Glossary A-M

In which I list all the Japanese words I am using and my very opinionated definitions.

achichiあちちThis is how you say “hot” to a baby or child. It’s baby talk. See atsui
aisu kōhiアイスコーヒーiced coffee
ajiアジa type of fish, mackerel
Amerikajinアメリカ人American (person or persons)
amerikan kōhīアメリカンコーヒーAmerican coffee. In the late seventies when I worked at a restaurant if someone ordered American coffee we made it by pouring half a normal cup of coffee and half hot water into a cup. European coffee is strong, American coffee means a weaker coffee. Don’t order it.
ankoあんこred bean paste
aonori青のりgreen seaweed flakes. Often used on okonomiyaki. What does it taste like? Nothing really. But it looks pretty.
arerugīアレルギーallergy. I bet it took you a minute to get that one!
arigatōありがとうcasual way of saying thank you. There are many levels of politeness in greetings. One general rule of thumb is the longer they are, the politer and the shorter they are, the more casual.
asaburo朝風呂a bath taken in the morning. Traditionally, baths are always in the evening. With the advent of shower heads, the idea of a morning shower was introduced… and at first seemed a little bold. Like, why would you need a morning shower if you had bathed at night? So, when the public bath had asaburo during the week of New Year’s it was very special and different.
asadora朝ドラliterally morning drama and refers to dramas that are broadcast in the morning (duh)
asagohan朝ご飯asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.
asesweat (noun)
atamahead (part of body)
Atama ga itai! 頭が痛いLiterally, “my head hurts.” Also used for “What a headache!”
atsui熱いhot, holding heat
Bバカstupid or stupidity. This is the word that my five year old son taught to his kindergarten classmates in New Jersey so that they could understand Japanese. He refused to learn English for awhile and had a language crusade going on. American mothers would come up to me and ask, “Oh, is baka a word in Japanese?” What does it mean?”
banana juusuバナナジュースbanana-flavored milk served on ice. It’s good!
bebīkāベビーカーstroller (for a baby). Notice that it is literally “baby car.”
berandaベランダveranda. There is no equivalent to the “v” sound in Japanese, so when they borrow an English word like this, v usually changes to b. Usually….
binbō貧乏poor. What did you think it would mean?!
bīruビールbeer. If you don’t draw out that i sound you’ll be saying building instead of beer!
bonchi dakara盆地だからBonchi means valley and dakara means because. This expression is used fondly by the people of Kyoto to justify anything about the weather.
bukimi不気味eerie, weird
būmuブームboom, like a baby boom
bushu部首radical. Not that kind of radical, though. It indicates a part of the kanji (Chinese character) that you use to find it in a dictionary.
byōin病院hospitalByō is illness and the in denotes an institution
byōshitsu病室hospital roomByō is illness and shitsu is room, so….
chadō茶道tea ceremony. The Art of Tea, or the way of tea, or the study of the tea ceremony
chikuwa竹輪a tube shaped fish paste product. It’s cheap and easily found in Japan. And it tastes better than it sounds.
chikyū ondanka地球温暖化Global warming. I had to look this one up because it is a totally new word for me. There may be a better and more popular word….
chinpiraチンピラlow ranking criminals in Japan
chizu地図a map
chō kibishii超厳しいIn this case, chō means really. It’s a bit slangy, but young people use it for emphasis. Kibishii means strict.
chōnan長男oldest son
chūgakkō中学校junior high school or middle school
Chūgokugo中国語 the Chinese language
Conbiniコンビニ convenience store such as 7-11
daigaku大学university or college
daigaku imo大学芋sweet potatoes deep fried with either sugar or honey. A favorite treat of students
daigakuin大学院graduate school
Daitokuji大徳寺a major temple in Kyoto that doesn’t get as many visitors as others. It’s really a temple complex and also has a restaurant on premises. If you’ve done the major sites in Kyoto and have time, it’s quite nice. Also, at times they have had foreign monks and some of their monks speak English quite well.
dangoだんごround dumpling. Often small white mochi-like dumplings found in traditional Japanese sweets
dashiだしa Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own. If you walk through the streets early in the morning or right before dinner time, you can sometimes smell it cooking. There are so many kinds, but the smell evokes pure deliciousness for me.
dashimakiだし巻きa Japanese rolled omelette made with dashi
depātoデパートdepartment store
depachikaデパ地下refers to the basement of a department store. There you will find what amounts to both a supermarket and a food hall. Not to be missed.
deru kugi wa utareru 出る釘は打たれるThe nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Every single Japanese person knows this one. There is also a version of this where the thing getting hammered down is a kui.
dō deshō kaどうでしょうかHmm, I wonder….” “That might be.” A nice ambiguous phrase to respond without actually voicing an opinion. The meaning can change based on your intonation and facial expression.
