor Jimmu’s ascension. The same year, Mitsubishi began mass production of the Imperial Navy’s new fighter plane, designated A6M, for use on aircraft carriers. Its official name was 零式艦上戦闘機 (Rei-shiki kanjō sentōki, model zero carrier-based fighter). The “zero” in this case referred to the last digit of 2,600, and in colloquial usage the plane’s name was shortened to 零戦 (Rei-sen or Zero-sen).


Although universally understood as meaning a gangster, the preferred term used in the media is 暴力団 (bōryokudan, literally, “violent groups”).

The pre-modern forerunners of the yakuza included professional gamblers known as 博徒 (bakuto). Among the popular games of chance offered by the bakuto was one called 三枚 (sanmai, three-card), played using かるた (karuta), a word deriving from the Portuguese carta for small cards with multicolored designs, which were introduced to Japan in the 16th century. Each card was assigned a numerical value between 1 and 9, and the strength of a player’s hand was determined by the sum total of the cards.

A winning score in sanmai would be 9, 19, 29, etc., but the next higher number, ending in zero, is worthless. So in the patois of the bakuto, the losing numbers 10, 20 and 30 were called buta, a word of unknown derivation but, possibly from the Portuguese puta, meaning “prostitute.”

A yakusa no buta — that is, a losing hand of 20, composed of three cards valued at 8 (ya), 9 (ku) and 3 (san), abbreviated ya-ku-sa — came to mean something totally worthless, a loser. Shortened to “yakuza,” the name reflected the bravado that the bakuto would assume to promote their illegal business.

Kōban (police box)

Police box: A kōban in Yokohama.
Police box: A kōban in Yokohama. | ISTOCK

Japan’s first 交番 (kōban) dates back to Tokyo in 1874. A Prussian officer, Wilhelm Haehn, was brought to Japan to train its newly organized police force and Haehn is credited with proposing a system of small sub-stations that became the forerunner of today’s kōban. As these mini-stations were originally staffed by three-man squads working in shifts, they were popularly called 交番所 (kōban-sho), literally a place where the 番 (ban, guard) would 交代する (kōtai suru, exchange places).

Interestingly, in police nomenclature, kōban are referred to as 派出所 (hashutsu-jo or hashutsu-sho, literally a “dispatch place”). Despite kōban’s near-universal popularity in the colloquial language, the term did not receive “official” recognition until 1994 — 120 years after they came into existence.


This is a crude variant of 切腹 (seppuku, literally, “cutting abdomen”), usually described as ritual suicide by disembowelment. Hara-kiri reverses the kanji order of setsu (cut) and fuku (abdomen) and pronounces them according to their kun-yomi (native Japanese reading).

In pre-modern times seppuku was typically performed by members of the samurai class, allowed as a means of saving face, in that they ended their lives by their own hand, rather than executed in the manner of common criminals.

Seppuku still crops up in modern usage in such expressions as 切腹では済まない (seppuku dewa sumanai, “Even ritual suicide will not atone for his misdeeds,” i.e., when something is unforgivable). Whereas it’s common for English writers to describe an elected official who knowingly turns against the wishes of his voter base as “committing political hara-kiri,” in Japan the term 自爆 (jibaku, to blow oneself up) has become more common.


“Tycoon,” referring to a capitalist who strikes it rich and dominates the market, derives from the Japanese 大君 (taikun), which means “great lord” or “supreme commander.” No one today can lay claim to such a title, but in pre-modern times it referred to a ruler, such as a 将軍 (shogun, generalissimo), who was not of imperial lineage. Japanese would be likely to refer to a foreign business magnate like Warren Buffett as 大富豪 (dai fugō), but for reasons of modesty perhaps, this term is seldom used for their own countrymen.

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