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  • Christina Theodorakis

Unknowingly Calling Someone a Neo-Nazi

This is another important blog about the infamous wasei-eigo (和製英語; pronounced wah-say ay-go; lit. "English" created in Japan) that, for an English speaker, they'll get a certain image of a word they hear in English, but for the same word, the Japanese speaker will get a completely different image. Whether you're someone who's been studying Japanese for the purpose of living and/or doing business in Japan or you're a Japanese person who wants some insight into some English, I'm someone who's in the same situation, so I'd like to help you avoid embarrassment in business situations with someone who isn't 100% familiar with how English words have been adopted into Japanese. That's a situation that you should find out about sooner rather than later because there are certain wasei-eigo words that are real English words (e.g., senior glass) or English words mashed with words from other languages (e.g., freeter — a mashup of "free" from English and "Arbeiter" from German [which, incidentally, they also use the wrong way in Japan to mean a part-time worker]).

Actually, this blog comes from personal experience: an encounter I recently had with a Japanese friend. My friend has been studying English very diligently in order to study abroad in an English-speaking country, so his English is actually very good; however, one thing that Japanese people have difficulty learning is what wasei-eigo words actually mean in English. If no native English speaker teaches them, then Japanese people go on believing that these wasei-eigo words are normal English words, even though many wasei-eigo words (remember: "English" created in Japan) actually originate from other European languages, such as German or Dutch, but I digress.

(If you're interested in seeing examples of head-scratching wasei-eigo, make sure you frequent our Twitter page here.)

Anyway, in the middle of our casual conversation in English, my friend mentioned that someone was a skinhead, to which I fell silent in response for a few seconds since I was flabbergasted. I, fluent in Japanese with a pretty good (but not perfect) knowledge of wasei-eigo, was confused as to why he called someone a Neo-Nazi, until it hit me that the person he had called a skinhead was completely bald. I told my friend about his unintended faux pas — that "skinhead" in modern vernacular mostly refers to the white supremacist skinheads and does not simply mean "someone with no hair on their head," and that's when my Japanese friend fell silent in confusion like I had moments before. I'm sure that he was wondering how the word innocent words "skin" and "head" — which should and used to mean someone with a completely bald or shaved head — could have anything to do with Nazism. This is where my friend Wikipedia came to the rescue.

Curiously, the Japanese Wikipedia entry for "skinhead" doesn't take you to the English entry for "skinhead" when you change the language from the menu on the left and instead takes you to the "head shaving" page, which talks about the history of ritualistic shaving heads and baldness in ancient cultures. Furthermore, the actual entry for "skinhead" in English has no Japanese version and mostly refers to the Buddhist monks who've had shaved heads in Japan since the Edo period (1603-1868) and has a tiny section on the "subculture" of skinheads in the West, which is the most important cultural difference. This leads me to believe that a Japanese person read the English entry and barely understood it — which is fine, but not helpful.

Because this was a good friend, I didn't think that he actually meant anything by calling the person a skinhead, and I could figure out what he really meant since I knew about whom he was talking. Imagine if you were in a business situation. If you're a Westerner working with Japanese people, be lenient with words that you hear Japanese people use, and if you're a Japanese person, be careful when you use words that you think are English with foreign business partners and colleagues.

That's why you need a localization team who's aware of language and cultural differences — something that a machine cannot do. Do you need some insight or expertise into working with Japanese companies, helping Japanese employees assimilate into your company, or looking to break into the Japanese market? Or maybe you're interested in translation? Feel free to contact us at




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