Japanese Slang

The following is a report in both Japanese and English from one of the participants of the 2012 Sapporo Summer Institute:

This past year, in our “Research and Exploration” Japanese class, we learned many polite Japanese words and phrases. These phrases could be used in a variety of situations, to a variety of people. However, since being in Japanese school and around Japanese teenagers, I have come to realize that learning Japanese slang and colloquialisms are just as important in order to master Japanese.

    As in America, Japanese slang and colloquialisms are continuously changing through years and generations. For example, the word “groovy” might have been popular in the 60’s, but fast forward 50 years and the word is now mostly heard on old movies or Scooby Doo. Although “groovy” is no longer a part of most peoples’ everyday vocabulary, it has been replaced with words with similar meanings.
Also similarly to American slang, I noticed that many of the Japanese slang words are merely shortened versions of “real words” themselves. For example, they might say “haya” instead of “hayai”, “tsuyo” instead of “tsuyoi”, or “hido” instead of “hidoi”. There is a pattern to this, as you might have found. In Japanese, there are many words that end with the same “i” sound. Taking the “i” off of one of those words makes it informal. In English, words such as “totally” and “probably” have been shortened to “totes” and “probs”.
When there is a pattern to the slang, it is fairly easy to pick up and incorporate into your Japanese speaking. On the other hand, there are colloquialisms that are seemingly related to other words, but have a different meaning. For example, the slang word “metcha” in Japanese sounds similar to “mechakucha”, but they have different meanings. “Metcha” means simply “very”, and “mechakucha” means “messy or disorderly”. One other word that is currently trending in Japan is “yabai”. When teenagers say it, they often leave out the “i”, as in the pattern from earlier. In the dictionary, “yabai” has been defined as “dangerous, risky, or awful”. The dictionary suggests that it has a negative connotation, but that is not always the case. According to Yu Takamatsu, my host brother in Japan during the three weeks I was there, “Yabai is used in many situations. It can mean dangerous or awful, but it is also used to express surprise. Sometimes you use it when you are impressed too…it has a lot of different meanings.” In America, teenagers are using the word “bomb” as a substitute for the words cool or awesome, though its real meaning is significantly different. Although the new meanings of these words do not make much sense in either Japanese or English, people still seem to accept it.
Some slang and colloquial expressions seemed oddly familiar to me during my stay in Japan, and once they were explained to me, I realized why. The first was the phrase “GET suru” which is pronounced more like “getto suru” in Japanese, due to the lack of closed consonants in their language. If you look at the phrase, you’ll notice the English word “get”. The meaning of this phrase is basically the same as what get means: “to receive or have possession of.” I haven’t heard this phrase spoken orally, but it was written in a Japanese clothing magazine. The second phrase was more difficult to make a connection to, because it was less obvious. I discovered the phrase “donmai” when one of my host brother’s friends asked me if it meant anything in English. I had to have him repeat it a few times before I realized he was saying “don’t mind”. This phrase is a shortened version of “I don’t mind”, and is used in the same way. I was surprised how much the English language influenced the Japanese, and their day to day colloquialisms.
There are, however, times when slang should not be used. Japanese culture has always stressed respect for elders, and it continues to be important through modern times. Slang is rarely used when speaking to teachers, although I occasionally heard teachers using slang to the students. Also, according to Yu Takamatsu, ”students in a higher grade must be regarded with respect, and slang should not be used unless you are friends.” The exception to these rules is family, where you almost never hear formal talk. In America, teachers and elders are supposed to be respected, but often they are not. At Grant High School, I remember witnessing a conversation between the student and the teacher, in which the student used slang to the teacher. Still, putting it simply, slang and colloquial expressions are used mostly to people close to you, in both America and Japan.
Listening to the Japanese teenagers talk, I thought I would never understand their slang, much less use it in conversation. Upon comparing Japanese and American slang and making connections, I found similarities in the words and phrases. In addition, the English in some of the phrases made them easier to remember as well. Japanese does come with lots of formal, polite language, which you must learn to fit certain situations. However, I believe that the opposite side of the spectrum matters just as much, because to be fluent, you need both sides to make a whole. During my time in Japan, I successfully learned how to use their slang correctly. As I continue to keep in touch with the new friends I’ve made, I will try to keep up with the new colloquialisms they are using, in order to “master” the language.