Dō omoimasuka どう思いますか?What do you think?” A question hardly ever asked in Japan.
dokyumentorīドキュメンタリdocumentary (the kind you see on tv)
Edo Jidai江戸時代The Edo Era (1603-1868)
ehon絵本picture book
eigo英語English (language)
eikaiwa英会話English conversation. Note that there is a complete difference between studying English and studying English conversation in Japan. Somebody needs to write a book about that.
ekitrain station
fukinotōふきのとうbutterbur shoots. A spring mountain vegetable.
fukkatsu復活revival, or comeback
Fukui福井Fukui is the name of a prefecture in Western Japan in what is called the Hokuriku Region
fukuzatsu複雑complicated, complex
Furansugoフランス語French language
furin不倫adultery. See below for word confusion
fūrin風鈴wind chime. See above for word confusion. You do not want to shorten that long ‘u’ sound!
futsū普通average, usual
Futsū de ii desu普通で良いです。Maybe, “don’t fuss.”An expression I’d often use when my mother-in-law asked me what she could treat she should cook or order. I didn’t like some of the more expensive delicacies she wanted to offer me and I’d just say that she shouldn’t fuss and the usual meal was fine. Truthfully, when I visited their small town, the fried tofu was the most delicious thing there!
futsū no obasan普通のおばさん“an average woman” This phrase was made popular by Miyako Harumi, a singer who retired because she just wanted a normal or average life.
gaikokujin外国人foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
gaikokujin sensei 外国人先生foreign teacher. If you’re a Western foreigner you get a special status as a teacher, i.e. higher salary than your Japanese counterpart. We call this privilege.
gakudō kurabu 学童クラブafter school care center for kids with working parents
gasorin sutandoガソリンスタンドgas station, or gasoline stand
gasuガスgas. Used primarily for the utility, not passing gas or gasoline
gekkyū月給monthly salary
genjitsu現実reality, actualities
genkan玄関the entrance of a home. It’s where you take off your shoes before you enter the home and traditionally it is a step up from there to enter the home, proper.
genshiryokuhatsuden原子力発電nuclear power. It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Kind of fun to just casually reel off… 😉
geshuku下宿boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
gimu kyōiku義務教育mandatory education. In the USA, it is until age 16. In Japan it is until the end of junior high school. This makes a lot more sense, right? Think about it.
Gion Matsuri祇園祭Gion Festival. One of the three big festivals that happens in Kyoto. This is a summer festival. Google it.
giri okāsan義理お母さんmother-in-law. If you put giri before mother, father, sister, brother etc. it turns it into an in-law.
giri onēsan義理お姉さん (older) sister-in-law
giri otōsan義理お父さん father-in-law
gochisōごちそうa feast. Used to praise food not just for a real feast
gofun五分five minutes. Go is five and fun is minutes. However, fun changes in combination depending on which number it is used with. (You need either a teacher or a textbook to understand why this is.)
gokiburiゴキブリcockroach. There are both brown and black ones. Some of them fly. They are huge.
gokiburi hoi hoiゴキブリホイホイwhat we in the West call cockroach hotels. Hoi hoi is something like “come hither.”
gokkoごっこpretend. A suffix used to indicate playing at something
gōruden uīkuゴールデンウィークGolden Week or these days abbreviated down to “GW”. Three national holidays fall between the span of a week and when you add a weekend in, you get a nice period of vacation at the end of April through the beginning of May. Avoid visiting Japan from abroad during this time because trains between cities can be very crowded.
gyōza餃子Fried dumplings.You should know this since they are pretty mainstream outside Japan now.
hachigatsu8月the month of August, i.e. 8th month
Haha no Hi母の日Mother’s Day. Celebrated similarly in Japan. Note that Haha is how you refer to your own mother. Someone else’s mother is okāsan.
hamubāguハムバーグhamburger. There are a few words for hamburger depending on how it is served.
hananose. With a different character, it also means flower. Ponder that.
hanadokei花時計flower clock. Maybe I dreamed it because all the Googling in the world isn’t yielding a photo. It used to be the place where you’d meet up with people downtown. It was in the lobby of Takashimaya and was a clock surrounded by flowers. Maybe it was known my a different name, but I always called it the hanadokei.
hanayome shūgyō花嫁修業the kind of training a young woman does before marrying. It used to be flower arranging, tea ceremony, possibly cooking school or calligraphy. Depends on the family.
