Exploring Japanese Words in English: From Anime to Zen

Grover Laughtonreviewed byIryna Andrus / more about Editorial Process10 min
Created: Apr 20, 2023Last updated: Jan 24, 2024
Japanese Words In English

Language is more than just a form of communication – it’s also an essential part of cultural identity. The Japanese language, for example, is widely recognized as complex and challenging to learn but has significantly influenced English-speaking countries. From popular games like Nintendo to delicious foods like sushi, Japanese words in English have permeated everyday conversations and added a new vocabulary to our collective knowledge.

This article aims to introduce 20 Japanese words in English that you should know. You’ll get a brief explanation of each term, as well as its pronunciation and usage. Also, we will provide some examples where you may have heard or seen these words before, so let’s get started!

Japanese Language in English: What You Need to Know

The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and language is one of the mediums through which this happens. As well as French and Spanish languages, Japanese has significantly shaped English vocabulary as well. It is hard to imagine a city without sushi restaurants, a pop culture without anime, or a martial arts enthusiast unfamiliar with words like karate. Therefore, grasping the meaning of these Japanese words can be both practical and enriching.

Here are some key things you need to know about the Japanese language concerning its usage in English:

  • Pop culture influence. Famous cultural exports such as anime, video games (Nintendo), martial arts films (Bruce Lee movies), and cuisine drove much of Japan’s influence on Western society over recent years. These culturally significant creations have put Japanese words on the English-speaking radar, adding more vocabulary to our collective knowledge.
  • Pronunciation. Japanese words have unique pronunciations, which may differ significantly from English sounds. The key is to pay attention to the vowels and syllables pronounced distinctly in Japanese.
  • Meaning evolution. While some of these borrowings have retained similar meanings across languages, others may have evolved into something different from their original Japanese meaning. For instance, the word “anime” in English refers to a specific genre of animated television shows and films primarily produced in Japan, while its original meaning is any animation worldwide.

There are several reasons why you might be interested in learning these terms. First, knowing Japanese words used in English can broaden your cultural understanding and appreciation. Being familiar with these terms will also enhance your travel experience if you visit Japan or interact with native speakers. And if you are an avid watcher of anime or other Japanese media, recognizing these words will help you better understand the storyline and enjoy the show more intensely.


Common Japanese Loan Words Used in English

Now that we have laid the groundwork, it’s time to dive into some Japanese words you should know. Here are the most common ones to get started:

  • Sushi /ˈsuː.ʃi/

One of the most well-known Japanese foods, sushi is typically made with vinegared rice and raw seafood or vegetables. You can find it in many restaurants worldwide, and it has become a staple of Japanese cuisine in English-speaking countries.

I went out for sushi with my friends last night, and we had various rolls with salmon, tuna, and avocado.

  • Karaoke /ˌker.iˈoʊ.ki/

It is a form of entertainment where people sing along to pre-recorded songs using a microphone, and lyrics are displayed on-screen. It originated in Japan and has become popular worldwide, especially among young adults.

We had so much fun singing karaoke at the birthday party last weekend! We sang everything from classic rock to modern pop hits.

  • Origami /ˌɔːr.ɪˈɡɑː.mi/

It is the art of paper folding, which originated in Japan. It uses a single sheet of paper that can be transformed into intricate shapes and designs without glue or cutting. The resulting paper sculptures can range from animals to geometric shapes.

Last weekend, my friend taught me how to make a crane from origami paper! I never realized how fun this could be until she showed me.

  • Kimono /kəˈmoʊ.noʊ/

This traditional Japanese garment is worn by men and women for special occasions, such as weddings or festivals. It typically has long sleeves and a rectangular shape that wraps around the body, secured with a sash called an obi. The designs and colors vary widely depending on the occasion and the person wearing them.

At the Japanese festival, I saw many people dressed in beautiful kimonos with vibrant colors and intricate patterns.

  • Haiku /ˈhaɪ.kuː/

This short form of poetry originated in Japan. It typically consisted of three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables again in the third line. It often reflects natural elements such as seasons or animals.

Writing haikus can be challenging but fun; it teaches you to think carefully about words’ order while being concise yet meaningful.

  • Sensei /ˈsen.seɪ/

This Japanese word in English refers to a teacher or mentor figure who possesses knowledge or expertise beyond the average person’s level. Depending on the context, it can be used formally (as an honorific) or informally among peers.

My sensei at the karate dojo has taught me so much about discipline, focus, and self-defense – I’m grateful for his guidance.

  • Typhoon /taɪˈfuːn/

A typhoon is a tropical storm with strong winds and heavy rainfall in the Pacific Ocean. It can be disastrous if it hits populated areas, causing floods or landslides.

The meteorologists warned us about an incoming typhoon this weekend, so we’re stocking up on food and supplies just in case.

  • Tsunami /tsuːˈnɑː.mi/

A tsunami is a series of ocean waves caused by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption. It can cause devastating damage to coastal areas, and it’s essential to evacuate quickly once the warning sirens sound.

After the earthquake, we were alerted about possible tsunamis and quickly headed for higher ground with our emergency bags.

  • Sake /ˈsɑː.ki/

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. It can vary in flavor and strength, with various types of sake available for different occasions or dishes.

I love enjoying warm sake with my sushi – it pairs perfectly and adds an extra layer of indulgence.

  • Zen /zen/

Zen is a form of Buddhism that originated in Japan, emphasizing meditation and mindfulness. Its teachings have become popular worldwide as a way to reduce stress and live more intentionally.

I’ve been practicing Zen meditation every morning before work, and it has helped me feel more grounded and focused throughout the day.

