Why does Japanese have so many loan words? (外来語, “gairaigo”)

By | February 6, 2015

Anyone who has studied Japanese knows that the language contains loanwords called 外来語 (“gairaigo”), which words ‘borrowed’ from another language and imported into Japanese. As part of this transition, the works take on a new spelling and pronunciation, which can be a shortened version or one containing syllables from multiple words. The meaning itself can change, sometimes dramatically.

To give a simple example, “サーバ” (saaba), derived from english “server”, is used to mean a computer-related server. However, I’ve never seen it used to refer to the “server” in a restaurant.

In this post, rather than focus on these words themselves (you can see this page for many more examples), I’d like to focus on the fact there are very many of them in modern Japanese, and they are increasing at great speed. These days it is not uncommon to come across two, three, or move gairaigo used in a single sentence.

This is something that has caught my interest for quite some time, especially because a large percentage of the words are from my native English. I had a few theories about why, so I decided to post a question on Oshiete Goo in Japanese and see what sort of response I would get.

I received only two answers, but both were quite thought provoking. I’ve decided to the entire second response (first listed on the page) in English here, written by someone with the username “phj”. I’m not sure of his/her background, but it’s written quite eloquently. Besides being a good opportunity to practice my translation skills, I hope this gives many of my readers an opportunity to see what a Japanese person feels about gairaigo and their relation to Japan and Japanese culture. There are many different perspectives on this topic, and I don’t expect phi’s comments to be authoritative, but they are informative nonetheless.

For the translation, I’ll quote the original Japanese and translate line-by-line, for those interested in comparing.



I feel that it’s no exaggeration to say that Japanese has always been a language which has actively tried to facilitate the process of importing words from other languages which are constantly evolving.


It can be said that since the introduction of Kanji from Chinese, Japanese has evolved itself in many ways in order to integrate foreign words into traditional Japanese: the flexibility of a grammar utilizing particles, diversity in Kanji readings, and a strict distinction of loanwords via hiragana and katakana alphabets.


But that alone isn’t sufficient to create new loanwords. What is the other reason? It’s the Japanese people’s commitment to importing things from other countries: new concepts, ideas, and knowledge.


They believe that “new ideas come from outside Japan”, and consciously import terms from other languages in order to efficiently learn things like Confucianism, Buddhism, and Western (especially American) ideologies.


For example, the loanword word “sustainability” has become popular recently. This word corresponds to the Japanese phrase ”持続可能性”.


This term became quoted in the context of the problem of global warming, in the vein of “How long can humanity sustain our current lifestyles?”, and so it has taken on the nuance of meaning “sustainability related to global warming” rather than sustainability in a general sense.


By frequently borrowing expressions like this from other languages, Japanese is able to stay modern and keep up with the times.


I feel that the Japanese people love ideas, and foreign countries bring new ideas to them. At present, the most advantageous ideas are those from the West, so we all try and use Western words and express Western-type ideas by using katakana.


Translation notes:

1) I’ve made an attempt to make a natural-sounding translation, while keeping mostly to the literal meaning of the original text.

2) Besides the explicit example of ‘sustainability’, the only usages of loanwords in phi’s post are for アメリカ (America) and リフレッシュ (refresh), the latter used as a verb in the first sentence to describe how foreign languages are constantly changing.

3) The second to last sentence has the phrase “持ってきて切れる” which is very likely a typo with the intention of “持ってきてくれる”, and I have assumed this in making the translation.






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4 thoughts on “Why does Japanese have so many loan words? (外来語, “gairaigo”)

  1. kei

    I think this person’s comments are very insightful. I agree with the idea that Japanese people embrace and integrate foreign concepts, and they seem to do it quite well overall. I think Japanese is a very versatile language, and thus foreign words are adapted but at the same time altered to fit the needs of the Japanese. This also makes it a very fun language for word play!

    I’d be interested in hearing your theories on the topic. Also, I agree with your conclusion that the “持ってきて切れる” was a typo within the context.

  2. narutovu207

    I just want to share a thought on this. Although I never research or do the statistics, my guess is, there can be Japanese translations for foreign words but they will use which come shorter or less complicated. For example, as I work in IT, in case of “Storage” we often call it ストレージ instead of 記憶装置, which has too many kanji and can be ambiguous. On the other hand, the Reliability of a system is scarcely called リライアビリティ but 信頼性. This may not be absolute, but my observation can give many more examples. FYI. 😀

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks, that’s an interesting observation. I agree that the Japanese people seem to try and ‘optimize’ by using a shorter word than already exists in their language.


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