hangenpatsu反原発against nuclear power” It’s the name of the movement.
hankachiハンカチhandkerchief. Very popular in Japan. I wonder why we Americans don’t use them as much.
hatsufirst or beginning. Used to modify so many things. There’s hatsukoi 初恋, or first love and hatsumimi 初耳 or “first I’ve heard” which is literally first ear.
hatsu sekku発節句first festival. If you’re a boy, it is on May 5 and if you’re a girl it is on March 3.
hayashiはやしspecial music. The flutes, drums and bells of Gion Festival
heibon平凡ordinary, unremarkable, common
henka変化change [noun]
Hi no Yōjin火の用心the chant that reminds people to turn off gas and electric heaters and appliances before going to bed so as to avoid starting a fire. Often translated as “beware of fire.” It’s more like “be careful not to start a fire”.
hikiniku挽肉ground meat. Pork was cheaper than beef when I lived in Japan and a burger was always a mix of the two or even all ground pork.
hiraganaひらがなsyllabic phonetic writing system
hiyashi chūka冷やし中華cold Chinese noodles. See also, reimen
hiyayakko冷奴cold tofu dish. A staple summer food at home. The better the tofu, the better this dish.
hobosan保母さんa daycare worker
hoikuen保育園daycare center
hōken seido封建制度feudal system. Make sure you memorize this entirely useful phrase. (I’m joking)
honkakuteki本格的genuine, the real thing
honyakusha翻訳者translatorHonyaku usually refers to written translation and sha is a suffix for person. There is another word for interpreters.
Honyaradōほんやら洞a famous coffee shop that a bunch of hippies built in 1973. It burned down, sadly, in January, 2015.
hoshōnin保証人to stay in Japan on a cultural or student visa you needed a Japanese person to ask as your guaranteer.
hoshūkō補習校Literally, supplementary school, but refers to the Saturday school held overseas in areas where a Japanese population necessitate it. They range from being small cultural schools catering to part Japanese children all the way to very serious endeavors meant to ensure that Japanese children living temporarily outside of Japan will not fall behind in their studies. Don’t even ask me about parent roles. They are expected and way beyond PTA’s of America.
hosutesuホステスhostess… but Japanese style. A pricy bar hostess. Not someone who guides you to your table, but a woman who sits with you, fills your drinks, and charms you. (I’d totally fail at this job.)
hosuto kurabu ホストクラブhost club. The opposite of a hostess club. In other words, where the boys are. For ladies.
hyakkajiten百科事典encyclopedia. Literally “100 category dictionary”
Hyakumanben百万遍A neighborhood of Kyoto where Kyoto University is located. It’s good for cheap dives and has a real student vibe to it.
hyakutōban110番Number 110 – the police number you call in an emergency in Japan
ichinenseiいちねんせいa first-grader. It could be at an elementary school, but is also used for the first years of junior high, high school, and college, though usually modified to indicate which level of school.
ikebana生花flower arranging
ikigai生き甲斐reason for living, or that thing that makes you wake up in the morning with a smile. Try googling it.
Ikkai dake desu 一回だけですJust once.” or “I’ll do it just once.”
inaka田舎hometown. This word and concept comes up a lot. Some translate it as ancestral homeland. You never forget your roots in Japan and your inaka is where you go for longer holidays.
itabasami板挟みa dilemma. Literally it means stuck between two boards
itanda ebiいたんだ えびApparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jordan that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jordan fail.
J-doramāJードラマJapanese drama (tv programs)
jidōhanbaiki自動販売機Vending machine. It’s a mouthful, isn’t it! Literally automatic selling machine.
Jieitai自衛隊Japanese self-defense force, also known as the JSDF. This is a post WW2 military only for the purpose of self-defense. You should google it if you’re interested.
jinan次男second son
jinja神社Shinto shrine
jinrikusha人力車a tourist gimmick for those who don’t want to walk and would rather ride in a carriage pulled by a real live person.
jishin地震earthquake. Though Kyoto is not as earthquake prone as other places in Japan this is one word you should learn no matter where you are in Japan. They happen.
jishin tappuri自信たっぷり“with plenty of confidence.” jishin [自信] means confidence and tappuri means plenty of
joshidaisei女子大生female college students. Calling them “coeds” as we used to do in America would be the right kind of feel for this word.
junyūshitsu授乳室 nursing room. If you have a nursing baby or toddler, watch out for signs that will lead you to a nursing location. Department stores have quite nice ones.
