I once heard that the Japanese like to use words like 「トイレ」 and 「お手洗い」 to refer to the water closet/bathroom because they are neutral and don't have dirty connotations, especially the English loanword, because it comes from a foreign language. That made me wonder, are Chinese loanwords still considered "foreign" and therefore more impartial or less emotional?

For example, would something analogous to Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" (which used only English words of Germanic origin) line have any effect?

2 Answers 2


Chinese words are technically considered loan words, but they're so far back historically and so connected to Japanese that they are left in their own classification as 漢語{かんご} while your more typical examples of loan words from English or Portuguese or wherever, particularly of Western origin, are what people generally refer to when they say 外来語.

See this dictionary entry for clarification:


I bolded the relevant part, which says basically what I said above if you are unable to read it.

And I'm sorry that I somehow seemed to miss the part about emotionalness before even though it's the root of your question. But the distinction between "foreign" words and "Chinese" words even within Japanese should give you an idea of just how integral Chinese words are to Japanese language. Generally when you see something written only with 和語, with Japanese words, it gives it much more of a "Japanese" kind of feeling, of course, but I don't think you can really consider Chinese words more impartial or less emotional. I think the actual usage distinction is similar to the way Latin words crept into English, through academia. I'd say that in this way it has more of an educated feel and therefore less subject to the baseness of the commoner, like Old English words, but that's not in the same way as using a word like トイレ because it doesn't have dirty connotations.

I think a lot of the question hinges on the fact that you're asking about partiality or emotion with regard to the origin of the word, which I don't think has an effect. There is, however, a big difference in tone and in the feelings and images evoked with word choice, just as you can evoke different images and associations in English by using words of a certain type, for example saying pork versus pig.

This is just my speculation, but I would imagine that there's a rather large difference between "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" using only words of English/Germanic origin and a speech in Japanese using only words of Japanese origin because Chinese words are such a huge part of Japanese, and a lot of them are used basically in place of whatever would be a Japanese equivalent. Therefore it might sound a little bit odd to write something purely in 和語 without it sounding like poetry or something really old, whereas in English a lot of older words are still very much in common use and can be used without being too conspicuous. Like you could give a speech entirely with words rooted in Germanic/Old English and most people probably wouldn't say "hey this is only using English words!" whereas this would be quite apparent in Japanese.

This isn't to say that it's impossible for a Chinese word to be less emotional than a Japanese word, but rather that certain words already have certain cultural connotations, and using one in place of the other is deliberate, so you can make what you're writing sound smart by using a lot of Chinese words, make it sound folksy by using a lot of Japanese words, or make it sound weird by using one where the other is expected.

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    What about words like 姑娘 or 炒飯?
    – user1478
    Jan 4, 2013 at 8:48
  • If the discussion here is to be trusted, then these words are still considered 漢語, and especially when they are given katakana readings, it is only for the sake of readability due to complicated characters in the original Chinese, similar to the way fish or trees or bugs are treated.
    – ssb
    Jan 4, 2013 at 9:01
  • A little more digging shows that, by the definition of 漢語, any word that is read based on the sound of its characters rather than with a Japanese reading is considered 漢語, even if the word was made in Japan. It appears safe to say that even if the pronunciation has a little bit more of a Chinese feel, like in ラーメン or クーニャン, the fact that it came from Chinese means it is still 漢語. And 漢語 is technically still 外来語 anyway.
    – ssb
    Jan 4, 2013 at 9:20
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    And to make a triple comment, I was too caught up on the technical distinction between Chinese loan words and others, but yes I would agree that those words have more of a Chinese feel to them than your more typical 漢語.
    – ssb
    Jan 4, 2013 at 9:53

日本 (にっぽん) is the ultimate expression of nationalism, yet a Chinese loanword. I don't think there is any bias toward native Japanese words in the sense that Churchill used Germanic words in the quotation you gave. (If I understand him correctly.)

Rather than being a matter of more or less emotional, the standard, more "educated" choice seems to be the Chinese reading. Native Japanese readings have a slightly poetic flavour, but may also be used to be better understood (e.g. by children), as most homophones in Japanese are Chinese loanwords.

  • 1
    I agree. Similarly, in English many French-derived words sound more formal, educated, sophisticated, etc but they aren't considered less English. Jan 6, 2013 at 7:52

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