Last Updated on 18/12/2021 by secretmoona
I’m not sure when my love for the Japanese language started. Still, I have always loved the language and especially the aesthetic behind the Japanese words.
In most languages, especially in Japanese, you will find words that cannot be translated as they have no direct equivalent. These words often convey feelings or concepts that do not exist or are not expressed in other cultures.
I have noted in this guide a selection of 20 Japanese words and expressions linked to the culture and aesthetics of Japan and which can inspire us all daily. For each word, there will be kanji, hiragana/katakana and rômaji readings.
Aesthetic Japanese words
Wabi sabi – わびさび – 侘寂
I first heard of wabi-sabi while purchasing a set of teacups in Kyoto’s flea market. One of the cups appeared to have a small crack mended together. This act of purposely leaving the imperfections visible (kintsugi) symbolizes the very heart of wabi-sabi.
The first kanji 侘 (wabi) means “the beauty found in simplicity and sobriety”. In contrast, the second kanji (sabi) represents “the feeling of peace that emanates from old things”, as well as refined simplicity. The two words together denote an aesthetic concept derived from the Zen philosophy of Buddhism, advocating simplicity and elegance. It is about recognizing the beauty in things old, modest and imperfect.
In the Zen philosophy, there are seven aesthetic principles that allow Wabi-sabi, the state of awareness of the imperfection of things:
- Kanso (簡素) – simplicity
- Fukinsei (不均斉) – asymmetry, irregularity
- Shizen (自然) – naturalness without pretension
- Yugen (幽玄) – subtle grace, not obvious
- Datsuzoku (脱俗) – freeness
- Seijaku (静寂) – tranquility, silence
- Koko (考古): basic, weathered
Kintsugi – 金継ぎ
The practice of mending broken pottery with gold and silver to fill the cracks is called Kintsugi (金継ぎ). It is also sometimes referred to as kintsukuroi (金繕い). In a society where it is customary to over-consume, we tend to discard things that we believe are no longer perfect. Kintsugi offers a second life to broken items. It allows you to restore broken or damaged objects by sublimating them with gold, not by hiding cracks.
The philosophy behind kintsugi is to put forward the imperfections, errors and mistakes to celebrate them as a new/restored object rather than discarding them altogether.
Kanso – 簡素 – かんそ
Kanso is the Japanese zen principle meaning simplicity or elimination of clutter. Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner.”
I’m sure most of us have heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing guru. Through her Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, she set off the world into a decluttering craze.
Her “spark joy” catchphrase comes from the concept of kanso, which means simplicity. Like the Chinese feng shui, kanso focuses on harmonizing with your surroundings, thus (getting rid of clutter and non-essential items) choosing natural furniture and minimal artwork.
Ikigai – 生きがい
Ikigai is a Japanese philoso[hy that refers to all the things worth living for. Since there is no direct translation, the word has different interpretations depending on how people use it. Linked to kanso, you can use ikigai to aid the reorganisation of your home in a minimalist way.
Above all, ikigai is about personal development to feel happier in your life.
Inspiring and Meaningful Japanese words
Shinrin yoku – 森林浴
Being in contact with nature does all of us good, especially nowadays where most people are forced to stay indoors. Walking in the woods or even a big park with lots of trees and nature does well to lift people’s morale and relieve stress.
“Forest baths,” or “shinrin-yoku,” are a Japanese medicinal practice that involves walking in the woods, fully breathing the scent of trees and listening to birds chirping.
It is believed to have many restorative and therapeutic benefits that are almost like food for the soul. Plus, Shinrin-yoku can be done anywhere with trees, no matter your fitness level.
Kuchisabishii – 口寂しい
Have you gained a few pounds during lockdown due to the unlimited access to your fridge and lack of activity? Have you been making short trips to your kitchen or looking inside your fridge searching for something to eat? The act of eating out of boredom is a manifestation of “kuchisabishii”.
The word would be translated as “lonely mouth” or “craving” in English. Still, there is no precise translation to express the compulsive aspect of this habit. Basically, you have enough room to eat even though you are not hungry.
I was introduced to this world during a call with a Japanese friend. She found not snacking hard with the abundance of delicious sweets and pastries.
Kuidaore – 食い倒れ
Kuidaore is something that many people worldwide, especially foodies, have experienced. Kuidaore describes a situation where someone loves food and drink so much that they will happily spend all their money on it. Foodies who visit all the hip restaurants are victims of this.
Fact: Kuidaore is associated with Dōtonbori, the foodie district in Osaka. The foodie hotspot has all lines after lines of restaurants, food stalls and markets. Every nook and cranny is filled with an eatery, all selling delicious food. Anyone who loves Japanese food must go there.
Irusu – 居留守
Imagine someone you don’t want to see at your doorstep, so you pretend you are not home. There is a word to express that in Japanese, and it’s called irusu.
Ganbatte – 頑張って
Ganbatte is an essential word in Japan used to encourage people to strive for something. It’s all about the positivity of doing your best, moving forward, fighting, working hard and not giving up.
The word means to persevere, persist or insist and is often translated as good luck.
A similar expression – Nanakorobi yaoki – translates to “fall down seven times, stand up eight” and is one of the best ways to describe the Japanese spirit.
Mono no aware – 物の哀れ
Mono no aware refers to the awareness of the fading nature of beauty. It is about being aware of the temporary existence of things, therefore, appreciating them while they last. A great example of mono no aware is hanami and hanabi (summer fireworks). Cherry blossoms (sakura) are important to Japanese people since they have a short blooming period.
Omotenashi – お持て成し
The Land of the Rising Sun is undoubtedly a warm country where you will be able to get help for the slightest problem. Omotenashi is about treating your guest, customer or neighbour the best way possible. It goes with ichigo ichie seen in tea ceremonies. The idea is that every meeting with a guest is a unique moment that should be treasured.