kabiかびmold. You really do need to watch out for this during the rainy season. There used to be stories about how young mothers would find mold growing on their babies’ backs. I had trouble believing that ever really happened….
kagayaku輝く to shine or sparkle (verb). This is used for stars in the sky but can also be used for people. For example a bride on her wedding day (one hopes.)
kagikey. Also means lock, so lock and key. Ponder that.
kaji家事household tasks
kaji tetsudai家事手伝いliterally “helping with household work.” Women use it to describe that period when they are not working outside of the home and just sort of waiting to get married. It is probably outdated at this point.
kakigōriかき氷shaved ice. Nothing like a snowcone though. We’re talking major upgrade from that!
kamakiriカマキリpraying mantis
Kamigamo Jinja上賀茂神社A very famous shrine in the northern section of Kyoto. You could google it.
Kandagawa神田川a river in Tokyo. Kanda is a part of Tokyo, and kawa means river. Very straightforward. If you’re riding a train through Tokyo you may see it from the window. Very urban. The Kanda area is where all the used bookstores are and was a favorite lodging place for students back in the day since it was cheaper to live there. Also the name of a very famous folk song.
kanji漢字Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
kankōkōgai観光公害over-tourism. Literally tourism pollution.
Kansai関西the Western area of Japan
kansōki乾燥機 clothes dryer. In all my years in Japan I never had one. Other than the rainy season, that worked fine for me. During the rainy season I’d hang the wash inside…sometimes for days.
kantan簡単easy, simple
Kantō関東the Eastern area of Japan
karā bokkusuカラーボックスcolor box (cheap furniture used for storage and favored by students)
karashidōfu辛子どうふmustard tofu. A speciality food of Kyoto in the summer months
Karasu ga tonda カラスが飛んだOh look, a crow is flying!” It’s an expression used to distract a toddler or small child. Kind of like telling a child to look up at an airplane to distract them. This totally works with kids. Raised my own kids using this! You do need to say it dramatically, though.
kashite貸して the imperative form of the verb ‘kasu’ which means ‘to lend.’ A casual way of asking. An adult might add a please to it. A child uses it to ask to borrow something or try it.
katakanaカタカナsyllabic phonetic writing system (because apparently we need two of them. Can you see that it looks “blockier” than hiragana?
katei ryōri家庭料理home cooking
katoributa蚊取り豚a ceramic pig that holds mosquito coils (you had to be there… )
katsuobushi鰹節bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
kawaii可愛いIf you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
kawarimono変わり者maverick, someone who is different
kazoku家族family. Note that if you are asking someone about their family you want to put an honorific in front of it and say gokazoku
kenka喧嘩quarrel or fight
Kenkyūsha研究社a publishing house in Japan. They publish the huge J-E and E-J dictionaries that translators favor. The huge J-E one used to be known as the Green Goddess to many of us.
kikanshien気管支炎bronchitis. The curse of many foreigners who spend their first winter in Japan with inefficient heating.
kimono着物It is not a bathrobe! It literally means thing that you wear, but refers to a proper Japanese kimono in most cases.
kinmokusei金木犀osmanthus flower. This blooms mid-October in Japan and has the most wonderfully fragrant scent
kinome木の芽Japanese pepper leaves is what the dictionary tells me. It’s primarily used as a garnish and has a very distinctive taste. I have never seen it in America. So sad.
kinpatsu金髪blonde hair
kippu切符ticket, like for trains or the movies. Not used for traffic violations.
kissaten喫茶店coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
Kiyomizu清水Possibly the most famous temple in Kyoto. Properly called Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺because Kiyomizu is also a kind of pottery etc. Literally means “pure water.”
kodomotachi子供達children, i.e. more than one. There are no real plurals in the Japanese language, but by adding -tachi at the end, it indicates a grouping
Kodomo no Hi 子供の日Children’s Day or Boy’s Day in Japan. It falls on May 5. Note that Girl’s Day is NOT a national holiday, but Boy’s Day is. Which may be why it is now diplomatically called Children’s Day.
koi nobori鯉のぼりcarp kites on a stick. See illustration. If you have a son, you’ll display them.
