More Onomatopoeic Expressions - Describing Food Textures in Japanese


Tourism is one of the most frequent genres we come across in our line of work as translators. Since the number of foreign visitors has sky-rocketed over the past few years in Japan, there is a growing demand for localization of pamphlets, websites, and guides for travelers from all around the world. Such texts contain a large variety of cultural expressions, and translating those expressions from Japanese to other languages is a very challenging task. A simple translation often may not be enough to convey the essence of a particular tradition, custom, piece of clothing, or tool, which is why one needs to enhance the target text with a succinct and clear explanatory note.

Food is particularly tricky. Many people associate Japan with gastronomy, and in recent years, traditional Japanese cuisine has gained a lot of visibility on a global scale. In Japan, a great deal of care is devoted to what, how, when, and how much one eats. Food preparation itself is also a highly sophisticated matter. Traditional Japanese cuisine varies greatly from region to region, which is why the culinary map in this country is extremely colorful.

So are the expressions related to food. In one of our previous blog posts, we discussed a variety of onomatopoeic expressions that Japanese people use to describe rain. In this article, we are going to focus on those related to food, particularly the ones that describe different food textures. Please keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list - one could actually write an entire book about this lexical category - but just a few common examples you may come across in everyday life here. (When creating this list, I relied on the definitions in the KOTOBANK ( dictionary.)

mochimochi: Refers to a chewy, springy texture, similar to that of Japanese glutinous rice cakes (which incidentally are also called "mochi").

sakusaku: Recreates the light, crunchy sound of a fresh apple or cabbage leaf.

karikari: Also denotes a crunchy sound. However, this expression is normally used for foods that are much crispier than apples (e.g. French fries, potato chips, or bacon).

pasapasa: Describes a dry and sometimes powdery texture you will find in certain types of bread or vegetables such as pumpkin. It may also have a negative connotation (when describing grilled meat that is too dry, for instance).

fuwafuwa: Describes a soft, spongy texture similar to that of sponge cakes, thick pancakes, or marshmallows.

nebaneba: Refers to the highly viscous consistency of vegetables like okra or fermented soy beans called "natto," an extremely popular and healthy dish eaten in Japan.

torotoro: Denotes a soft, creamy, or syrupy texture, resembling the consistency of soft serve, soft-boiled eggs, or melted cheese.

hokuhoku: Refers to the hot and soft texture of a baked dish such as freshly baked potatoes.


「食べるの音」~感性豊かな日本語のオノマトペの世界~ (Retrieved: November 28, 2019 from


Six Japanese Words That Describe Rice


Studying a language automatically entails learning about the culture that has created it. Each language is like a mirror that reflects the way a particular society has evolved. Every language is a living organism that never ceases to change and develop, with its speakers constantly introducing new concepts that continue to emerge through societal progress.

Every new concept is introduced into a language out of necessity. Whenever there is a new thing that people need to refer to on a regular basis, they obviously need a new concrete linguistic means to be able to do that. To give a banal example, the now ubiquitous expression "social media" probably did not exist 40 years ago because there was absolutely no need for it.

Culture and environment also influence how elaborately a particular object or concept can be described in a particular language. Take for instance the Inuktitut language, one of the main Inuit languages spoken in northern parts of Canada, which uses a large variety of expressions to describe snow and ice. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, "taking into account the base words, derived terms, and words with a broader meaning, the total number of terms referring to the various aspect of snow and ice goes far beyond ten or a dozen" (Source: Inuktitut Words for Snow and Ice, The Canadian Encyclopedia). Although the exact number of those expressions has been a rather controversial issue among linguists for decades, it still represents a good example of how a language is shaped by the living circumstances of its speakers.

The same is true for expressions that refer to food, one of the most crucial elements of our daily lives. Expressions that describe staple foods are normally very diverse and elaborate as they reflect the dietary habits of a particular culture. The staple food in Japan, for instance, is rice. It is pretty much everywhere - people have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is used to make all kinds of snacks from crackers to rice balls, and it is also the essential ingredient in sake, arguably the most famous Japanese alcoholic beverage.

Due to the indispensable role of rice in Japanese cuisine, the Japanese language has a rather large spectrum of words to describe this staple. Let's have a look at some of the most common ones. (I used Japanese dictionary definitions from KOTOBANK ( as a reference point when creating this list.)

1. Ine

The word "ine" refers to rice that is still in the husk.

2. Kome

"Kome" is threshed rice, i.e. uncooked packaged rice you can normally buy at a supermarket.

3. Genmai / Hakumai

Threshed rice or "kome" can be further divided into two categories, "genmai" and "hakumai". "Genmai" is rice that has been dried and threshed but with bran still attached, i.e. unpolished rice. "Hakumai" (lit. "white rice"), on the other hand, denotes "milled rice," i.e. rice that has been milled to remove bran.