    去年、私達は 「研究と探究」 という日本語のクラスで、敬語を学び始めた。 習った敬語はいろいろな時に使うことが出来たので、とても大切であった。 しかし、日本の若者と一緒に学校などに行っていると、日本の俗語を習うのも大事だと思う。
アメリカの俗語と同様に、日本の俗語はいつも変わっている。 50年前に、アメリカで流行っていた俗語はもうあまり聞かない。 聞く時は古いテレビ番組や映画の中だけである。 その50年前の言葉はなくなったが、同じ意味のある新しい言葉が出てきている。
日本にいる間、気づいたのは不思議な俗語のパターンだった。日本人は 「い」 で終わる言葉を言うときに、「い」 をとっていた。たとえば、 「はやい」 が 「はやっ!」 になって、 「つよい」 は 「つよっ!」 になっていた。 このパターンはその二つの言葉だではなく、「い」 で終わる言葉のほとんど全部に使うことが出来る。 「ひどい」 は 「ひどっ!」 、「よわい」 は 「よわっ!」 そして 「ずるい」 は 「ずるっ!」 だった。 そういっても、このパターンを使えないときもある。 「きれい」 の発音は 「きれい」 ではなく、速く言うと 「きれ~」 になる事がある。したがって、 「い」 を取る意味はない。また、 「い」 を取る言葉がい~形容詞ではなければ、短くすることは出来ない。例えば、名詞の「みらい」 も 「い」 で終わるが、「みらっ!」 と言わない。 アメリカでも、言葉を短くした俗語がある。「トータリー」 (totally) と「プロバブリー」 (probably)を短くすると、「トーツ」(totes)と「プロッブズ」(probs)に変わる。
パターンがあると簡単に俗語を使うことができる。反対に、他の言葉に似ているが、違う意味を持っている俗語がある。若者がよく使う「めっちゃ」は「めちゃくちゃ」と似ているようであるが、「めっちゃ」は「とても」と同じ意味で、「めちゃくちゃ」は「汚い、ぐじゃぐじゃ」と言う意味なのである。今日本で人気がある言葉は「やばい」である。若者は前のパターンのように、「い」を抜いて言っている。しかし、辞書で調べると、「やばい」の意味は「あぶない」であるが、若者が使うと他の意味がある。私のホストファミリー(兄)の高松優君によると、「皆はびっくりする時も使うし、感動するときも使う。何でもやばいと言う。」 アメリカでは、「Bomb」(爆弾)を「Cool](かっこいい)と同じように使っている。そのように使うのは間違えているけど、皆はまだ使っているみたいである。
時々、もう意味を知っている気がする俗語にも出会ったが、説明してもらうと、どうしてかが分かった。最初は、「GETする」であった。見ると、英語の言葉の「GET」が入っている。「GET」の意味は、手に入れることで、「GETする」もおなじ意味なのである。これは、皆は口で言わないけど、洋服の雑誌に入っていた。二番目の俗語はもっと難しかったが、「ドンマイ」だった。優の友達に「ドンマイ」の英語の意味を聞かれたが、意味がわからず、三回ぐらい繰り返してもらって、やっとわかった。実は、「ドンマイ」は英語の「Don’t mind」を短くした俗語である。「Don’t mind」と「ドンマイ」は同じ意味がある。このように俗語に英語が沢山使われているので、私はびっくりした。


写真 1 (Picture 1) :  これは、洋服の雑誌の写真である。雑誌の中で、「GETできました」と書いてあった。「GETできました」は日本の俗語である。
This is a picture from a Japanese clothing magazine. In the magazine, “GET dekimashita”, which is another form of “GET suru”, was written. “GET dekimashita” is a slang phrase in Japan.

写真 2 (Picture 2) : この写真も、同じ雑誌に入っていた。雑誌の中に、テキストの例が書いてあった。「めっちゃ」は、話す時だけではなく、テキストをする時も使う。このテキストは「めっちゃ」の使い方を表している。
This picture is from the same magazine, and it shows an example of a text message Japanese teenagers might exchange. The word “metcha” is not only used in face-to-face conversation, but it is also used when texting. The usage of “metcha” is expressed in this text.

