The Japanese language is beautiful. There are tons of words that can’t fully be explained in English, let alone have an English word equivalent. In just one word, it can describe a whole scenario. And sometimes, just from the sound of it, it gives you a sense of what the word holds. The list of untranslatable Japanese words is endless, but we’ll start with 15 of the most beautiful ones.
1. Komorebi (木漏れ日)
Komorebi (木漏れ日) is such a beautiful word. This word translates to the sunlight that filters through trees. There’s no one word in English that can fully encompass the meaning of this word. When one thinks of this word, the image of a peaceful forest appears in their mind. Remember this one the next time you go wandering in the woods!
2. Shinrinyoku (森林浴)
This next word is also related to the forest. Shinrinyoku (森林浴) refers to taking a peaceful walk through the woods. When on this stroll, the aim is to relax, unwind and appreciate the peace of nature. There’s actually events and tours for shinrinyoku therapy. What better way to treat your mental health than a break away from civilisation?
3. Shibui (シブイ)
Have you ever heard of the phrase “age like fine wine” in English? In Japanese, just one word holds the same meaning: shibui (シブイ). However, this untranslatable word means so much more. It’s a very specific adjective that describes something or someone who has gotten cooler or more graceful with age.
4. Tsundoku (積ん読)
This word is a combination of two words. Tsundoku (積ん読) makes up of “tsun”, which means “pile up”, and “doku”, which means “to read”. Together, it means the act of buying so many books and ending up not reading them. You’re just piling them up. Who else is guilty of that? It’s amazing that there’s one word that describes it all in Japanese.
5. Karoushi (過労死)
This next work is something we all don’t want to be. Karoushi (過労死) translates to “death from overwork and mental stress”. Japan has a very overworked culture. Sometimes the pressure and stress from working too much can cause some to have illnesses or even take their own life. That feeling is the definition of this word.
6. Wabi sabi (わびさび)
Onto a lighter note, our next word is wabi sabi (わびさび). I bet some of us have seen this word on a few books in the bookstore. This word refers to the appreciation of the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. It’s a traditional Japanese aesthetic as well as a style of art. It focuses on restraint and simplicity. At the end of the day, wabi sabi is being at peace and calm with temporary things.
7. Ikigai (生きがい)
Ikigai (生きがい) is a combination of two words. It combines the word for “to live”, “ikiru” (生きる), and “gai” (がい), which means “reason”. When combined, it means “the reason to live”. It’s the purpose you have for living. It could be a hobby, a person or cause. It can quite literally be anything, as long as it gets you out of bed in the morning. What a beautiful concept in a word!
8. Nekojita (猫舌)
Here’s a fun word: nekojita (猫舌). This word literally translates to “cat tongue”, but it has another meaning. A lot of Japanese people love to eat their food and drinks when it’s super hot. People who blow on their food to cool it down are said to have “nekojita”. It’s said that it’s based on the fact that cats generally don’t like to eat hot food. This usage can be dated back to the Edo period!
9. Kuchi sabishii (口寂しい)
Kuchi sabishii (口寂しい) is another fun one. This word literally means “lonely mouth”, but of course, it has another meaning. Those of us who eat just because we’re bored, we’re basically ‘kuchi sabishii”. I know I’m guilty of munching on chips just because I have nothing else to do.
10. Kouyou (紅葉)
One of the best things about autumn in Japan is its kouyou (紅葉). Translated to “autumn foliage”, this word beautifully encapsulates the beauty of the vibrant reds, oranges and yellows of the fall season. From Japanese locals to foreign tourists, everyone travels around to see “kouyou”.
11. Kogarashi (木枯らし)
Japan loves its nature. Here’s another word that beautifully describes an aspect of mother nature: kogarashi (木枯らし). It can translate to “leaf-shaking wind”. This word refers to the first cold wind you feel in autumn that lets you know that winter is coming real soon. For some of us, this is a sign to start shopping for winter jackets and sweaters!
12. Batankyuu (ばたんきゅう)
Ever felt so exhausted that you immediately flop into bed and fell straight to sleep? That, my friend, is “batankyuu” (ばたんきゅう). This is an onomatopoeia used mostly in written form rather than spoken. “Batan” is the action of falling onto the bed, and “kyuu” is the stillness of when you sleep. The Japanese people work so hard that everyone might as well be “batankyuu” every night.
13. Mikka Bouzu (三日坊主)
“Mikka bouzu” (三日坊主) translates to “three-day monk”. That can give you an idea of what it actually refers to. If someone gives up really easily or quickly, then this word is for them. It can also refer to someone who initially starts off with so much passion for something and then falter just as quickly. The referral to monks is quite interesting because monks are known to have a very strict routine. Throughout history, more than a few people have called it quits not too long after they’ve started.
14. Betsu bara (別腹)
Ever eaten so much for a meal, but still have the appetite for dessert? You might have “betsu bara” (別腹). This translates to “separate stomach”. Some of us might be able to relate to this. No matter how full we are, there’s always room for dessert!
15. Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
The last word on our list is “mono no aware” (物の憐れ). This word is pretty similar to “wabi sabi”, but it’s considered to be an older word that not a lot of people use now. The meaning of this word is to appreciate the fleeting beauty of something. It’s in line with the Buddhist idea of being in the moment as well as letting things go.
Which untranslatable word is your favourite?
In just one word, it can convey emotions, thoughts and wisdom. The Japanese language is very beautiful indeed. While this list is only of 15 words, there are dozens, if not hundreds, more of Japanese words that can’t be translated. For now, which one of these 15 words is your favourite?