4. Gohan

Cooked rice is referred to as "gohan." Interestingly, the word gohan is also used to denote "meal" or "food" in a very broad sense. For instance, if you say "I haven't had gohan yet" in Japanese, it simply means you have not had breakfast/lunch/dinner yet. In Japan, the word for cooked rice is a synonym for food in general.

5. Meshi

This word also refers to various types of cooked rice and food or meals in general, but it has a more informal undertone compared to "gohan."

6. Raisu

And finally there is "raisu" (rice). Some may find it unusual for such an essential element of Japanese culture to be referred to with an English loanword. In fact, the word "raisu" is mostly used to denote rice that is served with foreign dishes. You may also come across it at restaurants, most notably in names of dishes such as "karē raisu" (curry and rice) or "chikin raisu" (chicken rice).



Why Japanese Can Be a Tricky Language to Translate


I have been fascinated by the Japanese language since the moment I started studying it. At the beginning, it was mostly about the thrill of learning something completely new and exotic, but as I continued, I grew increasingly intrigued by some of the concepts I had never encountered in any other language before. I was somewhat surprised by the relative simplicity of the grammatical structures, and although internalizing all the intricacies of Japanese honorific expressions was by no means an easy task, it definitely helped me learn a lot about the way society functions in Japan. Having studied the highly contextual nature of Japanese for a number of years, I feel like I have improved my ability to read between the lines instead of just taking words at face value. Since the extremely complex Japanese writing system relies heavily on the use of Chinese characters, the road to becoming fully literate in this language can be very long. But once you get there, you realize it was all worth it.

When I started my career as a translator, I had the opportunity to get to know the language even better. I needed to learn how to interpret a large variety of texts in Japanese more accurately, which can be a very tricky task. For this blog post, I have decided to list a few characteristics of the Japanese language that can make a translator's job quite challenging.

1. Subject omission

Japanese is a high-context language. Although context dependency is a common characteristic observed in many different languages, it is particularly apparent in Japanese, especially when it comes to the issue of subject omission. As a translator, you will often come across sentences where the subject has been left out. If your target language is English, it means you will need to infer the subject from the context since most English sentences require one. To avoid any mistranslations, it is therefore very important never to lose the thread when reading a text in Japanese.

2. No gender or number markers

Subject omission also occurs in many other languages such as Italian or Spanish. What makes Japanese a bit more challenging, however, is the fact that there are (almost) no gender or number markers to speak of. The word "taberu" ("eat"), for instance, can mean "I eat," "she eats," or even "they will eat" when used in isolation. That, combined with the tendency to leave out the grammatical subject, is part of the reason why context is everything in Japanese, which takes some getting used to if you are not a native speaker.

3. Honorific expressions

In addition to its highly context-sensitive nature, the Japanese language is extremely rich in various honorific expressions, which reflect the characteristics of the social system in Japan. More often than not, these expressions have no clear counterparts in English or other European languages, so you are often faced with the same translation dilemma: should I translate a particular honorific expression for the sake of accuracy or should I just leave it out simply because it makes the translation sound too unnatural?
Such expressions can sometimes be entirely untranslatable, so you have no choice but to move away from the source text and make sure your translation follows the cultural conventions of the target language.

4. Japanese-made English words

The Japanese lexicon includes a plethora of English borrowings and English-based expressions. The former are actual loanwords from English, whereas the latter are English-based words coined in Japan. The words in the second group can be surprisingly tricky to translate simply because they usually have nothing to do with their English counterparts. For instance, the word "one meter" (pronounced "wan mētā" in Japanese) refers to the basic taxi fare, i.e. the fare you pay for the first stretch of the journey when you take a taxi (the exact amount and distance depend on the region and type of vehicle). Although context usually helps, such expressions can be rather difficult to decipher without a dictionary, and they should be treated as pure Japanese coinages.


Non-English Loanwords in Japanese


It is safe to say that most loanwords have been introduced into the Japanese language via English. This is partly due to Japan's close historical ties with countries like the United States and partly due to the rapid spread of globalization we have witnessed over the past couple of decades. The Japanese language is now still absorbing more and more English expressions to denote (relatively) new concepts such as "sumātofon" ("smartphone") or "kuraudo" ("cloud" as in "cloud storage").
But this diffusion of foreign words in Japanese did not start in the 20th century and it has not always been limited to English. More than a millennium ago, the Japanese language had no writing system to speak of, so it had to rely entirely on Chinese characters. Chinese borrowings represent a large part of the modern Japanese lexicon as a result of the economic and cultural exchange between the two entities over the centuries.
In 1542, the first Europeans reached the shores of Japan. They came all the way from Portugal and brought weapons, Christianity, as well as some new Portuguese words. In 1600, a Dutch ship arrived in Kyushu, marking the beginning of the Japanese-Dutch relations. In the decades that followed, foreigners had very limited or no access to Japan, but that all changed drastically in the Meiji period in the 19th century when the country opened its doors to foreign influences. During that era, various specialists came from Germany and contributed greatly to Japan's modernization in a number of fields, including politics, education, and medicine. (Sources: See items 2 to 5 listed below.)
All the trade and intellectual exchange with foreign countries inevitably left a mark on the Japanese language. In one of my previous posts, I discussed Japanese loanwords used in English. This time I am going to do the opposite and have a look at some of the non-English borrowings that are commonly used in the Japanese language. However, I am not going to include expressions that are limited to a particular culture, country, or region such as "spaghetti," "tango," or "sari" since those tend to be used in their original forms in almost any language.

