• Home
  • /
  • Columns
  • /
  • How Strange “Japanese English” Is Confusing Me

How Strange “Japanese English” Is Confusing Me

Aside from writing articles on Kokoro Media, I am also involved in consulting jobs, which has led me to discover the world of business in Japanese. Over the years, I have been learning business words in Japanese, some of which are related specially to my field, and some seem to be reflecting the local trends.

Among these words, there is a special kind of “Japanese English” that, I have recently realized, is starting to confuse me. By “Japanese English,” I mean what is called wasei eigo

There are roughly three types of English you can encounter in Japan:

  • Badly translated English and other mysterious-looking English, most commonly known under the pejorative name “Engrish.”
  • Words that are gairaigo, or loan words from other languages. Some Japanese words come from English and are written in katakana. For example, “esukareta” for “escalator.” 
  • Expressions that are English sounding, but are completely made in Japan, often by combining simple English words that most people have heard of. This is called wasei eigo, or English made in Japan.

For example, the main picture for this article, the supposedly English expression, “handle name (handoru neemu),” is a username, a screen name, a handle.

Being born in France, I was already familiar with English words and expressions perceived as “cool” and “modern” before coming to Japan. This is even more true in the media, fashion, marketing, and business in general. The young dynamic marketer who keeps throwing mysterious-sounding, supposedly trendy English words into conversations has become a common character trope. So, to me, it was not a big surprise that a similar phenomenon was happening in Japan.

To give you an idea, here are a few wasei eigo words that I have encountered in my business experience so far:

  • Imeeji, from “image.” Image here means a mental image, an idea, an understanding. Also, on promotional documents or leaflets, you will often see “Shashin wa imeeji desu,” written under pictures. This can be confusing if you translate it as, “The pictures are images.” What it means is, “Pictures are for illustration purposes only.” 
A wondering clay figure
Me when I am trying to figure out if a word is wasei eigo or correct English. (Picture is for illustration purposes only.)
  • Wankusshon, supposedly “one cushion.” This has nothing to do with beddings! In a very Japanese business philosophy of harmony, “putting one cushion” is when you do something to soften the blow of your next action. Most of the time, it means either marking a pause before taking action, or using a third party as an intermediate in negotiations with a business partner.
  • Purasu arufa, “plus alpha.” It means adding something, to give more value. In English, you would say “+x.”
  • Kureemu, from “claim.” This one is pretty famous. It does not mean a claim, but a complaint from a customer.
  • Burasshu appu, from “brush up.” It does not mean brushing up your skills, but refining a document or a product.

Wasei eigo causes confusion to everybody. It is confusing for English speakers because it sounds like English but should be considered like a new Japanese word. It is confusing for Japanese people because they will use the same expressions when talking in English, and will feel frustrated for not being understood. A classic example is a Japanese person who will tell you, “I live in a mansion,” but they mean they live in an apartment. Because in Japanese, “manshon” is an apartment built using concrete, while “apaato” is an apartment built using wood.

Similarly, I have recently seen a young Japanese man saying, “NG, NG!” to tell a non-Japanese speaker they should not do something. The latter was trying hard to understand what was said to him, but he probably was far from realizing that for the Japanese, “NG,” standing for “no good,” is used as the reversed expression for “OK.”

The main reason why wasei eigo is confusing me is that I started working in service and business in Japan. So, I have been integrating some of these wasei expressions thinking that they are correct English, or that they come from recent global business trends. In other cases, I have been using the wasei version for so long that when I write a business email in English, the correct word will not come to my mind. 

However, I have felt a slight relief in reading some accounts from English native speakers who have found out Japanese English has impaired their native skills, and they sometimes have trouble finding the correct word too. If this is the case for you too, please share your experience in the comments, and do not hesitate to tell me which wasei eigo you found the most confusing!

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.