Kōhaku Uta Gassen紅白歌合戦A big song contest that has been broadcast by NHK tv since 1953 on New Year’s Eve. It pits the men (white team) against the women (red team) and has huge viewership. It goes until almost midnight and then the scene solemnly switches to the chiming of temple bells all over Japan as the new year is welcomed.
koneko子猫kitten. Note that this is a combination of cat and the prefix for child. Now then, if you know that inu means dog, you can guess how to say puppy!
korokkeコロッケcroquette (yum!)
kotatsu炬燵a low table combined with a special futon that is used as a heating device
kotoba言葉word or phrase
kubomi窪みan indent in something…like a hamburger patty
kuchikomi口コミ “word of mouth.” This is actually a really cool word and one I often use as an example of language oddities. Because it is a combination of Japanese and English. Kuchi means mouth in Japanese. But “komi” comes from the English word “communication.” So, kuchi gets written with kanji and komi in katakana as all borrowed words are. There aren’t a lot of commonly used phrases that act like this, so it always tickles my fancy.
kumoくもit means spider, but it also means cloud. Some say you can distinguish which is which by the intonation. But that varies by region. So you’d usually go with the context. It is conceivable that even two Japanese speaking together could need clarification. In that case it might be explained as sora no kumo or “I mean the kumo in the sky.” Gotta love this language!
kurisumasu kēki クリスマスケーキChristmas cake. Back in the 1970s Japanese people assumed that we Americans all ate this on Christmas Eve. And were surprised when we had no clue about this cake. They are still wildly popular and you cannot have Christmas Eve without one.
kurumacar, automobile
kuruma isu車椅子wheel chair. Isu itself is chair and kuruma is car or a wheeled vehicle
kusakanmuri草冠the radical for “grass.” Almost any flower is going to have it used.
kyo-yasai 京野菜a term for the speciality vegetables grown in Kyoto which include round eggplant, red carrots and much more. Google it.
makaroni saradaマカロニサラダmacaroni salad
makudonarudoマクドナルドMcDonalds. It’s a mouthful to say. I think you can get away with just saying makku if you are in context.
mamachariママチャリthe kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.
manējāマネージャーsimply means manager, but if it is a woman manager of a sports team she’s probably just doing their laundry.
manga漫画 graphic fiction or frankly, comic books
manshionマンシオンa type of modern apartment. Someone should investigate how the heck this made it into the Japanese language. Aspirational, perhaps? At any rate, trust me… it is definitely not what you first think!
meeye or eyes
Meiji Jidai明治時代 The Meiji Era (1868-1912) By the way, this is an utterly fascinating era since it is when Western culture
menkyo免許license. You can use this for driver’s license, but there are also licenses for teaching flower arranging, calligraphy etc. Just about anything in Japan seems to require some license or another and the tests are usually quite rigorous.
mensetsu面接(job) interview
meron panメロンパンmelon bread. There’s the r and l thing at work here. And pan apparently comes from Portuguese.
Midorogaike深泥池The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. But it was a nice place to live!
mikanみかんJapanese tangerines
MinMin珉珉the name of a cheap Chinese joint in Kyoto. A real greasy spoon that women used to not want to enter. But it was the saving grace for starving students.
mirinみりんIs there English for mirin? I don’t think there is. It’s a kind of sweet sake used for cooking.
miryoku魅力charm or fascination. If you add –teki to it, you can use it to describe a person or place as charming or fascinating.
miseshop or store
mitsuba三つ葉honewort. Now honestly, does that have any meaning for you? It’s a green vegetable used often as a garnish as it adds a bit of oomph to a dish.
mizuwater. A general word for water, but hot water has its own word – oyu お湯
mizugi水着bathing suit
mochiおもちSorry, but what planet are you living on if you don’t know what this is?! Google it. (But if you can read Japanese, notice I put the honorific “o” on it when I typed the Japanese because I couldn’t help myself.)
mochigome餅米a kind of sticky rice that is used for making mochi and other special dishes called okowa.
mokuzō木造made of wood. Tokyo burned so quickly during WW2 because of all the wooden structures. And since homes and buildings are so close together in many cities, it’s important to know what your building is made of and if it is wooden or has some steel support, etc. Fire spreads when you live and work in tight quarters.
momohikiももひきa kind of underwear. I’m pretty sure this is just for men.
Monbushō文部省The Japanese Ministry of Education
mōningu settoモーニングセットmorning set. Often a special set served with coffee, toast and an egg and perhaps a small salad. There are infinite variations on this. It’s an economical choice as well.
moshi wake gozaimasen 申し訳ございませんmy deepest apologies” There are many ways to apologize in Japanese and many levels of politeness. This particular phrase is for when you are deeply sorry and it is pretty darn polite.
mukadeムカデmillipede. Apparently they are NOT poisonous like centipedes are but I assure you there is not a scarier looking bug around. I once found one in my futon and I deserted my lodgings for three days due to the shock of it. Really.
mushiatsui蒸し暑いhumid, an adjective
musumedaughter or young woman

***Click here for the rest of the glossary – N-Z