Speakers of certain languages sometimes get a leg-up when learning Japanese. For example, Japanese includes Chinese characters, which means Chinese speakers can often get the gist of a text even if they don’t understand the grammar. Similarly, Korean speakers might find that Japanese grammar is kinda similar to theirs. And we native English speakers get a huge helping hand from the hundreds of English loan words that have been adopted into modern Japanese.

But sometimes, these loan words aren’t really our friends at all. Instead, they’re what’s known as false friends – words that sound similar in two languages yet have a completely different meaning. In co-opting English words into Japanese, sometimes our crafty Nihonjin pals have assigned our words to things that actually mean something totally different. It’s almost like they’re trying to trick us!

Join us for a quick primer on some Japanese loanwords you might have heard before, and what they really mean!

Let’s jump right in and begin the list. The first few are ones that even long-term foreigners who have pretty hot Japanese skills might not even be aware of. (Let us know in the comments section if you already knew everything on the list and Mr. Sato will personally bake you some cookies!)

スマート, sumaato, smart

Unfortunately, this doesn’t actually mean being intelligent or a snappy dresser, as it’s often used in English. Nope, in Japanese, “sumaato” means someone with a slim physique—something that’s still generally prized in Japan, although things are gradually changing with the rise of “Marshmallow Girls” and “Sausage Bread Boys“.

スタイル, sutairu, style

“She’s got great style” isn’t perhaps as much of a compliment in Japan as you might think. Instead of having to do with fashion or one’s personal aesthetic, “sutairu” more often actually means a hot and sexy body. This probably explains why there are so many hostess clubs in Japan called Style. The confusing thing is that in recent times “sutairu” is now increasingly used to mean, well, style, so you kind of have to examine the word in context. It’s probably safer to go with another loanword, “sensu” or “sense” when you want to compliment someone’s personal style or eye for aesthetics.

オードブル, oodoburu, hors ‘d’ouvre (appetiser)

Okay, this one is technically French, but let’s all just agree that it’s super weird. When I was new to learning Japanese, I honestly misread this one as “audible” and was massively confused by what I thought was “audible cheese” on sale at my local supermarket.

It’s no good, I can’t hear a thing!

ノルマ, noruma, норма (the norm, usual)

And this one is Russian! In Russian, it means “the usual” or “the norm” but in Japanese it actually means quota! We’re not sure how this one came about exactly, but it’s a good one to learn if you’d like to succeed in business in Japan. And if you don’t want to look like a buffoon by asking who Norma is.

テンション, tenshon, tension

Here’s one you’re bound to hear when hanging out with your new Japanese friends, especially if they like to party. The phrase “tenshon ga takai” (lit. “tension is high”) doesn’t mean a super awkward situation, it actually means being happy, excited, and having fun. Similarly, “tenshon ga hikui” (tension is low) can be used to describe a gloomy atmosphere or person.

フェミニスト, feminisuto, feminist

Be careful of this one. It doesn’t describe someone who’s an advocate of feminism, but instead, someone who’s chivalrous. A guy who pulls out chairs and opens doors for others might sometimes be described as a feminisuto, but this has been largely superseded in recent years by the new term “redii faasuto” (lady first).

マンション, manshon, mansion

In Japan, a mansion is an apartment building, not a big fancy house. So why don’t they just call it an apaatomento, you might ask. Well, they do also also use the word apaato to mean an apartment building, but there are actually some small differences between apaato and manshon. We’re not 100% on the details (hey, we’re no real estate agents), but apparently it has something to do with the difference in materials used for construction. Oh, and “manshon” are usually a bit more upmarket….

ハンドルキーパー, handorukiipaa, handle keeper

Going out drinking in Japan? We hope you’ve got a handoru kiipaa with you. Any ideas? No? A handle keeper is a designated driver, the one whose responsibility it is to see their drunken friends safely home. Japan has a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving, and if you’re caught behind the wheel after scoffing so much as one brandy-filled chocolate, you can kiss your licence goodbye. Still not quite with us? A steering wheel is called a “handle” in Japanese, so a “handle keeper” is a sober someone who’s in charge of the wheels. Let me channel Atsugiri Jason for a moment and just say, “why, Japanese people?!”

These cognac-filled chocolates have a warning on the box, which says “this product contains alcohol, so please abstain from driving, etc.”

カンニング, kanningu, cunning

In English, cunning means someone who is very smart and shrewd, as in: “He’s as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.” But in Japan, kanningu (not to be confused with canning fruit, either) is a word that describes the act of cheating on a test. Something that is extremely frowned upon in Japan with its emphasis on standardised testing and strict entrance exams.

