There’s many a turn of phrase in Japanese that translate to bonkers English. There are also a few words, the pronunciation of which comes dangerously close to sounding like something completely different.
Let me take you back to my childhood. It’s Boxing Day. I can’t remember how old I am, but I’d asked for, and got, a Guinness Book of Records for Christmas (if that gives any indication of where I was at). Boxing Day in our family meant the visit of aunts, uncles and cousins, where we’d all compare presents, and play boardgames with all the enthusiasm of those who just want to be sat in front of the TV watching Santa Claus: The Movie.
I was asked to deliver a few world-beating facts from my new book. For some reason something from Japan caught my attention. Something about a bridge, maybe. I started to read about this ‘bridge’ and eventually came to its location. It might have been Fukuoka. Or Fukushima. Or, f#@k knows. But it began with the letters f..u..k. And as I was reading, that’s as far as I got before having to suppress a giggle. “Fuk…” . I decided I couldn’t handle the language and moved on swiftly.
However many years later, here I am in that place of records, and towns that start with the three letters f,u,k. Thankfully, I’ve just about grown up to the point where this no longer makes me laugh. That said, there are other words in Japan that cause awkward moments, prurient giggles, and straight up confusion. I bring them to you here - normal Japanese / naughty English.
フック / fukku
There is a button on one of the landline phones of an office I once worked in. I spotted it, leaned over to a colleague from New Zealand (who couldn’t read Japanese) and said, “See that button? It says, ‘fuk’.” That kept us entertained for the rest of the day. Of course, Japanese being the language of the vowel, the ‘u’ sound at the end takes the sting off things a little. But still, you can make it work. The purpose of the フック button? I think it’s to put someone ‘on hold’. The same word is also used for the English, ‘hook’. Do with that what you will.
大麻 / たいま / taima
大麻 means ‘hemp’ / ‘marijuana’. The pronunciation is very close to that of timer, as in kitchen timer. During my days as an ALT, I used to do a lot of classroom activities that involved using a timer. Or indeed, marijuana, to untrained ears. "Hey kids, let’s pick up the mood a bit with an activity. Now, where did I put that timer / marijuana?”. I never could shake this image, so in the end I just starting saying stopwatch (even though it was actually a kitchen timer I was using).
コック / kokku
The Japanese word for cook, is the aforementioned kokku. In the pronunciation it sounds unnervingly close to, well, that! The hilarity (for those of that disposition) comes from the completely unflinching way in which it might be said by locals in the context of a conversation, “What does your friend do?” “Oh, well, he’s a ….. .”. To date, I haven’t been able to explain the difference.
Sekisui House or Sexy House
I’d always wondered if the people at Nintendo had cracked open a Thesaurus before deciding upon the name Wii. Still, now it just seems normal. One corporate tick that never fails to amuse is Sekisui House, the home builders. Say it quickly enough and it comes out as Sexy House. What can I say? Simple pleasures.
精神 / seishin vs 精子 / seishi
I once had a conversation with a new Japanese colleague which involved me wanting to say that something had a spiritual meaning (I can’t remember what). Spirit - 精神 / seishin. I couldn’t quite remember the word though. Was it seishin or seishi? Spirit or sperm? Spirit or sperm? Eeny meeny miny moe …. sperm!!! I remain embarrassed to this day.
KY - 空気読めない - kuuki yomenai
The Japanese have a penchant for shortening any phrase or name that they can. Kuuki yomenai, or, one who can’t read the mood/atmosphere, becomes KY. “You’re KY!”. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like people back home, upon hearing the couplet KY, would be subject to but one image. The kind of which would cause people of the cloth to wince.
Yes, this all sounds prurient and/or childish, but these are words you’ll find in Japan. Being forewarned about them could prevent unwanted giggles at inappropriate moments.
I’d be interested to hear of others.
Other stuff by me:
Pictures (trimming and text by me)