The Ainu Influence on the Japanese Language

When most Japanese language learners think of Japan’s “borrowed words”, words in English, French, Portuguese, and German spring to mind.  Less common, and less commonly considered, are the words of some of Japan’s First Nations population, the Ainu.

“Ainu” means “human” in the Ainu language.  The origins of the Ainu are unclear, but the consensus seems to be that they are the historical residents of parts of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, dating back over 800 years.    For a summary of their origins, check out this link, or this able explanation by Tofugu.


The origins of the Ainu language – or rather of the Ainu languages (or dialects) – are similarly unclear.  Interestingly, no genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, making it a language isolate like Basque or Korean.  Ainu has no system of writing, and is often represented by Japanese kana, or in romaji.  It is an endangered language, with reports of fewer than 100 Ainu speakers still in existence, with some reports of as few as 15 “native” speakers.

There are a number of Ainu loanwords which now reside in the Japanese language.  More common examples include:

  • シシャモ:  A smelt (fish), that is rightly popular and delicious.  The word is said to derive from the Ainu word susam, which is supposed to be derived from a compound of Ainu susu “willow” + ham “leaf”, hence its name in kanji ((柳葉魚).
  • ラッコ:  An otter, which derives from the Ainu word rakko (meaning, you guessed it, “otter”).
  • トナカイ:  A reindeer, which derives from the Ainu word – tunakai – for the same animal.
  • ホッキ貝:  A clam, also known in Japan as ウバガイ.  The term comes from the Ainu word poksey.
  • コマイ: Saffron cod, from the Ainu word komai.
  • ハスカップ:  A honeysuckle indigenous to the northern hemisphere, including Hokkaido.  The word comes from the Ainu word haskap.
  • エトピリカ:  A tufted puffin, from the Ainu etu pirka.

This is just the tip of a very large lingustic, cultural, and historical Ainu iceberg.  I would encourage you to learn more about this important and fascinating people, and appreciate their impact not just on the Japanese language and history.


Spooky Japan: Ghosts

With Halloween quickly approaching, this week’s blog entry is about the scary world of ghosts, ghouls, and grammar.

Though Halloween is a recent import to Japan (some say it only came to the country 10 years ago), the country is no stranger to ghosts and ghost stories.  According to this article by Linda Lombardi on Tofugu, ” When they were first written down in the Heian period, at the same time as the classic Tale of Genji, there were enough to fill a 33-volume collection. When the first printing press appeared in Japan around 1600, ghost stories were among the best-sellers.”  Her recent article can be found here, and is a great starting point for ghost lovers, as is this website, which explains the story behind 10 famous Japanese ghosts.

Even early foreign visitors got in on the ghost story-telling action, of them the famous Lafcadio Hearn and his two works:  Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, and In Ghostly Japan.  These ghosts continue to be exported in the form of Japanese horror movies that continue to scare the bejeebers our of audiences, like The Ring.

There are a number of sites to help you brush up on your Japanese Halloween vocabulary, including this helpful site that has a list of common creatures.  For those hungry to take your Japanese to the next level, check out some expressions involving the term “oni” (monster) or the “kappa” monster, including:

  • Oni ni kanabou (鬼に金棒):  To be invincible or unbeatable.
  • Oni no inuma ni sentaku (鬼のいぬまに洗濯):  When the cat’s away, the mice will play (literally, when the monsters are away, do laundry…).
  • 河童の川流れ (Kappa no kawa nagare): Even professionals fails sometimes (literally, even kappas drown from time to time).

Incidentally, that “kappa” is the same creature as the one referenced in the ubiquitous “kappa maki”.  Apparently, cucumbers are the only think that the dreaded kappa likes to eat more than children.  Food for thought…

Giongo (擬音語), Giseigo (擬声語), and Gitaigo (擬態語): Japanese Onomatopoeia

You don’t have to be in Japan long to start to hear them.  Those funny sounding, repeating words that sound both funny and foreign to the uninitiated.  I’m talking, of course, of giongo (擬音語), giseigo (擬声語), and gitaigo (擬態語).