I believe this goes beyond the concept of “Treat others as you would like to be treated”. The term describes deep hospitality often seen in accommodations, shops, restaurants, etc. the best places to experience omotenashi are tea ceremonies and ryokans.
Essential everyday Japanese words
A fundamental way of thinking in Japanese culture, especially Buddhism, is to appreciate. Not all of these essential Japanese words have a tangible equivalent in English. But knowing them and how to use them will help you make the most of your trip to Japan.
Itadakimasu – いただきます
When eating a meal, people say itadakimasu, which loosely translates to “bon appetit” or “let’s eat”. A better translation of this word is “ I humbly receive”. The purpose is to thank the person who cooked the food you are about to eat and all the other people involved in the food production.
Gochisousama deshita – ごちそうさまでした
After you’ve finished eating, you say ごちそうさまでした, which means “Thank you for this meal.” as with Itadakimasu, it’s about being thankful for the food.
Whenever you are in someone’s house or a restaurant, it’s a polite thing to do to thank your host.
Otsukaresama – お疲れ様
In the same vein as itadakimasu and gochisousama, otsukaresama is used to thank someone. Short for お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita), it means “You are tired because you’ve worked hard!”. It’s a useful word used between coworkers or friends as a greeting, goodbye, or to express gratitude for their hard work and contribution.
When meeting my Japanese teacher (who is now a good friend) after work, she would say the first and last thing to me was “otsukare”. This word is one of my favourites as it is the synonym of all the hard work I put into learning the language.
Ojama shimasu – お邪魔します
When entering someone’s room or house in Japan, you must say “ojamashimasu” which means ‘thank you for inviting me’ or ‘thank you for having me’. This expression is also used to say ‘sorry to disturb’ you when talking to someone or interrupting a conversation.
You say this every time you enter someone’s home, whether planned or unexpected. When you leave, you repeat the phrase but in the past tense: お邪魔しました (ojama shimashita).
Hard to translate Japanese words
The Japanese language has many words that are hard to translate. Sometimes, they relate to a particular aspect of the country. Here are some of my favourite words.
Shouga nai – しょうがない
This word is handy as it enables people to think positively even in unpleasant or frustrating situations. “Shouga nai” means something similar to “it can’t be helped” or “nothing can be done.” Instead of brooding about things you have no control over, you can use the word, to forget about it. Worrying, guilt or regret then makes no sense.
Having said that, “shouga nai” is a far more complex word and comes with many cultural weights, which might be hard to understand. The expression refers to a philosophy of existence based on the importance of acceptance.
Tsundoku – 積ん読
Do you have piles of books just waiting to be read? Do you visit bookstores and buy books because they look pretty? If so, then you might be doing tsundoku.
Tsundoku is the art of buying and accumulating books without ever reading them. The urge to buy a new book knowing that we won’t have time to read them indicates how much people love books, even as e-readers are present. I’m sure most of us have a book or two lying around and dying to be read. I am guilty as charged since I find it more and more difficult to leave my phone for a while.
Komorebi – 木漏れ日
Imagine you are in a park on a summer day, lying in the shade and enjoying a peaceful time. Suddenly you see the light filtering through the branches of a leafy tree and hitting the grass? In the Japanese language, it is called: komorebi. The shadow created on the ground, or even in our curtains, describes this everyday beauty. Poetic right? I don’t know if any other language has a way of describing this.
Cool Japanese Onomatopoeia Words
In the Japanese language, there are many onomatopoeia, words that mimic the sound of the things they are referring to. The Japanese language has different categories for onomatopoeia, each with its way of expressing things. Doki doki and Kasakasa are two of my favorites.
Doki doki – どきどき – ドキドキ
Doki doki expresses both the sounds of a living thing (gisei-go) and an emotional state (gijou-go), which describes the feeling of excitement or nervousness and the actual sound of a rapid heartbeat.
When you exercise, for example, after climbing six flights of stairs, when you are excited, worried or upset, your heart rate goes faster, right? It goes something like dokidokidokidokidoki, but when you are relaxed, it’s more the slow doki…doki…doki… sound.
Kasakasa – かさかさ, カサカサ
Kasakasa is a word that describes the rustling sound that dry things make when they touch each other.
I first came across this cute Japanese word when I visited Nikko with my Japanese friends. We walked along a path full of Ginko trees on an Autumn day. My friend said that the noise we were making when walking on Ginko leaves was “kasakasa”.
Yoko-meshi – 横飯
Yoko-meshi is an expression I relate to and rank high on my favourites list. This beautiful Japanese word means “a meal eaten sideways”. It comes from “meshi”, which means ‘boiled rice’ and “yoko”, which means ‘horizontal”. And no, it doesn’t mean that we are eating rice the wrong way!
It refers to the stress and awkwardness of making yourself understood in a foreign language. The feeling you get when forced to speak in a different language and the anxiety of not being able to understand or be understood.
This concludes my guide to beautiful and meaningful Japanese words. Hope you enjoyed the article; if you did, please comment below and share it more widely. What are your favourite Japanese words mentioned above or not?
Want to learn some Japanese words before your next trip to Japan? Check out this blog post too: 30+ Useful Japanese phrases for travellers
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Credit photos: Canva & SecretMoona
2 thoughts on “20 Meaningful and Aesthetic Japanese Words to Know”
Haha, Irusu is totally me sometimes! What a cool list to learn about Japanese words!
Great post! It’s funny how living in Japan, some of these are used sooo much (like gambatte, dokidoki and all the aisatsu words.) Then some of the others (like the various zen words) I only heard in classes teaching about Japanese culture.
I love the concept of tsundoku, and I often see bloggers/book lovers talk about it. Although I have never heard Japanese people mention it.