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