ホーム, hoomu, home

You’ll hear this one a lot at the train station. Home comes from, and is intended to mean, “platform” for some reason. Possibly because there isn’t a syllable for “fo” in Japanese, except in loan words, so they decided to go with  ‘ho’ instead to keep things old school when they chopped off the first part of ‘platform’. This is a pretty good one to learn if you’re going to be travelling in Japan. Otherwise, you might end up in awkward conversations like “Yes, I want to go home. That’s why I’m ASKING YOU which platform to take…”

アイス, aisu, ice

If a Japanese friend asks you to go to the conbini and “pick up some ice” and you bring back a bag of ice, you’re gonna look like a frosty fool. “Ice” is short for “aisu kuriimu” (ice cream) so when your girlfriend tells you that she’s got a hankering for some aisu, you’d better get her down to Cold Stone Creamery pronto. Ice, as in the frozen water stuff, is known as koori in Japanese. Confusingly, “aisu” also means “cold, with ice” as in “iced coffee” as opposed to “hot coffee.” It’s another context call; Japanese is full of them!

“Ice tastes so yummy in winter!”

ホルモン, horumon, hormone

Be careful if your Japanese friends ask you if you’d like to eat hormone, especially if you’ve got a delicate stomach. See, this one is actually a double-double false friend. The word horumon in Japanese does sometimes mean hormone, as in the stuff that makes some teenagers go all crazy-like, but when it’s applied to food, the word actually means “stuff you’d throw away” (horu, to discard, mono, stuff). If you haven’t guessed yet, we’re talking about offal, guts, entrails, icky animal innard bits grilled up yakiniku-style. It’s actually totally delicious, but probably something that would send a lot of Westerners running for the toilet bowl if they ate it without knowing what it was.

ロマン/ローマン, ロマンティック, ロマンチック roman/rooman/romantikku, romachikku, romantic

This one can be confusing as hell, and not just because there’s a billion ways to spell it. While “romantic” in Japanese often does mean exactly the same as in English, it also has another meaning, which is pretty nuanced and sometimes gets lost in translation completely. One famous example is in the 1998 PlayStation classic RPG Final Fantasy VIII. Main character Squall’s rival Seifer hints about his “romantic dream” early on in the game, which later turns out to be an allusion to his life’s ambition of becoming the Sorceress’s Knight. The use of “romantic” in the translation led some to wonder if that means ol’ Seifer had a bit of a thing for the Sorceress, when what it means in this context is “a grand ambition, a big dream.”

ドンマイ, donmai, don’t mind

You might hear this one while playing baseball in the park with your Japanese chums, especially if you don’t have the best ball control skills. “Donmai” means something like “shake it off, don’t worry about it” in Japanese, but sounds kind of weird in English.

オーライ, oorai, all right

You’ll often hear workmen outside bellowing this in the early hours of the morning, usually accompanied by the incessant beeping sound that large vehicles make when reversing. It’s a pretty common phrase used to help people back into a space. All right then.

マジックテープ, majikkuteepu, magic tape

Magic tape is what they call Velcro in Japan! I love this one. Quick, someone hand me the magic tape! Hmm, now we’re wondering why Velcro is called Velcro. A quick Googling reveals that it comes from the French terms velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). Isn’t etymology fascinating?

ダイヤ, daiya, diagram/diamond

Here’s a loanword that has two different meanings in Japan. Most often used for a train schedule or timetable (from diagram), it can nonetheless confuse English speakers, since a diagram kind of isn’t the same thing as a timetable. It gets even more confusing because daiya is also used to mean diamonds. Then again, it would be pretty weird if the train service was all out of whack because of a problem with the diamonds.

ジュース, jyuusu, juice

A pretty tricky Gaijin trap, this one. In Japan, jyuusu is used to refer to any soft drink, not just fruit juice. Coke and Dr Pepper are both “juice” in Japan. Ah well, they both rot your teeth and send your blood sugar levels soaring, so we suppose there’s not all that much difference here anyway.

“Went to the store to buy juice for tomorrow’s Halloween party! Got a big bottle of cola!”

ビッチ, bicchi, bitch

To be honest, you shouldn’t be throwing this word around in either language. In English, ‘bitch’ is a particularly mean slang term to refer to an unpleasant woman, while in Japan it means more like “heartlessly slutty”. There’s a manga series called Mairu no Bicchi (Mairu the Bitch) which details how ugly duckling highschooler Mairu transforms herself into a hot yet callous “bicchi” in order to wreak vengeance on the hearts of the shallow boys at school who bullied her for her previously homely looks. Another way to describe someone who is “slutty” in Japan is “yariman” (for girls) or “yarichin” for boys. (But really, these are not words you want to use lightly, even amongst friends.) OR perhaps we could just dispense with all of the unpleasant words altogether and learn some nice, happy Japanese words like “dekoboko” (bumpy) or “nyanchan” (kitty cat!).

To sum up, modern Japanese contains hundreds and hundreds of these foreign loan words, or gairaigo, and that number is continuing to grow. Hopefully this list has demonstrated the importance of double-checking the meaning of loanwords rather than assuming that they’re the same as their foreign language counterparts. That’s just a recipe for awkwardness waiting to happen!

Have you ever been left red-faced by using Japanese loanwords in the wrong way? And what are some awesome examples we’ve forgotten? Maybe even some more from different languages other than just English? Let us know in the comments!

Main Image: KnowYourMeme