I would like to know why, in general, new words are imported (from English among other languages) rather that created with respect to the concept/thing they represent.

For example, "computer" could be written as 計算機 (the word exists but is not common), the same would be true for words like "shower", "engine", "orchestra" and many others.

What is even more confusing is that borrowed words may be preferred. The first example that comes to my mind is smooth スムーズ which was formerly 円滑. 円滑 is still used but スムーズ is far more common and it covers a broader range of meanings.

To add to the previous paragraph, while 2-kanji-compound are often very precise in meaning (and it is often useful to check the dictionary of synonym) loaned words tends to have broader meanings.

This question has been nagging at me because the more I learn kanji the more I find them useful, it is easy to parse a sentence with a lot of kanji (as long as particles are not written with man'yougana though) and at the same time since the meaning is somewhat encoded into the kanji it easier to grab the meaning of the whole sentence.

On the other hand, since the borrowed word tend to keep their original pronunciation and form they are written as katakana which is understandable but at the same time it is more difficult to read/parse and the meaning is not encoded in the written form of the word. The use of too much kana tends to make Japanese much like any other language with an alphabet.

I am not advocating that Japanese should borrow words from Chinese (it would nevertheless be a solution), but I am wondering why not like the Chinese creates new words conceptually from existing kanji. (In the first example I gave 計算機 is not the Chinese word for computer which is 電腦 most of the time and 計算機 sometimes.)

  • I don't personally know the reason, but I suspect it's because it's easier to transliterate and disperse a transliteration than it is to create a new word. That being said, I've seen a lot of complex science topic names that have their own kanji compounds, and in this case it's probably because a. the population using it is small so adoption of a new word would be easier than a nationwide adoption of a simpler word, and b. some of the transliterations would be ridiculously long. e.g. antidisestablishmentarianism would probably get a compound (if one doesn't already exist) if it was imported.
    – Pandacoder
    Jul 23, 2015 at 17:36
  • To add to the previous comment, having a word in katakana keeps the origin of the word as foreign and as such, that it's original pronuntiation may be different. What i don't understand is why do they even bother learning both romaji AND kata, and not use romaji at all. That's one of the reasons japanese people have so much trouble with english pronuntiation, IMO
    – Dleep
    Jul 23, 2015 at 17:40
  • @Emisor, yes, katakana may hint that a word as a foreign origin but it is very difficult to predict from what language (and there is japanese words written in katakana as well) but in my opinion what is dangerous is that a borrowed word can acquire other meanings that the original word (in the original language) did not have. And as you said it hinders the pronunciation. Jul 23, 2015 at 17:46
  • @Pandacoder, 1. As you highlight in some field they have their own kanji compounds and while I agree that some of them are very specific I think that when something get known to the public then the specific words from the field get presented to a larger audience which should help the adoption of those specific compunds rather than borrowing them. 2. You mentionned antidisestablishmentarianism, I don't know if their is a kana abbreviation for this one but the chinese word for it is not so ugly (反政教分离运动) and incredibly shorter than its English counterpart. Jul 23, 2015 at 17:52
  • 10
    So you prefer borrowing from Chinese rather than borrowing from English?
    – user1478
    Jul 23, 2015 at 19:16

1 Answer 1


Here's a question: are you sure that your characterisation of the situation is accurate? Are all, or the majority, of new words in Japanese created by importation from other languages? Do you have any statistics about this?

It's often relatively obvious to English speakers when we see a katakana word imported from English, but how do you know you're not seeing recently coined kanji compounds, or repurposed kanji compounds, or recent imports from Chinese? By 'repurposed' I mean when older words are given new meanings, just as "computer" did not originally mean a machine.

Since I didn't have the answers to those questions off the top of my head, I tried to find some data for you. This is a recent PhD thesis comparing neologisms in Japanese and Korean. I can't speak to the parts of it that involve Korean, but if you look at page 39 there's a table which suggests that by the measure of this research, only about 25% of 新語{しんご} (neologisms) from 2001 to 2010 are actually 外来語{がいらいご}. The largest part (~40%) are actually mixed words - 混種語{こんしゅご}

Keep going to page 59, and you'll see a breakdown of these - the majority are a combination of a foreign word and kanji. So 迷惑{めいわく}メール (rather than スパム), サイバー犯罪{はんざい} (rather than サイバークライム), and so on.

It can also be that the impression we get of how many new katakana words there are from the specific things we are reading. For example, looking at the 少納言 corpus, I don't think it's true that スムーズ is far more common than 円滑. (This meta question on Google counts may be of relevance).

The final thing to consider is whether all uses of foreign-origin words count as "importation". Do you count every time somebody makes up a new sort of パン as re-importation of a foreign word? 米パン is arguably a case of this - a relatively new term (or at least, recently popular), made by combining two Japanese words - 米 & パン.

I think the actual answer is: people create words according to their requirements at the time. There are no set rules, and attempting to impose rules rarely actually works (ask the French about le jogging and other faux anglicismes).

If someone imported a word and transliterated it rather than inventing one, it was because it was there and it seemed like the easiest option at the time, or because they thought it sounded cool/modern, or because they wanted to avoid specific connections/connotations which might have come with using existing words in Japanese (計算機 implies "calculator" more than it does "computer"), or for some other reason that escapes me for the moment.

  • I did not do statistics and all prior to asking this question, it is more based on what I have read so far and it may be biased. Yous second paragraph is really interesting and I did not considered that case thank you for pointing this out. It is really surprising that 外来語 are only about 25% (I will have a look at this thesis at least because I am very interested to know how they can come up with a list of neologisms). I would not say that all new usage of a foreign word count as "importation" because 米パン at least seems to be something not so know outside of Japan. Jul 24, 2015 at 16:06
  • 2
    Let's rendezvous and have a croissant. Why does anyone import words? And yes, as stated, 計算機 is already taken. As for why they are imported by and large from English, I think the fact that it's at least considered (if not defacto) international language has something to do with it. That, and the enamoring of western culture. I think this is one of those things where you don't ask why - you just accept. Jul 24, 2015 at 18:42
  • @kiss-o-matic: I think your points are good ones, but I think that your two examples are a little bad, since Modern English is based in part on Norman French. There are side by side translations of Beowulf(an old English, and therefore pre-Norman Invasion, poem), with Modern English. The two look almost nothing alike, not even using the same alphabet.
    – sharur
    Jul 5, 2018 at 22:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .