An overview of confusing Japanese loanwords

By | March 15, 2015

In previous posts I talked about a few theories about why Japanese has so many loanwords, especially from English. This time I’d like to discuss some of the specific words themselves.

Once the Katakana alphabet is learned, loanwords become a great help as many of them can be understood by English-speakers by simply sounding them out without having to resort to a dictionary. However, in many cases the word’s meaning is changed, sometimes drastically. Some of the words come from other languages such as Portuguese and German, and those will still require lookup.

I’ve chosen to give an overview of a few words that are particularly confusing. This list is by no means complete, since loanwords increase day by day. In many cases the Japanese version of these words can be used to mean the same meaning as the original word (often in English), however there is a different meaning that is used more frequently. I won’t be giving all the meanings of these words, only the ones I feel are important or confusing.

マンション (manshon)

This is the first word I remember learning many years back whose meaning was quite different than the English one. マンション actually means something like a unit in an apartment complex, which is quite the opposite of “mansion” in Engilsh, which is that of a massively large, expensive stand-alone house.

ネック (nekku)

According to the dictionary this word can be used to mean “neck”, as a part of the human body, but I have mostly heard it used to mean “bottleneck” – something which is limiting the flow of a larger system, like a broadband internet bottleneck.

パンツ (pantsu)

This one actually refers to “underwear”, which is quite confusing since “pants” in English refers to shorts (outerwear).

インフラ (infura)

I heard this one quite recently in several Japanese podcasts, and it seems to be catching on as a popular term. At first I thought it meant “inflation” (Japanese ‘ら/ラ’ sounds somewhat close to ‘la’) but eventually I figured out it stood for “infrastructure”. For example, something like a road that acts to facilitate other activities such as business, and everyday life.

ボンネット (bon`netto)

This word sounds like “bonnet” (a type of hat), but can also refer to the trunk of a car. I think it came from a similar German word.

マフラー (mafuraa)

After reading the last word, you might feel this is related to a car (“muffler”). However it is also used to mean “scarf”, like the one you wear around your neck when it’s cold.

 ポイント (pointo)

Although this word can also have a similar meaning to English “point” in referring to a though or concept (ex: “Thats a good point”), in Japanese sometimes the word can mean “main point”, as in the main/important point of a discussion.

 スルー (suruu)

Though I’m pretty sure this term came came from “through”, it can be used in Japanese to mean “pass through” (as a verb with する) or also for “ignore” or “pay no attention to”

 ワンシーン (wan shiin)

This one clearly comes from “one scene”, but it can used in places where just “scene” would be sufficient, like a single scene in a movie. Another word with “wan” in it is ”ワンパターン” (wan pataan), which means someone who predictably does the same thing over and over again.


This word clearly came from “follow”, though it can be used in a few different ways in Japanese. The one I have heard the most commonly is when it indicates someone covers up or goes along with the actions of another in a social sense. Like if I made a mistake and said someone’s name wrong at a party, someone could フォロー me and correct my mistake in a tactful way without me looking bad. I’ve heard this used in the form “フォローになってない” which means someone is not properly “following” in this sense.

シール (shiiru)

I’ve heard this word mostly to refer to what in English we call a “sticker”, like stickers for children which can be removed and stuck to a picture book.

フック (fukku)

You might at first mistake this word for something else but if you remember the Japanese “fu” sound (ふ) sounds a bit like “hu”, this one will be easier to remember – “hook”, a place where you hang things.

プッシュ (pusshu)

Although this may be used to mean “push” in the normal sense of physically pressing/moving something, I have heard it mostly in reference to a “marketing push”, or spending effort to advertise and make someone’s (like a musician’s) name known. I haven’t heard this one in a few years though so it may be less common now.


Fortunately, this one does sometimes mean what you would expect – a sweet, delicious confection. However you should be careful not to confuse it with “けいき” (景気), as in the phrase “景気がいい”, which means “business is good”.


Though this word clearly comes from English’s “fight”, I’ve heard it used before to mean something closer to “頑張って” (ganbatte), or “do your best”. However I haven’t heard this usage in a few years so not sure if it’s popular anymore.

 プラスアルファ (purasu arufa)

Though this word seems to derive from “plus alpha”, I’ve heard it used to mean simply “plus”, so I wouldn’t worry about the “alpha” part too much. For example, imagine the new features of a updated version of a game or other program.

 ルーズ (ruuzu)

I’ve heard this word, which comes from “loose”, to mean something like “lax”. For example, “時間にルーズ” (jikan ni ruuzu) means not being strict about time.

マンツーマン (mantsuuman)

This word is quite close to English “man to mean”, meaning when two people talk about an important matter one-on-one, although in Japanese it is more generic and can apply to women as well.

ピンチ (pinchi)

This word means a difficult or troublesome situation. I think this same meaning exists in English but it isn’t very commonly used anymore. A related expression is “チャンスはピンチ” (chansu wa pinchi), which means each problem is a chance to profit or do something good.

スマート (sumaato)

This word can be used in reference to someone’s body to mean “slender” or  “good looking”. It can also be applied to things like clothes to mean “stylish”.

メイク (meiku)

While this word seems like it comes from “make”, it’s actually a shortened version of “makeup”, like the kind you put on your face.

マスク (masuku)

Besides facial masks which are used to avoid catching a cold (which are very popular in Japan these days), this word also can refer to a material put over the front of a car to protect it, what in America we would call a “car bra”.

スーパー (suupaa)

Another one of the first few loanwords I learned, this one is actually a shortening of “supermarket”.



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One thought on “An overview of confusing Japanese loanwords

  1. Ben

    A good list. Just a note that “pants” as in a girl’s underwear is also a common usage in British English, though they also use knickers maybe more commonly. But this is likely where the Japanese loanword was derived from. They do also use “pantsu” as outerwear in terms like jiinzupantsu (jeans) or haafupantsu, basically long shorts.


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