Though there is some overlap between the terms, they can arguably be defined in the following terms:

  • Giongo refers to sounds made by inanimate objects.
  • Giseigo refers to sounds made by living things.
  • Gitaigo, a more abstract class of expression, refers to words that depict psychological states or bodily feelings, or non-auditory senses.

Though one can wax poetic about the differences, I prefer to focus on the fun of these expressions, such as the sound of a heart beating (どきどき), sparkling (ぴかぴか), giggle (くすく), smile (にこにこ), or sleeping soundly and snoring (ぐうぐう).

Though some of these words have a repeating quality to them, it is not necessary.  Take, for example, the words to describe the sound of an explosion (ドカン) or the sound of a hard blow (ズガ).  Another interesting example is the “sound” of silence (しいん).  There is no end of fun words, as this short video explains:

It is said that there are some ways to guess at the general meaning of some giongo, gitaigo, or giseigo.  For example, one site posits that a useful rule of thumb when dealing with Japanese onomatopoeias is that expressions beginning with a hard ‘g’ sound (が, ぎ, ぐ, げ, or ご) are typically used to describe lethargic or otherwise undesirable states.

For more examples of onomatopoeias, check out the pages on website here, here, here, or here.

Fall, Water, and Rain: Expressions and Vocab

Autumn in Saga PrefectureFor Vancouverites, the end of summer ushers the start of rain.  Rather than dwell on the loss of our flawless, bluebird days, I’d rather use the climatic change as a springboard for learning more about expressions of the fall, rain, and water.


It has been said that the Japanese language at 50 words for rain.  This may be an exaggeration, but you’ve got to admit that there are a lot of them, including: 雨 (あめ – rain); 降雨 (こう – rainfall), 弱雨 (じゃくう – weak rain), 煙雨 (えんう – misty rain), and 大雨 (おおあめ – heavy rain).  For a great list of many rain-related permutations check out this site.

For those who are keen to up their autumn vocabulary game, check out this great article in the Japan Times about fall and the “changing of the leaves”.

If you really want to “wow” people, however, you can turbo-charge your Japanese by learning some fun rain- and water-related expressions, such as:

  • 雨降って地固まる (ame futte chi katamaru):  After a storm, things will stand on more solid ground than they did before, or “adversity builds character”.
  • 水に流す(mizu ni nagasu):  Forgive and forget; water under the bridge.
  • 晴耕雨読 (seiko udoku):  Farm when it’s sunny, read when it rains.
  • 覆水盆に返らず (Fuku sui bon ni kaerazu):  It’s no use crying over spilled milk (water).

As for autumn-inspired expressions, try 秋茄子は嫁に食わすな (akinasu wa yome ni kuwansuna): do not let your daughter-in-law eat autumn eggplants, a reference to the traditionally poor relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, whereby the former would not squander eggplants in their prime on the latter.  Let it never be said that Japanese is a boring language.

Imported Words – Gairaigo (外来語)

Though Japanese can seem daunting at first, most English-speaking learners of Japanese may take solace in the fact that they can cheat.  Yes, I’m talking about the Japanese vocabulary we anglophones didn’t know we had:  Gairaigo (外来語).

Gairaigo is Japanese for “loan word” or “borrowed word”, and indicates a transliteration (or “transvocalization”) into Japanese.  According to this wikipedia entry: Most, but not all, modern gairaigo are derived from English, particularly in the post-World War II era (after 1945). Words are taken from English for concepts that do not exist in Japanese, but also for other reasons, such as a preference for English terms or fashionability – many gairaigo have Japanese synonyms.  Click on the Youtube link below for a quick overview of the concept of gairaigo.

For the most part, English-speakers can pretty much guess (sometimes after saying the word out loud a number of times) what the meaning of the word is because of its phonetic resemblance to its English counterpart.  Some examples are: アイスクリーム (ice cream) or アルコール (alcohol).

Other words are less intuitive, and resemble a truncation of the “original” English word, like , アパート (apartment) or デパート (department store).

