Japanese word 構成 (kousei) and its use in the IT industry

By | April 27, 2020

When learning a foreign language, there are words you can guess from the context and others that can be figured out with a quick trip to the dictionary. However, once in a while you discover a word that remains perplexing even after you read about what it’s supposed to mean.

This article is about one such Japanese word––構成 (kousei)––that I first came across years ago in the context of documentation for some software program, probably something like an admin console. My usual offline dictionary (the one built into Mac OS’s dictionary app) gave me meanings like:

  • Composition
  • Structure
  • Construction
  • Organization

At that point I just said to myself, “Ok, this doesn’t really make sense to me, but I’ll just try to remember it and move on.” Later, I stumbled across the same word in a few similar contexts, and while I was starting to get an inherent feel for the word’s meaning, I still couldn’t express that in English. Eventually I found a place where I could compare it against an English translated version of the same screen.

This was sort of a Eureka moment to me since the English word fit perfectly with all the scenarios I had seen 構成 used in before: configuration.

However, while memorizing “構成 = configuration” sufficed for a time, I still had this simmering question in my mind about why that Japanese word was used for this purpose.

To figure that out, let’s look at one definition in a Japanese/Japanese dictionary for this word (along with my English translation):

  • いくつかの要素を組み立てて一つのまとまりあるものにすること。また,その組み立て。「社会を構成する一員
  • The act of putting together several elements into something that is a coherent whole. Also, such a construction. (Example: “The members that form a society”)

I think part of the problem with me equating 構成 with “configuration” is because the latter word is something I had used intuitively for as long as I can remember without actually ever thinking about what it really meant.

My offline English dictionary lists the following definition for “configuration”:

  • An arrangement of elements in a particular form, figure, or combination.

Looked at in this way, we can see the meanings are very similar. Basically the “arrangement” in this definition is the “construction” in the previous definition.

But how do these definitions of “configuration” and 構成 match up with their use in the IT industry? Let’s take a more specific example. I have seen a VPN client where there is a screen that allows adding Gateway IP addresses, and that screen is labeled either “configuration” or 構成, depending on your language settings.

A screen like this can also be called “Settings” in some apps. For example, on iOS mobile devices you see this word used for the place where you change things like app options, and it is translated using 設定 (settei). By the way, Mac OS’s “System Preferences” is translated with the phrase システム環境設定, which is basically “System Environmental Settings”.

So why not just call these such screens “settings” instead of the (arguably) more confusing “configuration”? Well, if we think of a VPN client and gateway as making up a system, and the settings (like Gateway IP) are pieces of the system, then it sort of makes sense. But it helps me to remember that some settings can have wide-ranging impacts on a system, for example they can result in different protocols or modules used.

In that case it makes sense to think in terms of “configuration”, because by changing a series of values (or other pieces of data), you are effectively dynamically building a system, sort of like plugging together a bunch of modules in the way that suits your needs. At a very high level, configuration is about the user or admin performing some action that results in the system behaving differently.

As to when to use 構成 vs. 設定, while there is some overlap I think the former word (as discussed, roughly equivalent to “configuration”) is generally used more on server-side software, or client-side which requires a “power user” to do more than typical day-to-day work, like a VPN client. Even though you can consider the settings on an iPhone as “configuration” in the sense that you are affecting the behavior of a complex system, I doubt many everyday users will be thinking in those terms.

By the way, when I posted a tweet about this word on Twitter a few weeks ago I got a response from someone questioning whether I was correct or not. It seems that the person had seen this word used in a totally different context. To be sure, to appears that 構成 can be used in many cases that are different than IT world’s “configuration”, and this is consistent with the different English definitions listed. So I should make it clear that 構成 isn’t only a word used in the IT industry, it also has application elsewhere.

Fortunately, my interactions with the person challenging me were (mostly) friendly, and by the end I think we both were in at least partial agreement about this word. Even after having that conversation over Twitter, I have seen this word come up in a few places in my day-to-day activities.

By the way, I am always up for feedback on the content I produce (nobody is perfect and I still have a lot to learn), but generally when I am introducing words or grammar patterns I use those that I am fairly familiar with, and there is a good chance I have used them myself to a certain extent.

(Note: featured image taken from Pexels.com)

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4 thoughts on “Japanese word 構成 (kousei) and its use in the IT industry

  1. Jim Miles

    Very interesting article! Nice!

    At the end you say “By the way, I am always up for feedback on the content I produce” and I suspect this is bait to see if people feel comfortable pointing out typos or mistakes in your posts so on this occasion I’m going to rise to the bait and point out that in your title you currently have the contraction “it’s” but I believe you mean the possessive “its” … did I successfully spot the deliberate mistake? 😉

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Ha ha, that’s funny. Actually I was talking more about content-wise corrections, though I am up for grammar/spelling corrections too, of course.

      That mistake was not intentional (:

      The other funny thing is I went through the body of the article 2-3 times making sure to catch things like that, but I didn’t give as much care to the title.

  2. Julius Jacobsen

    I think you made a mistake with the dictionary entry. It says 社会 but you translated it as 会社.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for pointing that out! I just corrected it.


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