Katakana Mysteries: 6 loan words Japan got wrong

Two minutes with a fashion magazine or computer manual is all you need to understand that loan words are all the rage in Japan. At book stores, you can find katakana dictionaries for every need, from technically oriented things automotive engineering or graphic design, to more simple katakana dictionaries for old grandmothers and grandfathers who simply want to understand all the crazy new words they hear on TV, or who want to be able to communicate with their grandchildren…

From a native English-speaker’s perspective, the majority of these katakana-rendered importations of foreign words (mostly English words) are sufficiently accurate and helpful for daily life in Japan… well, if you can remember where to put the “ー”

However, the sheer mind-boggling number of these words has inevitably ensured that some glitches and defects made it past quality control. Some words don’t work the way they should. Some don’t work at all. Some have unintended side effects.

Katakana mysteries will be a several part series (I don’t know how many parts yet… at least 3) on Nihonshock focusing on some curious loan words that you’ll encounter in Japan. While certainly this will be useful information for Japanese learners, hopefully you won’t have to know any Japanese to enjoy the read.

And so, without further ado…

Loan words Japan got wrong

or…  “Can we have them back now, please?”

1. バイキング (baikingu = viking)

The villain responsible for this well known misimportation is the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. In 1958, the manager of the hotel, Tetsuzo Inumaru, decided to open a self-serve, all-you-can-eat style restaurant modeled on a Swiss Swedish Smorgasbord.

However, there was a problem: the Swiss Swedish word “smorgasbord”(スモーガスボード) was deemed too long and difficult to pronounce. So the employees of the hotel were polled for name suggestions.

Meanwhile, the Hibiya theater next to the hotel was showing the movie “The Vikings”, so one employee suggested to use “viking” as a name for the restaurant style, based on a scene in the movie which depicted a grand feast, and the fact that a “viking” was easily associated with Europe.

The Imperial Hotel took the suggestion, the restaurant turned out to be a huge success and the name stuck.

Viking buffet smorgasbord katakana all you can eat


  • ビュッフェ (byuffe) is the katakana representation of the French word buffet, but this word is infrequently used. When it is used, it typically refers to on-train cafeterias.
  • 食べ放題  (tabehoudai) means all-you-can-eat, but usage of this word is typically limited to sushi, yakiniku, crab, and shabushabu quisine.
  • A “Viking” is always self-serve, but “tabehoudai” may or may not be (most often it isn’t).
  • Only in Okinawa, where there is a large US military presence, has the word バフェ (bafe: buffet) taken hold.

Source:  Japanese Wikipedia (食べ放題)

2. マンション (manshon = mansion)

Bill Gates or Warren Buffet might be very surprised if they were to buy a Japanese manshon, only to find upon their arrival something a bit less grand than they envisioned, and that they would be sharing it with quite a few other people.

katakana mansion apartment building

Oh well, at least they can take refuge on their luxurious new Japanese yacht… oh, wait a minute…

A Japanese yacht (ヨット: yotto)

A Japanese yacht (ヨット: yotto)

On a side note, a “pension” ペンション (penshon) is a guest house.

3. キャッチコピー (kyacchi kopi- = catch copy)

I guess they were trying to say “catch phrase”, although I really don’t know how the word “copy” made it’s way into this loanword. A “Catch copy” is a phrase that accompanies a brand or product to increase its memorability and appeal. In English, we could also say buzzword or slogan.

The best "catch copy" ... Ever.

The best "catch copy" ... Ever.

4. ナイーブ (nai-bu = naive)

Native speakers of English certainly wouldn’t like waking up and being told that they have a naive personality, but in Japan it’s not such a bad thing. That’s because in Japan, a person with a naive personality is sensitive, delicate, gentle, simple, and honest, just like the girl on the cover of this comic.

Naive, a manga for girls (uses an alternate katakana rendering)

Naive, a manga for girls (uses an alternate katakana rendering)

I bet she uses gentle “naive” body soap for her sensitive skin, because she’s so gentle and sensitive, you see.

Naive: a brand of Japanese hygeine products

Naive: a brand of Japanese hygeine products

5. スマート (suma-to = smart)

Since “smart” is a relatively simple English word and most Japanese have studied English through 6 years of middle and high school, there is a certain level of understanding that this word means “intelligent”. However, this word in Japanese has somehow come to also mean “slim” and “elegant”.

katakana smart slim stylish

There’s even a fashion magazine called “smart”.

smart: a Japanese fashion magazine

smart: a Japanese fashion magazine

6. スナック (sunakku = snack)

The lack of windows, saucy katakana shop names and smell of sake should clue you in that this isn’t your regular bag of potato chips. The Japanese idea of a “snack” is a social bar, with a somewhat classy atmosphere, basically a place where office workers (guys) go at night to relax, buy expensive drinks and chitchat with some perky young ladies. Foreigners, you are warned.

katakana snack bar

In Japanese, these kind of words are known as 和製英語 (waseieigo) or, “Japanese-made English”. If you can read Japanese, here are three great links for you to check out.

As I said at the start, katakana mysteries will be a series, so check back for more. The next entry will likely focus on loan words with tricky pronunciations.

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Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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