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Jesy

7 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don’t Exist in English

Language is one of the many fascinating creations of mankind. It is such an imperfect yet glorious and adventurous effort to try and grasp the unfathomable in a single word. The best part is that one does not need to be a poet or a writer to be able to celebrate the joys of language on a daily basis. Fill in journals, write love notes, caption photographs, even our grocery-shopping list can be considered a form of art if you look at it differently, because imagination is what makes the world go round.

The Japanese are revered far and wide for their sophisticated use of language and it is hardly any surprise that they have a myriad of exquisite poetic words, which lack English equivalents.

Social values, aesthetics, and culture are deeply entangled in their language. These factors can make it a challenge to translate from Japanese to English, especially when it comes to words and phrases that rely heavily on understanding the background and significance behind them.

In this blog, I will be sharing with you 7 Japanese words that are difficult to express in English, yet can help us better understand Japan and its culture. These are a few untranslatable words that show how their language encapsulates human emotions like no other.

1. Mono no aware

The term mono no aware is directly translated as “the sadness or pathos of things.” It refers to the bittersweet feeling of seeing things change. While there is a sense of melancholy associated with this phrase, it is not meant to be a general sadness, but rather a deeply felt emotion when a person realizes that everything is transient of its own time and place. This mood was captured with particular genius by the poet Matsuo Basho, arguably the greatest master of the Haiku. Many of his poems are revered as perfectly articulating mono no aware, perhaps above all this…

Summer grasses —
the only remains
of warriors’ dreams.

Photo taken summer of 2017 at Tachikawa Shoen Park.

2. Komorebi

This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees – the interplay between the light and the leaves. The closest English equivalent is probably the phrase: dappled sunlight.

Komorebi at Hokokuji Bamboo Forest in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture

3. Oubaitori

Using the kanji characters for the four trees that flower in springtime; cherry, plum, peach, and apricot, this four character idiom means that people shouldn’t live their lives comparing themselves to others, but instead value their own unique traits. It’s a beautiful reminder that we bloom in our own time and we should not rush things because each one of us is living in our own timezone.

Japanese quintessence at Saiko Iyashino-sato Nemba in Yamanashi Prefecture

4. Ichi-go-ichi-e

This four-character idiom originated from the traditional tea ceremony in Japan where every meeting was an occasion to be treasured. Today, people use it as a reminder to slow down and savor each moment, because every encounter in life occurs only once.  A better translation may be “Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur.”

My university best friends, an encounter I always treasure.

Previous share housemates, a beautiful encounter in Japan.

5. Tsundoku

This word is defined as the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed, combining the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”), “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”) and “doku” (meaning “to read”). Everyone is most likely to be ‘tsundokursed’ one way or the other. Pun intended.

Pile of books in Kinokuniya, Ginza Six

6. Furusato

The Japanese word furusato means “old home” or “hometown.” But it’s not simply about the place where you’re from but the place your heart longs for. In recent times, this word is commonly known as a song title for a Japanese children song.

Cebu, my furusato.

7. Nemawashi

The literal meaning of this word in English is “digging around the roots of a tree, to prepare it for a transplant.” It is best epitomized as several rounds of “pre-meetings” held ahead of the official meeting where a decision is announced rather than made. This word is one of the 12 pillars of Toyota Production System. Within the Toyota Production System – and Japanese culture itself – the word has come to mean an informal process of laying the foundation and building a consensus of opinion before making formal changes to any particular process or project. During the nemawashi, a company is seeking for the opinion of the employees about the decision.

New Year meeting of all SUE teachers held in our Shibuya branch.

The relationship between words and their meaning is a fascinating one, and linguists have spent countless years deconstructing it, taking it apart letter by letter or character by character, and trying to figure out why there are so many feelings and ideas we cannot even put words to, and that our languages cannot identify.

The idea that words cannot always say everything has been written about extensively. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.”

What other beautiful Japanese words do you know?