  • Wasabi /wəˈsɑː.bi/

Wasabi is a condiment often served with sushi and other Japanese dishes, known for its intense flavor that can clear your sinuses. It came from the root of the wasabi plant and used to be expensive to import, but it is now readily available worldwide.

I love adding extra wasabi to my favorite rolls; it adds an intense kick that makes my taste buds dance!

  • Karate /kəˈrɑː.t̬i/

Karate is also among the common Japanese words used in English. This martial art originated in Okinawa, Japan, and emphasizes striking techniques that use hands and feet to defend oneself. It has become widespread worldwide as a form of self-defense or competitive sport.

I started taking Karate classes last year and have improved my stamina levels while learning cool moves from sensei!

  • Sumo /ˈsuː.moʊ/

Sumo is a traditional Japanese sport involving two wrestlers wearing loincloths trying to push each other outside the ring. It has become internationally recognized as part of Japan’s cultural heritage and often features in tourist attractions. The sport emphasizes strength, agility, and technique.

Watching live Sumo matches while visiting Japan was an unforgettable experience!

  • Tatami /təˈtɑːmi/

Tatami is a type of traditional Japanese flooring that uses woven straw mats. It’s common in traditional homes and other spaces, including tea rooms or martial arts studios.

I appreciated the tatami flooring in my hotel room during my stay in Kyoto.

  • Sudoku /suˈdoʊ.kuː/

It is a popular puzzle game that originated in Japan, featuring a grid of numbers or letters to be filled while following specific rules. It has become widely available online and in newspapers worldwide. As a brain-teaser, Sudoku can be fun and challenging to play in your spare time.

I enjoy spending my weekends doing crosswords, word searches, or playing some rounds of Sudoku – it helps me keep my mind sharp when I’m not working.

Japanese Borrowed Words Used in Pop Culture

In addition to everyday words, Japanese has influenced English in pop culture. From anime to video games, here are some of the most popular terms used in pop culture:

  • Manga /ˈmæŋ.ɡə/

Manga refers to Japanese comic books and graphic novels, often featuring distinctive art styles and captivating storylines. In recent years, manga has gained popularity beyond Japan’s borders, with many translated versions available in English.

I love reading manga in my free time as it immerses me in different worlds with captivating stories and characters.

  • Anime /ˈæn.ə.meɪ/

Among famous words in Japanese and English, anime is a type of animation that originated in Japan and has become popular worldwide, with many English translations available. It covers various genres such as action, romance, and sci-fi/fantasy for children and adults.

I spent the weekend binging on anime series and couldn’t get enough intricate storylines and stunning visuals.

  • Kawaii /kəˈwaɪ(.i)/

Kawaii is a term used to describe something cute, often referring to characters or objects with big eyes and exaggerated features. It has become popular in the realm of anime and manga but also extends beyond pop culture into fashion trends.

I love how kawaii this stuffed animal looks! Its round body and little bow make it so adorable.

  • Ninja /ˈnɪn.dʒə/

Ninjas were ancient Japanese warriors who specialized in covert operations and espionage. In modern times, their image has been romanticized in movies, video games, and other forms of pop culture.

In this new game, my character is a ninja skilled in stealth attacks and acrobatics.

  • Emoji /iˈmoʊ.dʒi/

Derived from the Japanese words for “picture” and “character,” emojis are small digital icons used to express emotions, ideas, or objects in text messages or social media posts. They’ve become so popular that there’s an emoji for nearly every conceivable expression.

I love using emojis when I text my friends – they make conveying my feelings so much easier without using many words!

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Learning Japanese loanwords in English can enhance your cultural knowledge and appreciation. These 20 standard terms are easy to incorporate into everyday conversations and add another layer of depth to interactions with native speakers or while watching anime movies.

Furthermore, understanding these terms’ context and origins can broaden your horizons beyond English-speaking countries. From food to art forms, the Japanese language has significantly impacted Western culture, and learning these words can deepen your appreciation for them.


Is learning Japanese borrowed words beneficial for English speakers?

Yes, it can be useful for enhancing your vocabulary and cultural understanding. Many Japanese loanwords in English have permeated everyday English usage, including popular culture terms like anime or sushi. These words can also be beneficial when traveling to Japan or interacting with Japanese speakers in various contexts.

How many Japanese borrowed words are commonly used in English?

It is difficult to give an exact number, but hundreds or even thousands of Japanese words have made their way into the English language. These range from culinary terms (e.g., sushi) to cultural concepts and practices (e.g., karaoke or Zen).

Do I need prior knowledge of the Japanese language to learn its borrowed words?

No. You do not need prior knowledge of the Japanese language to learn its borrowed words in English. These terms have already been assimilated into everyday conversations, so you can start using them immediately without worrying about complex grammatical structures or pronunciation.

Are there any resources available for learning borrowed Japanese words in English?

Yes. Many online resources are available to learn Japanese borrowings used in English, including websites and apps like Promova or Vocabulary.com. Additionally, audio resources like YouGlish can help familiarize learners with the correct pronunciation of these words.


CameronMar 14th, 2024
I found this article to be quite enlightening
PromovaAug 8th, 2023
Great question! The influence of Japanese culture on English vocabulary is a fascinating result of cultural exchange and globalization. This phenomenon largely stems from Japan's technological advancements, entertainment exports like anime and manga, and cultural practices like martial arts. As these aspects gained popularity worldwide, related Japanese terms entered the English language, enriching its lexicon.
Josh MartinAug 8th, 2023
how did the influence of Japanese culture on English vocabulary come about?