20 English Words Commonly Misunderstood by Japanese Speakers

Have you ever come across the term “wasei eigo”? It translates to “Japanese-made English” and describes English words that have been slightly altered and incorporated into the Japanese language for everyday use. Despite their English roots, these “wasei eigo” words often develop meanings that differ significantly from their original ones. As a result, Japanese visitors to English-speaking countries who use expressions like “baby car” or “key holder” – words that are considered “English” in Japan – often encounter confused looks from native English speakers.

Let’s explore the top 20 “wasei eigo” terms that tend to cause misunderstandings for Japanese people abroad.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that most of these words, when pronounced with a Japanese accent in “katakana English,” sound even more unlike their English counterparts. Still, you’ll likely agree that even in their written form, some of these words are certain to create confusion in English-speaking places. We’ve noted the Japanese pronunciations in italics alongside each word.

1.Salary man, OL (Office Lady) – sararii man

When traveling abroad, it’s common to be asked about one’s job. Many Japanese people think that “salary man” is a regular English term for men working in an office, and “OL” (Office Lady) is used for women in similar roles. While these terms are familiar in Japan, English-speaking countries use “office worker” for both men and women. Although “salary man” might seem correct to Japanese speakers, in English-speaking contexts, it specifically refers to a man who earns a salary.

2.Key holder – kii horuda

When visiting a tourist spot, it’s typical to buy a key ring or key chain as a memento. However, in Japanese English, these souvenirs are often called “key holders.” Although the term “key holder” isn’t entirely baffling, the more natural expressions in English are “key ring” or “key chain.”

3.Cooler – kura

In Japan, the term “cooler” is used to refer to an air conditioner. In the U.S., however, “cooler” typically brings to mind a portable container for keeping food and drinks cold, or a refrigerator in a store. In the UK, if you told hotel staff that the “cooler” (or *kūra*) was broken, you’d likely be met with polite but puzzled smiles.

4.Gasoline stand – gasoriin sutando

For anyone using a rental car, it’s crucial to know where to refuel. In Japan, the term “gasoline stand” is commonly used instead of “gas station” (as in the U.S.) or “filling station” or “petrol station” (as in the UK, Australia, and Singapore). While “gasoline stand” isn’t completely unclear, it might cause a brief moment of confusion for native English speakers.

5.Free size – furii saizu

In Japan, the term “free size” is used to describe clothing meant to fit a wide range of body sizes, not restricted to specific measurements. In English-speaking countries, the common term is “one size fits all.” Therefore, when inquiring about such clothing, the most natural way to ask would be, “Is this one-size-fits-all?”

6.Baby car – bebii kaa

The term baby car is also a Japanese English phrase and refers to the English words stroller, pushchair or baby carriage; i.e. the thing you push a baby around in that looks sort of like a car.

7.Potato fry – poteto furai

In Japan, potato fry is a food that is an accompaniment to a hamburger or a snack to be eaten with alcohol. However, in English, the same phrase is referred to as French fries (U.S.) or chips (UK).

8.Morning call – moningu koru

In Japan, the term “morning call” is used to describe a wake-up service where hotel staff call guests at their requested time. Although “morning call” is well understood in Japan, the more common term abroad is “wake-up call.” While “morning call” might not be immediately clear to hotel staff in other countries, they would likely understand it to mean a call to wake you up in the morning.

9.Hotel front – furonto

When staying at a hotel, asking “Where is the front?” is another phrase that Japanese people often use. This does, in fact, refer to the front desk or hotel reception.

10.Guard man – gado man

The security guard who stands in front of a high-class building or bank is referred to as “guard man” in Japanese English.

11.Claim – kuremu

Making a complaint against someone or something is known in Japanese English simply as a claim; however among native English speakers the word complaint is used. For example, a Japanese person might say that they would like to “make a claim” to the hotel or restaurant manager.

12.Mug cup – magu kappu

Although not completely incomprehensible, the addition of the word cup at the end of mug seems rather unnatural. Japanese use this word to distinguish between a mug and a small (non-wine) glass or tumbler which, somewhat confusingly, they refer to as a cup, or “koppu”.

13.Laptop – noto pasokon

With the advancements in portable computers in recent years, more travelers are taking their laptops with them abroad. In Japanese English, a laptop is called “Noto pasokon,” a shortened form of “notebook personal computer.” Of all the Japanese English terms we’ve discussed, this one is perhaps the most noticeably different from its original English version.

14.Order made – ooda meido

The Japanese English phrase order made is one that refers to the English made-to-order, or custom made.

15.Jet coaster – jetto kosuta

This is a term that refers to arguably the most popular attraction at theme parks, the roller coaster. Still, we suppose they do feel like being strapped to a jet…

16.Take out – teiku auto

Depending on the part of the world you’re in, asking for a take out please at a restaurant or fast food establishment could be met with some puzzled looks. This is the term that, along with the pre-existing and perfectly decent Japanese phrase 「持ち帰り」 mochikaeri, is used by Japanese people to refer to “to go” (U.S.) or “take away” (UK) food, often failing to convey the same message when used in English-speaking countries.

17.Coin laundry – koin randorii

In Japan the phrase coin laundry is used to refer to what is commonly known abroad as laundromat or launderette.

18.Game center – gemu senta

Another phrase which is quite different to that used among native English speakers is game center, referring to video arcades. Although not completely incomprehensible using this term abroad could create some confusion.

19.Consent – konsento

This is a weird one. The English power outlet (U.S.) or plug socket (UK) is known in Japan as a konsento, making this one of the most incomprehensible “wase eigo” words out there. If a Japanese speaker asks you where the konsento is, they’re not asking for permission to do something.

20.Decoration cake – dekorehshon keki

“Decoration cake” in Japanese combines “decoration” and “cake,” implying a cake adorned with elaborate decorations. Abroad, it’s often referred to as a “fancy cake” or simply described as “really pretty cakes.” Then again, aren’t most cakes visually appealing?

And there you have it – 20 Japanese-English words that often leave Japanese speakers puzzled when used abroad. After reading these examples, what are your thoughts on these linguistic differences? Were there some words that seemed more or less understandable than anticipated? Feel free to share your impressions!