A confusing Japanese loanword in English: “Hibachi” (it may not mean what you think it does!)

By | October 9, 2018

Sometime a while ago I wrote an article about confusing Japanese loanwords which originally came from English words, and then a week or so ago I wrote another article about the reverse: a confusing English loanword that came from Japanese.

Very recently I learned of another word that falls in this second category, so I thought I would write a brief article about it.

Throughout the U.S. there are a series of Japanese steakhouses where food is cooked upon a metal grill right in front of the customers, often accompanied by a show where food is thrown around in a blur of quick hand movement. One of the most common ones is called Benihana (I believe it might have been the first), though I have been to at least one other restaurant in South Florida of similar design, Ichiban.

For quite some time, probably since over 15-20 years ago, I have heard such grills referred to as “hibachi”, and since learning Japanese I felt good to know the proper way to pronounce it, and even how to read it in hiragana (ひばち) and in kanji (火鉢).

However, I’ll have to admit I was embarrassed when I made the discovery that I had been misunderstanding the real meaning of this word. Although perhaps it’s better to say it has a very different meaning when used in English as compared to its original meaning in Japanese, much like the word Konbucha.

When I looked up the word “hibachi” in both Japanese and English dictionaries, both described the word as something like “a portable charcoal brazier” and showed pictures that looked like small clay pots. It appears that this is the original, correct meaning, and is consistent with how I have seen it used in Japanese literature. In retrospect, this shouldn’t be a surprise since the word is made up of the characters for fire (火 / hi) and pot (鉢 / hachi).

However, for some reason this same word has been used in the U.S. to describe the metal plate grill at places like Benihana, which is more properly called a “Teppanyaki” (鉄板焼き) grill. While I did know this word, I mistakenly thought it meant the same thing as “hibachi”.

According to Wikipedia, this naming mixup might have occurred when grills we mislabelled with the word “hibachi” since it was easier to pronounce than “shichirin” (七輪). It also mentions that traditional “hibachi” in Japan are generally used for heating, not cooking, although my Japanese dictionary says they are also used for cooking so I’m sure if that is a completely accurate statement.

Fortunately, it seems like Benihana calls themselves a “Teppanyaki restaurant”, which is consistent with traditional Japanese. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the employees call the grill a “hibachi”, especially because it appears that it is somewhat rare for Japanese people to work there (at least judging from my experience at several of them).

But regardless, for those of you living in the U.S. you may decide to live by the old adage:

「郷に入っては郷に従え」 (gou ni haitte wa gou ni shitagae)

In other words:

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Despite the fact that the term “hibachi” is being used in an incorrect way, because it is so deep-rooted in society it seems unlikely for anyone to consciously “correct” it’s usage by the masses.

Probably the best thing to do in cases like this––just like with loanwords in Japanese that have deviated from their original English meanings, like “mansion”––is just accept they are different words altogether, regardless of their word origin.


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