Grant High Student Joins PSSCA Board

The Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association board of directors just added its first youth member in the organization’s 53-year history.

Sara Onitsuka is a 16-year-old junior at Grant High School in Portland. She has been studying Japanese since she was four years old and currently participates in the Japanese Magnet Program offered at the school.

sara headshot

Last summer Sara had the opportunity to be a part of the Sapporo Summer Institute trip to Sapporo, Japan. She stayed in the home of a Japanese family for three weeks and was immersed in Japanese culture.

Sara also records radio pieces for Asian Pacific-American Compass, a local radio program on KBOO Community Radio. To hear Sara’s reflections on her 2012 stay in Japan, go to http://kboo.fm/node/50510.

The Sapporo Summer Institute is an educational program supported by the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association. Plans for next year’s trip to Japan are currently underway.

English in Japan

The following is a report in both Japanese and English from one of the participants of the 2012 Sapporo Summer Institute:



 ほとんど、お店の英語の名前、『alphabet’s alphabet』は製品にあまり関係がない。日本人に聞いたら、「英語はかっこいいから」と言う。
そ して日本の歌にもたくさんの英語が入っている。J-Popの音楽にはふつういくつかの英語のフレーズが入っている。日本人の若者はたくさんの違うアメリカとイ ギリスの音楽家の音楽を聞いている。英語がよくわかるわけではないけれど、英語はかっこいいと思っています。会話で英語を使う例も書きましょう。英語はどんどん 日本の文化に入ってきいる。たとえば私が日本で行った新川高校でだれか誕生日があったら、誕生日の歌は日本語ではなくて、英語で歌う。そして生徒は私に「これは英語で何ですか」と質問をたくさんした。私が教えた言葉は何度もリピートした。

Japan’s English
by Rachel S.

The last two times I came to Japan, I do not remember observing how much English is used in store names, on TV, and in their songs. All throughout the month that I was in Japan, I began to take pictures of all the interesting English store names. Quite often, the store name did not relate to the store products whatsoever. For example, a clothing store was named “alphabet’s alphabet.” This really made me wonder what the store owner had in mind when they made up the name. I decided to inquire around and see what Japanese people thought of the English in their store names. When asked if they could read all the English store names and such, the response was “no.” If the many Japanese can’t read or understand the English that is all around, then why is it so popular? The answer to this is that it’s simply considered “cool.” It was then pointed out that there are people from America who wear shirts with Kanji on them yet have no idea what it says. After noticing how much Japan uses English, it got me thinking about whether America does this same thing yet with other languages.

Music also another way that the Japanese seem to connect to America. For example, most J-pop songs have a couple of phrases in English that repeat themselves throughout the song. Not only that, but Japanese teens also listen to many artists from America and England even if they don’t understand what the song means. Not only is there English in their songs but English is also used as a slang in their everyday conversations. For example they say Ok, good, happy birthday and other words in English when there are actual Japanese words for them. Also, when at the school, the students were constantly wanting to know what some words were in English. For example, the first word I taught them was “card board box” and ever since then, they have remembered it. English is very much a part of the Japanese culture.

Not only do the Japanese seem to think that English is “cool,” my host mom was also very shocked when she found out that my Mother actually wanted me to buy her things that were traditional Japanese. Through the conversation, it came out that Japanese people didn’t really own Japanese things in their own homes. It is actually not in style to own traditional Japanese things. Thinking about it, I had noticed a large amount of American flags on clothing but I had never seen anyone wearing the Japan flag on their clothing. It almost seems like American is more than a place, it’s also a fashion. Their songs have English in them, their clothing has English on them, many store names are in English, and it’s all considered “cool.”

I find it amazing that the Japanese are quickly adjusting to other cultures from all over the world when unlike America, the majority of the country does not come from other countries. Over this month I really observed Japan’s use of English even more than I ever have before.

Current Events at the Japanese Garden

On Saturday, August 27, the Japanese Garden will present: Behind the Shoji Artist Demo: Masamichi Nitani – woodworking.