Pan (パン) - Portuguese

The word "pan" ("bread") came from Portuguese. It is arguably one of the most frequently used non-English loanwords in Japanese.

Randoseru (ランドセル) - Dutch

In Dutch, the word "ransel" originally denoted a type of rucksack. In Japanese, on the other hand, it is a type of schoolbag used by elementary school children.

Meruhenchikku (メルヘンチック) - German/English

"Meruhenchikku" is an interesting example of a non-English loanword because it is actually a hybrid between the German noun "Märchen," meaning "fairy-tale," and the English adjectival suffix "-tic." In Japanese, "meruhenchikku" is used to describe something that resembles or has the qualities of a fairy-tale.

Arubaito (アルバイト) - German

The German word "arbeit" means "work," whereas its phonetically altered Japanese version "arubaito" is slightly more specific as it is only used to denote "part-time work."

Ankēto (アンケート) - French

This expression has preserved the original connotation of the French word "enquête," which means "survey."

Kuranke (クランケ - German

As I mentioned above, the Meiji era in Japan was marked by modernization in various fields. Medicine was one of them, and German specialists who visited Japan during that period played an essential role.
The word "Kranke" means "sick person" in German. The related Japanese expression "kuranke," on the other hand, is only used by doctors and nurses to refer to their patients.

Ikura (イクラ) - Russian

Salmon roe represents one of the essential ingredients in Japanese cuisine. The word for salmon roe in modern Japanese is "ikura," a phonetically altered version of the Russian expression "ikra," which also means "roe."

Tabako (タバコ) - Portuguese

To conclude this list, I have chosen another commonly used borrowing from Portuguese. In Japanese, the word "tabako" is used to refer to "cigarettes" or "tobacco" in general.


1. List of gairaigo and wasei-eigo terms. Retrieved from:
2. The First Europeans in Japan. Retrieved from: from:
3. Christianity. Retreived from:
4. Dutch Trading Post on "Dejima". Retrieved from:
5. Saaler, S. (2012, Aug 14) The German Doctor in Meiji Japan. Retrieved from:
6. Kotobank


How to Describe Rain in Japanese


Onomatopoeia normally refers to "the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named" (Source: Oxford Living Dictionaries). The English word beep, for instance, imitates the sound it denotes, and the word roar recreates the cry of a lion or a similar large wild animal.

There is a plethora of onomatopoeic words in the Japanese language. What makes these expressions so special, however, is their ability to convey a lot more than just sounds and noises. In fact, they can be divided into two large groups: giongo, i.e. words that mimic sounds, and gitaigo, i.e. words that mimic states of the external world. The latter group includes expressions that describe the way people laugh (e.g. nikoniko "to smile"), the way they sleep (e.g. utouto "to nod off"), or even the way they feel (e.g. gakkari "to be disappointed"). Gitaigo expressions are also used to depict natural phenomena (e.g kankan "scorching heat"), shapes of objects (e.g. dekoboko "uneven surface"), or movement (e.g. yochiyochi "to toddle").

For this blog post, I have decided to focus on a rather narrow category of onomatopoeic expressions that describe rain. Most of the words listed below can be classified as giongo, i.e. words that mimic sounds or noises. The list serves to demonstrate just how differently a particular sound can be perceived and reproduced in a different linguistic environment. (Also, the rainy season is just around the corner in Japan, so I think this topic is quite appropriate.)

1. Potsupotsu

This expression is used to describe the sporadic raindrops that you see (or feel) when it is just about to start raining.

2. Shitoshito

"Shitoshito" denotes a gentle rain, heavier than a drizzle but not quite as intense as a downpour.

3. Botabota

When rain falls in large drops, it rains "botabota." This word mostly refers to the repeated sounds the heavy raindrops make as they hit a surface.

4. Parapara

This onomatopoeic expression is used to describe raindrops that fall in scattered, irregular patterns.

5. Zāzā

As its sound may suggest, the word "zāzā" denotes continuous heavy rain.

Oxford Living Dictionaries