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  • Christina Theodorakis

Good Luck with Your I-turn

Japan has a fixation with creating new English words with illogical meanings to be adopted into the Japanese language for words that they may not have in Japanese. Take the letter "W." Not a word, obviously, but Japan has turned it into their own word to mean "two of something" or "two things that aren't the same." More on that in the future when my mind stops fizzling after being blown. Yeah. Seriously.

The Japanese language has adopted a lot of foreign words that originate from English but have unique Japanese usages that make the words not make sense anymore in actual English. These words are known as "和製英語 (wasei-eigo)," which is loosely translated as "English words made by Japan." Some examples of these Japan-invented English words are "baton touch," "skinship," and "paper driver." They look like English -- they sound like English -- but they don't smell like English. Their meanings are completely unique to Japan, so you're not crazy. We understand that Japanese people use these words amongst themselves to fill in gaps in their language for words that Japanese doesn't have, which is fine. The kicker is that most Japanese people will use these Japanese-English words in English conversations casually and in business, completely ignoring the fact that they're even defined as "Japan-created" in their native Japanese. (By the way, even words that were borrowed from French, German, Dutch, etc., are grouped as wasei-eigo.)

Today, I'm going to share with you how Japan uses the word "turn" -- specifically, the word "U-turn." In the English-speaking world, obviously a U-turn refers to when a car going in one direction makes a turn to go in the opposite direction. If you look at the car on the road from a bird's-eye view, the turn looks like a U, so the letter U makes sense here.

The driving term has been adopted in Japan to mean something completely out of left field: growing up in one area, relocating to another area for work, then moving back to your hometown with a job in that area. This also applies to people who go to college somewhere and subsequently begin their career in the same area as their college, so it mainly goes: born in the countryside --> moved to a major metropolitan area (mainly Tokyo) --> now back in hometown. Japan calls this "doing a U-turn."

Next is what Japan calls "J-turn." There's no such thing as a J-turn outside of Japan because it makes absolutely no sense, but Japan views the J as not a full return. Can you guess what this means? No? You're not alone. The J-turn is like a U-turn, where a person moves from their countryside town to Tokyo, but instead of returning to their hometown, they move to a smaller city closer to their hometown for whatever reason, usually to work at a branch of their company that's near their hometown.

Last but not least, there's "I-turn." If you're wondering how you can turn while you're going in a straight line (or in a line while going left to right at the top and bottom), you're definitely not alone. This term is used for people who were born and raised in Tokyo, graduated from school, then moved to a rural town outside of the Tokyo metropolitan area for work. For any of you who are from New York, London, or another major city and want to put the hustle and bustle of the big city behind you to move to the peaceful and affordable countryside, you can say that you've done an I-turn! (I'm kidding, obviously.)

The problem with these terms is that there isn't a consensus on their meanings, and they're often used loosely. People in human resources or the entertainment industry will use them occasionally, and they may stretch the meanings of U-turn, J-turn, and I-turn since they're the most commonly used of the bunch of turn-based words so as not to confuse their viewers. For instance, someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere in one prefecture, relocated to Kyoto for work, then moved to another small town in the prefecture next to where they grew up will still be told that they've done a U-turn by people.

To make things more fun, Japan has gone a step further and invented more terms for more specific situations, such as the V-turn, O-turn, C-turn, N-turn, S-turn, and X-turn. I would love to explain any of these terms, but there's no way I could understand them -- and even our Japanese writers aren't exactly sure what they mean.

Part of the reason why Japanese is so difficult to learn and master is that many words have broad meanings, and Japanese people often rely on their gut when deciding which word may be the most appropriate one to use in a certain situation. There are no official rules on how the Japanese language is used; the government has vague guidelines on how they would like people to use them. This is why we take localization so seriously: we believe that people should be native speakers and highly proficient in the target language, as well as have a high proficiency in the base language.

The majority of our team has grown up outside of Japan, learning Japanese as a second language, and we know how to bridge the gap between the Western and the Japanese business worlds. We can also bridge the gap between Japanese and Western marketing thanks to our high level of understanding of the different cultures. If you’re interested in working in Japan or with Japanese people, feel free to contact us for a free consultation!




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