On Sunday, August 28, they’ll present: Behind the Shoji Artist Demo: Teresa Ruch – bamboo dying/textiles.

Both start at 11:00 a.m. and are included with Garden admission.

Charlie M. Clint,

Letter-Writing Project Offers a Helping Hand

May 8, 2011

In this world of tweets and text messages, it really is still relevant to write a letter!

A local mother, Lisa Uzunoe, has found a way that by simply writing a letter people can help lift the spirits of those in Japan who are left homeless by the recent earthquake and tsunami. Sometimes a sincere message of ‘hang in there’ can be just as valuable as money.

“What can our kids do to help Northern Japan?” was the question that started the campaign. A few Richmond School parents came up with the concept of the “Ganbatte Letters” — to give people still living in emergency shelters just a small light of hope and something to smile about. The project also gives children an opportunity to help others in a very personal way. Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan have agreed to distribute the letters to the children and adults in the devastated parts of Japan.

Both children and adults are encouraged to write in Japanese (as much as they are able) to the kids, adults and even seniors who are still suffering in Japan. (A large percentage of those in the shelters are not children.) The letters will be collected through Friday, May 31.

Information about the project — and the format of the letters — is included in the document below.

Note: The following document is in PDF format.

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Info about Ganbatte Letters [PDF]

Questions can be emailed to Lisa Uzunoe (Mother of two boys Pre-K & 2nd grade @ Richmond Elementary & Associate Minister of the Konko Church of Portland) at:

Sapporo Delegation to Visit Portland

The Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association is proud to host a five-member goodwill delegation from Sapporo, Japan later this month. The delegates are representing the 42nd Annual English Oratorical Contest held in Sapporo last fall. The tradition of the oratorical competition began in November of 1969, the tenth anniversary of the sister city relationship between Portland and Sapporo.


Iketa Tomaho – poses with her trophy

Four contest winners plus a chaperone will visit Portland from March 26 through April 2. While in town, they’ll be hosted by local families; they’ll tour the city, visit Portland’s Japanese Garden, attend a Trail Blazer game and give their winning speeches in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

The Oratorical presentations will take place on Monday, March 28, at 1:00 p.m. at City Hall. The public is welcome to come and hear the speeches and show their appreciation to the winners, including:

15-year-old Iketo Tamaho of Fuji Girls Junior High School, 1st Place Winner of the Junior High Division. The title of her speech is “My Thank You Letter.”

Watanabe Ryo of Hokurei Junior High School, 2nd Place winner in the Junior High Division; the title of his speech is “Bushido – The Moral Spirit of Japan.”

Maruo Natsumi of Sapporo Minami Senior High School, age 17, 1st Place High School Division; her speech is “Seeds of Peace.”

Takase Mika (a Call Center agent) age 30, 1st Place winner in the University & Adult Division; her speech is “Pink Month.”

PSSCA wants to thank the generous supporters who have offered lodging and gifts to the goodwill delegation. In light of the recent tragic events in Japan, Portland is fortunate to have these representatives visit from our very first sister city, Sapporo.

PSSCA President Sends Letter to Mayor Ueda

Today Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association President Thompson (Thom) M. Faller sent a letter of sympathy and concern to Mayor Fumio Ueda and Citizens of Sapporo.


Letter to Mayor Ueda

His entire letter is available for reading (below).

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Shinnenkai Celebration Successfully Starts the Year

Last month the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association (PSSCA) celebrated the New Year by hosting a Shinnenkai celebration at the Portland Japanese Garden. The event was a chance to network with community leaders, Japanese business associates and supporters of PSSCA. Nearly 100 attended the gala and were entertained by the dynamic Taiko and dance group, Takohachi. Catered by Portland’s new Japanese restaurant, Shigezo, the gathering also featured wine and Japan’s popular Sapporo beer.

Consul General Okabe was present and brought cheer to the event with the traditional New Year’s Kanpai (toast). A short speech and thanks for attending was delivered by Steve Orcutt, Vice President of PSSCA, who also read a welcome statement to everyone from the President, Dr. Thompson Faller, who was out of town.

