Japanese word deep dive: “nakama” (仲間) [as heard in One Piece]

By | February 13, 2024

When studying a foreign language, it’s nice to learn a little bit about a lot of words. But at the same time, it’s also nice to get deep and learn the various nuances of certain words, especially those that are used frequently. In this post I want to do a deep dive on the word 仲間, pronounced “nakama”. In addition to in kanji, this word can also be written in hiragana as なかま and (rarely) in katakana as ナカマ.

At first, you might get the feeling this word is a bit like 友達 (tomodachi), which is commonly translated as “friend”, as in a friend you meet to hang out once in a while, or talk on the phone. But while there are some similarities, 仲間 has a difference in nuance that is important to understand.

First, let’s look at the characters that make up this word. They are:

  • 仲  relationship
  • 間  interval, between, among

These together give us a vague feeling of someone we have a relationship with, but that’s about it.

Next let’s look at some basic JP-JP dictionary definitions, with my English translations. My dictionary’s basic definition for 友達 is:

  • 一緒に勉強したり仕事をしたり遊んだりして,親しく交わる人
    • Someone who you interact closely with, doing things such as studying together, working together, or playing together.

And for 仲間:

  • ある物事を一緒になってする者
    • A person who you do something together with.
  • 同じ種類に属するもの
    • A thing that belongs to the same class or type as something else.

These definitions don’t seem that different, especially the part about doing things together which is almost identical.

But what the JP-JP dictionary doesn’t capture is that 仲間 can have a stronger sense of connection than 友達. Part of the reason is that the activity of the former is usually more specific (and may be an activity very important to those people), whereas for 友達 it can be a variety of unrelated activities. For example see this expression:

  • 仕事仲間 [shigoto nakama]
  • Coworker

This simply means people who work together. Another example would be people who do a certain sport together, スポーツ仲間 [supootsu nakama].

Those who consider each other a “nakama” can have not just a shared activity, but perhaps some shared purpose in life, and maybe other commonalities like ways of thinking.

A great example of this word’s usage in popular culture is how One Piece’s Monkey D. Luffy calls the people who sail together with him on his ship. He always uses the word 仲間, and never 友達. On the other hand, one of the main enemies (I think it was Arlong) referred to his people once using 同胞 (douhou), which means something like “fellow countryman”, a word with a very different nuance.

In several scenes in the anime, Luffy can be seen screaming something like “俺の仲間なんだから!” (Because they are my nakama!), and his voice gives you some idea of the emotion behind that. As you may know, he puts his nakama above all else, including financial gain. (The only exception to using “nakama” I have seen is in when he calls one of the millennial dragons “tomodachi”.)

In the anime version I saw, the English translated “nakama” differently in different episodes, but they used terms like “friend” or “crew”. Both of these are good translations, but I think “crew” is closer to what he is actually saying.

However, I want to emphasize that in reality the difference between 仲間 and 友達 isn’t that clear cut. For example, when reading about elements that contribute to happiness and well-being, the word 友達 is often used more than 仲間. My guess is that it’s because 仲間 can refer to a work buddy who you are not that intimate with. Sometimes you will see both words used, or other qualities like 本当の友達 [a real friend], and there are other stronger words like 親友 [shinyuu, meaning “Best friend”) that can be used to clarify relationships more.

So ultimately the most important thing is what the shared activity is, and how that is important to those involved. If it’s something the members do with a great passion, they will be more likely to have a stronger relationship. Depending on the context, you can think of “nakama” in terms of “friend”, “partner”, “companion”, or “buddy”. Perhaps one of the closest words to “nakama” is “comrade”, which originally came from Spanish/Portuguese.

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