Moving further away from 1:1 resemblance are the wonderful family of gairaigo that are based on English words, but that’s where the similarity stops.  I’m thinking here of ドンマイ (“donmai”, which is short for “don’t worry about it”), ファミコン (“family computer”, i.e., video game system), ゲーセン (“game centre”, i.e., video arcade), or my personal favourite, タイムスリップ (“time slip”, i.e., time travel).  Most English-speakers have been befuddled when a native Japanese speaker has used one of these gems thinking (quite reasonably) that the word is English.

Then, there are the non-English based loan words, which may lead to confusion.  Few English speakers will know what バイト (“baito”, short for “arubaito” or part-time job), ブランコ (“blanco”, Portuguese for “swing”), ゴム (“gom”, Dutch for “rubber”, but also meaning eraser in Japanese), トナカイ (“deer” in Ainu) or the ubiquitous パン (“pan”, which is Portuguese for bread) mean.

Rather than being a burden, however, I see these loan words as artefacts in the wonderful history of Japanese.  It’s also a reminder of the fact that most languages cross-pollinate.  For a more robust list of gairaigo, click here.

Yoji-Jukugo: Four Kanji Idioms

Like all languages, Japanese is rich with idioms.  Previous blog entries focused on animal expressions, including those involving horses in honour of the year of the horse.  A class of interesting idioms is yoji-jukugo (四字熟語):  Four kanji compounds conveying wisdom.

Keiten aijin:  Revere heaven, love people.  The motto of Saigo Takamori, a famous and influential samurai.

Keiten aijin: Revere heaven, love people. The motto of Saigo Takamori, a famous and influential samurai.

Yoji-jukugo find their origins in China, and some refer to an old story or parable.  If a listener doesn’t know the story, the expression may not make a lot of sense.  That said, the sometimes obscure of a few expressions is no reason not to study them.  Indeed, it’s a challenge and the pay-off is worth it – especially if you want to impress with your Japanese skills.  Here is a list of useful yoji-jukugo:

  • 一石二鳥 (isseki nichou):  Kill two birds with one stone.
  • 一生懸命 (isshou kenmei):  To the utmost / with all one’s strength/energy.
  • 十人十色 (juunin touiro):  To each his own.
  • 一日千秋 (ichijitsu senaki):  To look forward to something eagerly.
  • 危機一髪 (kiki ippatsu):  By the skin of one’s teeth.
  • 切磋琢磨 (sessa takuma):  To cultivate one’s mind by studying intensely/hard.
  • 日進月歩 (nisshin geppou):  steady progress

For more yoji-jukugo, you can have a look at this Tofugu page (there’s even a link to a free, downloadable deck to study from), a series of pages, this page, or the mother of all  – a list of 3,300 expressions.

Keigo: A Beginner’s Guide

In my experience, more advanced learners of Japanese often lament the fact that they didn’t start to learn some tougher stuff right out of the gate.  For many, their white whale is kanji, but for me, it’s keigo.  My choice could have been influenced by the fact that I used to work in an agricultural high school, where keigo was about as useful as a lead balloon, but I nevertheless regret it.  Especially since I’m ok talking about everyday topics with the (wo)man on the street, but I sometimes can’t understand what the clerk at UniQlo is asking of me.

For those of you, like me, who are trying to play catch up, here are a few resources that may assist you in learning the humble (謙譲語 – kenjougo), -masu form (丁寧語 – teineigo), and respectful form (尊敬語 – sonkeigo).   It’s tough going for sure (here is an article about navigating the keigo “minefield” from the Japan Times), but well worth it.

My first resource is a nice little explanation at The Japanese Page.  It explains when to use each of the three styles of polite language, and provides a very basic list of common verbs in each style (complete with pronunciation help).  Another good site is  a Guide to Japanese page, which provides a nice explanation if its own, as well as a more detailed explanation of the intricacies of polite Japanese speech.

If your Japanese ability is a relatively high, but you’ve never gotten around to learning keigo, there is a nice series of explanations in Japanese at the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Finally, if you’re willing to shell out some money, JapaneseShock has a keigo cheat sheet for sale.  I haven’t shelled out the money for it, so if anyone has bought this tool, please let me know what it’s like.

Hopefully these resources help.  Good luck!