One of the event highlights was the presentation by Grant High School students representing the Sapporo Summer Institute. Led by Michael Bacon, Immersion Education Coordinator at Portland Public Schools and PSSCA Board Member, this exchange program will allow the bright, hard-working student participants an unparalleled opportunity to experience the lifestyle and culture of Portland’s oldest sister city. As reported by Aurelia Wieber, student spokesperson for the group, they will leave June 18 for their trip to Sapporo and spend five weeks in Japan; while there, they will attend classes, conduct surveys and collect data comparing Japanese and American culture. The teen ambassadors will also spend a week in Tokyo where they will participate in an international debate with university students.

TEAM USA Oregon Snow Sculpture Team Members made a special donation to the students to kick-start their fundraising campaign and to show their support to the program. Team manager Charley Scott was on hand to make the presentation. The team leaves this week for the international competition at the Sapporo Snow Festival. (LEARN MORE)

PSSCA wants to thank the Japanese Garden for hosting this year’s Shinnenkai celebration, as well as Matt Weadick of Sapporo Beer for his donation and support.

Note: The following document is in PDF format.

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Flyer – Shinnenkai Student Speech [PDF]

PSU Hosts Lecture Series in February

Portland State University’s Center for Japanese Studies is hosting a lecture series in February. The Center brings the languages, literature, thoughts and culture of Japan to PSU students and the community.

On Tuesday, February 8, the lecture will address the cultural challenges of the Ainu, native people of northern Japan, a subject that bears a striking similarity to Native American experience.

The Ainu, indigenous to northern Japan, were deprived of their ancestral land by the Meiji Government in its process of colonization and reclamation in the late nineteenth century. A long oppression, forced assimilation and destruction of natural environment followed. The Ainu have been restoring their culture, identity and community in the middle of mainstream Japanese society, away from their ancestral land. Dr. Yoshiko Kayano will address how they have made this possible, as well as what she’s learned from them about their rich cultural tradition and the difficulties they still face.

Note: The following document is in PDF format.

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Flyer – Restoring the Ainu Culture [PDF]


Toast the Japanese New Year at Shinnenkai

The Portland-Sapporo Sister City’s Annual Shinnenkai (New Year’s Party) is scheduled for January 14, 2011 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. at the Portland Japanese Garden Pavilion. A shinnenkai (“new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by toasting its arrival in a gathering of friends and co-workers in January.


This year the general public — along with friends and supporters — is invited to come and start the New Year Japanese style with Japanese entertainment, food and fellowship. Community leaders and board members of the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association (PSSCA) will be in attendance.

Michael Bacon, PSSCA board member and Portland Public School Immersion Achievement Coordinator, will be in attendance, along with students of Grant High School who will participate in the inaugural five-week Sapporo Summer Institute (or Sapporo Kakikenshu) program. Attendees will learn about this great new program for Portland area students who study Japanese language and culture through Portland schools.

The TEAM USA Oregon Snow Sculpture Team will be on hand to share details about their participation in the Sapporo Snow Festival Snow Sculpture Contest in February, 2011, when they will host a self-guided tourist and business delegation traveling to the Snow Festival. Shinnenkai guests will meet the team of Oregon master artisans who will complete against 16 other international snow sculpture teams from around the world at this world-renowned event that attracts more than two million visitors a year.

Entertainment for the evening will be provided by Takohachi Taiko, Portland’s newest and most dynamic Taiko and Dance Group. This highly talented group of performers is led by performer and composer Yumi Torimaru and shamisen master Kohei Kimura. This special ensemble will ring in the New Year for this wonderful celebration at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Guests will enjoy delicious bento made by one of Oregon’s newest Japanese Izakaya restaurants, Shigezo, and beverages provided by PSSCA supporter, Sapporo Beer. Wine and soda will also be available.

Emcee for the Shinnenkai celebration will be Steve Orcutt, PC, Vice President of the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association. Steve is a Portland attorney specializing in Real Estate, small business, and asset protection. he’s been a PSSCA board member for the past seventeen years.

Space for this special celebration is limited. Reservations are $20 per person, available through the Japanese Garden, 503.542.0280.