As mentioned many times before on this site, the modern Japanese language uses a set of characters to represent foreign words called katakana. Such characters are used for foreign place names such a Beverly Hills (ビバリーヒルズ) or people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (マフムード・アフマディーネジャード).

However, this feature of Japanese has been criticized by some for allowing the purity of the language to be polluted by foreign influences. It can also cause confusion by creating English words that have different meanings than the original.

That being said, for foreigners visiting Japan with a limited knowledge of the language this list may prove invaluable. Excluding the obvious classics like “OK” (オケ) and “McDonald’s” (マクドナルド) here are some relatively newer loan words ranked by understandability in Japanese.

Here are the top ten words determined in a survey by NTT of over 1,000 people. The words are written in their original language, followed by their Japanese counterparts and the percentage of people who understood them.

10 – Context [77.4%]

It seems like about 3/4 of Japanese people won’t need to guess the meaning of “context” from the context. However, if your Japanese grammar is limited it’s hard to image what context you could possibly use “context” in effectively.

9 – Buffer [78.0%]

Perhaps Japanese people know this word because in such a densely populated country, personal space is golden. Either that or this word might have been etched into the minds of those who had to suffer through streaming videos with dial-up modems.

8 – Scheme [79.2%]

I assume most people know of this word in the drier and more formal context of a plan or framework for things, rather than the sinister schemes concocted by supervillans.

7 – Milestone [81.4%]

They may not be able to tell you how far a mile is but they sure can tell you when a milestone has been reached in Japan.

6 – Paradigm [82.4%]

Indeed the power of this overused buzzword was so great that it has even spread into Japanese and caused a shift into a whole new… um, way of thinking.

5 – Budget [83.4%]

In Japanese this word is only really used in the sense of one’s projected spending. The other popular use of the word to express thrifty spending is much less popular here. So if anyone from the car rental agency is reading, you may want to hold off this market a little longer.

4 – Evidence [84.8%]

Evidence that detective novels are really popular around here. Actually, a lot of netizens who read the rankings seemed to feel that this was the katakana word they used the most.

3 – Alternative [89.5%]

The English “alternative” is used in Japanese in the sense of something different from mainstream like “alternative medicine” or “alternative education.” Even the ironically titled “alternative rock” that was anything but is used in Japanese. Yet, oddly enough, the band Pearl Jam is surprisingly not as well-known as you would expect. Go figure.

2 – Authorize [98.8%]

This is another English word that probably got etched into Japanese people’s heads as it flashed on the computer screen while they scrambled for their iTunes password that they hadn’t used in six-months.

1 – Agenda [100%]

I’m honestly a little surprised at the number one spot and a hundred percent understanding of this loan word. Something like “alternative” I could see being used in all walks of life, but “agenda” seems relegated to more formal contexts like business or education. Still, perhaps it is the way the word is constructed that makes it easily understandable in Japanese. Many of the top 10 words use unusual sounds in Japanese like V or TH, but “agenda” fits rather nicely in the Japanese phonics set.

By the way, the entire NTT survey ranked 45 words which we’ll print out at the end of the article. It would appear that they chose more recent words that crossed over only from English although katakana often uses German, Dutch, and Portuguese among others. In the meantime, if you happen to encounter a Japanese person who doesn’t speak English, just tell them “There is evidence we will have to authorize putting buffers into the alternative budget scheme in context of the milestone setting paradigm shift as mentioned on the agenda.”

Chances are they’ll know what you mean.

Source: Goo via My Game News Flash (Japanese)

45 – Manifesto [20.8%]
44 – Potential [27.5%]
43 – Vitality [28.1%]
42 – Constant [32.1%]
41 – Aggressive [32.7%]
40 – Response [33.7%]
39 – Neglect [37.2%]
38 – Minority [38.8%]
37 – Routine/ Routine Work [40.2%]
36 – Logic [40.8%]
35 – Alert (as in warning) [41.4%]
34 – Default [41.6%]
(as in both “failure to pay” and “original settings”)
33 – Wallet [42.8%]
32 – Compliance [45.1%]
31 – Resume (as in CV) [46.3%]
30 – Sector [46.3%]
29 – Resource [48.3%]
28 – Critical [50.9%]
27 – Feature [51.1%]
26 – Fact [51.1%]
25 – Brush Up [51.9%]
24 – Majority [54.7%]
23 – Priority [55.0%]
22 – Conference [55.6%]
21 – Benefit [59.6%]
20 – Commit/Commitment [62.6%]
19 – Agree [66.5%]
18 – Gimmick [68.3%]
17 – Summary [68.7%]
16 – Drastic [69.1%]
15 – Initiative [70.7%]
14 – Pending [70.9%]
13 – Consensus [72.3%]
12 – Incentive [74.7%]
11 – Governance [76.4%]
10 – Context [77.4%]
9 – Buffer [78.0%]
8 – Scheme [79.2%]
7 – Milestone [81.4%]
6 – Paradigm [82.4%]
5 – Budget [83.4%]
4 – Evidence [84.8%]
3 – Alternative [89.5%]
2 – Authorize [98.8%]
1 – Agenda [100%]