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Japanese Words We Need

Updated: Jul 11

English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us. Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English. Japanese is no exception.

The English language has some exceptional words. To name but two: there's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian - which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half - is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud.

But English-speaking culture - like any culture - has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow.

Mountain scenery in Japan

The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures - as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 6 Japanese words that we could use in English.

Ikigai: Literally translating to "life value," ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning - somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs. If you're lucky enough to be able to combine all those ingredients in your daily life, you now know what it's called on the other side of the world.

Shinrin-yoku: This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honour it with its own term.

Shikata ga nai: Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

Tsundoku: While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

Irusu: You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

Age-otori: Not everybody practices tsundoku, and extroverts are probably entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame.

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