Learn Japanese: 5 Untranslatable Japanese Words

Published March 24th, 2016

In every language there are certain untranslatable words for which we have no equivalent in English. And Japanese is no different. Oftentimes these words can say a lot about what is important to a culture. The Greeks had many different words for love, and Inuit languages famously have dozens of words for snow. But what things are most important to the Japanese to describe? With this post you can learn 5 untranslatable Japanese words to add to your vocabulary!

japanese untranslatable wordsIf you look this up in the dictionary, it may say “dear, desired, or missed.” But in reality the word is much more complex than that. Natsukashii(なつかしい, 懐かしい) is that feeling of reminiscing, when something suddenly reminds you of the past. It’s a feeling of nostalgia that a certain thing brings back. It is smelling the perfume your grandmother used to wear after so many years. Maybe hearing a song you loved growing up that you haven’t heard in ages. Or maybe it’s that feeling coming back to your home town after several years abroad. I feel very natsukashii whenever I eat mint chocolate chip ice cream, because my dad would take me to get it every Sunday when I was little.

hono bono japanese  untranslatable wordsWhile hono bono (ほのぼの) most closely translates as “heartwarming,” there is a little more to this word when used in Japanese. Think of adorable little puppies, cute kids playing on a playground, or anything that is small and absolutely precious. You just want to pick it up and squeeze it! As you may know, “cuteness” is very important to Japanese culture, and many Japanese pop stars want to be described as kawaii!

ozappa untranslatable japanese words While some people may describe Ozappa (おおざっぱ, 大雑把) as being “laid-back” or “worry-free,” this isn’t exactly the case. While it does refer to a person who doesn’t care too much or sweat the small stuff, ozappa is more commonly used with a negative connotation. Think about a person who is careless at work or doesn’t really take pride in what he does. This person is ozappa, and it’s not a good thing.

komorebi untranslatable japanese wordsOne of the most beautiful and poetic words in the Japanese language is komorebi (こもれび, 木漏れ日). While it is easy to define, there is no word in English that describes so exactly what komorebi is. It is the interplay between light and trees when you’re standing in a forest. The sun speckles the ground as the shadows of branches shift in the breeze. Hopefully, everyone has experienced the beauty of komorebi at one point in their lives.

japanese untranslatable wordsHonne (ほんね, 本音) and tatemae (たてまえ, 建前) are two Japanese words that must go hand-in-hand. They represent the contrast between how a person really feels and they feelings that they display in public. Honne is used to describe your real desires and tatemae is the version of yourself you project in public. It is clear to see why we do not have equivalent words in English as Japanese culture can often be so much more rigid and refined. Despite this, I think everyone has experienced a difference in their honne and tatemae before.