Which Japanese Words Are Understood Abroad? (According to Japanese People)

In a Goo Ranking survey conducted in March, 500 responders were asked to answer which Japanese words they thought people living abroad would understand. Given that those filling out the surveys were Japanese men and women in their 20s and 30s, these results may, or most likely may not be entirely accurate.

Since the Goo Ranking surveys are just for fun and not exactly scientific, there isn’t much data on why respondents voted the way they did, or what experiences they’ve had to assume the linguistic knowledge of those living outside of Japan. Let’s see which words they thought they could use abroad without any fear of being lost in translation. (Respondents were allowed to choose multiple options.)

1. Hikikomori (71 votes)

This word, meaning a recluse who avoids social contact, does seem to be well-known abroad, but is perhaps surprising as first place.

2. Zangyo (57 votes)

In at number two, the word for working overtime seems to be considered pretty much universal.

3. Hentai (55 votes)

While this particular word doesn’t hold the exact same meaning in English — it’s used as the name for a particular genre of adult-oriented anime and manga and not to describe a pervert — it’s still apparently thought to be well known.

4. Karoshi (54 votes)

The term for death by overwork clinches placement number four, and they may not be entirely off-base with this one.

5. Skosh, Doraemon, Senpai and Mottainai (48 votes each)

Anime and character names are apparently considered eligible for this particular list, so Doraemon makes an entrance along with standard vocab senpai and mottainai. Skosh, a shortened form of sukoshi (meaning a little) seems a popular choice, too.

9. Karaoke, Kaizen and Sailor Moon (46 votes each)

In a collective ninth place, it’s a mixed bag: another anime character, the love it or loathe it singing pastime, and kaizen, the Japanese-coined term meaning continuous improvement. (A word that is solidly embedded in most business students’ heads.)

12. Zaibatsu (44 votes)

Perhaps this group of 20 and 30-somethings were particularly business savvy, as they chose the Japanese word for financial conglomerate in the top fifteen.

13. Ramen (43 votes)

A favorite dish for many and with Ippudo in New York having lines down the block, how was this not number one, or at least in the top five?

14. Sudoku (41 votes)

The number placement grid game of Sunday newspapers worldwide gets a rather high ranking, considering it’s called Nanpure (shortened from the katakana version of the words number and play) in Japan.

15. Ninja (40 votes)

See number 13 — how was one of Japan’s best exports assumed to be so unknown?

For the full list of 49 words in the survey, go to Goo Survey’s website.

And of course we have to ask: what do you think would be the most known or used Japanese words outside of Japan? Let us know in the comments below!

 

3 Comments
  1. You got it all wrong ! Haha I’m French and I was really surprised. Here are the correct answers.

    1 The most known word for us in that list is certainly ninja. Everybody knows it thanks to toys and movies !
    2 Then Karaoke, which is also very popular here, for example during nights out or parties with friends at home
    3 Sudoku, which is a game that has also invaded our magazines and was a huge trend a few years ago
    4 Hentai because… well you know. Here too.

    Most interestingly, on the contrary, Hikikomori would NOT be the word I’d have put number 1, not even one I’d have thought about. I heard it in a random documentary but most people don’t know it here.
    Same for zangyo, karoshi, mottinai totally unknown. Senpai… for our manga readers maybe ?
    And Sailor Moon is waaaaay more famous than Doreamon since the anime had a large broadcast on French TV in the 80s and 90s.

    Now I’m really curious to do a reverse experience with French words ! Who wants to play ? 🙂

  2. Ninja and ramen should be number one followed by karaoke and anime character names. Though i think most foreigners don’t know that karaoke is a japanese word….

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