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JMdict defines it as

(vehicle) wheel

And nothing else.

But Wanikani uses it to mean tire in two out of three example sentences.

バイクの車輪が外れてしまいました。

My motorcycle's tire came off.

今日、ちょっと自転車貸してもらえないかな?今、車輪を取り替えてもらっているので、自分のが無いんだよね。

Could I borrow your bike today? I don’t have mine right now because I’m having a tire replaced.

No machine translator I tried (google, deepl, chatgpt) translates any of those as tire.

If it does mean tire, how can I tell which is meant? Is there any way other than using context and reasoning to guess?

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  • To me a tyre is a type of wheel and it's perfect natural to just call them wheels. Heck there's an entire children's song 'The wheels on the bus go round and round'
    – Angelos
    Sep 12, 2023 at 18:14
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    Merriam Webster: Tire: "a rubber cushion that fits around a wheel (as of an automobile) and usually contains compressed air". They have another, historical, sense where the tire is metal instead of rubber, but it is still just something that sits on the outer circumference of a wheel, It is not a wheel. Sep 12, 2023 at 18:53
  • Wikipedia says "一般的に言う「車輪」「ホイール」「ウィール」は接地しているタイヤ(ゴムや軟質の鉄などで出来ている)やチューブまで回転部分全てを指すが、分野や状況によっては区分される場合がある". In the context of auto repair, タイヤ and ホイール are strictly distinguished, but in everyday language, both タイヤ and 車輪 can refer to "everything". Wheels that don't use rubber, like those of trains or old horse-drawn carriages, are not called タイヤ.
    – naruto
    Sep 13, 2023 at 0:45
  • @naruto I'm unclear on what you mean by "everything". Do you mean that 車輪 can be used to refer to only the "rubber cushion that fits around a wheel", excluding the rest of the wheel? (Reading the Wikipedia page is far beyond me as of yet I'm afraid.) Sep 13, 2023 at 3:11
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    @naruto Thanks a bunch :) That mostly confirms the conclusion of the existing answer if I understand you correctly. With the exception that 車輪 is often used to refer to the entire wheel including the tire, much like in English. Getting confirmation from a native speaker is highly valuable :) Sep 13, 2023 at 4:24

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I think Wanikani is being colloquial and a little loose in its translation. Whether that's forgivable, or an inexcusable meaning error, really depends on your use case for the translation.

Reading the Japanese, my impression is that the entire wheel -- hub, spokes, rim, tire, and all -- has come off the motorbike.

If we look at monolingual JA resources, such as the 日本大百科全書(ニッポニカ) entry over here on Kotobank, we see that their description more closely matches Merriam-Webster's -- the round, structural part that includes the rim and spokes and hub, and that attaches to the axle. The tire is the part that goes around the outside of the rim of the wheel.

If it (車輪【しゃりん】) does mean tire, how can I tell which is meant? Is there any way other than using context and reasoning to guess?

I'd say that 車輪【しゃりん】 means "tire" about as much as the English terms wheel and tire are (or are not) interchangeable. I know some native-English-speakers who use these loosely, and I suspect that is what we see in Wanikani's examples.

In other words, 車輪【しゃりん】 means "wheel" (the structural round thing with the rim, spokes, and hub). Strictly speaking, this does not include the "tire" (the part around the outside of the rim, often made of rubber). That said, depending on the speaker and the context, I suppose it's possible that 車輪【しゃりん】 might include the "tire". I don't think 車輪【しゃりん】 can ever refer to just the "tire", excluding the structural "wheel".

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    Thank you very much :) Sep 12, 2023 at 21:37

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