The continuing Japanese to English trade imbalance

One could say that Japanese is a very absorbent langange, meaning that it has taken, appropriated, and made its own countless number of loan words, or gairaigo as they are known in Japanese. Most gairaigo entered the language from Chinese 1500 years ago, with a certain amount also coming in slightly more recent times from Portugese Jesuit priests (tempura, for example) and Dutch traders (eg. kaban, meaning bag, satchel, or briefcase).

Most of these words have long been assimilated into the language to the point where their origin, at least to an outsider or non-native speaker, is obscured. However, it is the more recent English imports, like waishatsu (business shirt, not necessarily white), pasokon (personal computer), conbini (convenience store), or tsuaa kondakutaa (tour conductor), that get the most attention these days (popularized as either “Japlish” or “Engrish”), often because their meanings — to say nothing of their pronunciation — are at odds with that of the original word (manshon — ahem, “mansion” — for apartment building is one of my favorites).

If I may borrow an economics analogy, we could say that with respect to the English and Japanese languages, it is English that enjoys a considerable trade surplus. Japanese words that have entered into the English language are few and far between, and most of them directly refer back to some item or element of Japanese culture, eg. futon, origami, sushi, kimono, tofu, sake, zen, etc. However, there are two words in English that entered the language from Japanese whose entry I find curious and amusing, in part because not only are their meanings somewhat related, but their etymologies are mutually resonant as well. These two words are tycoon and honcho.

According to, tycoon has a particularly fascinating history of how it entered into English, going back to Commodore Perry in the 1850’s:

Tycoon came into English from Japanese, which had borrowed the title, meaning “great prince,” from Chinese. Use of the word was intended to make the shogun, the commander in chief of the Japanese army, more impressive to foreigners (his official title shgun merely meant “general”). It worked with Matthew C. Perry, who opened Japan to the West in 1854; Perry carried out his negotiations with the shogun, thinking him to be the emperor. In fact, the shogun did rule Japan, although he was supposedly acting for the emperor. The shogun’s title, taikun, was brought back to the United States after Perry’s visit. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members used tycoon as an affectionate nickname for the President. The word soon came to be used for business and industry leadersat times being applied to figures like J. P. Morgan, who may indeed have wielded more power than many princes and presidents.

Honcho, which comes from the Japanese hanchou and means “group leader,” is a more recent addition to the English language, again resulting from American involvement in Japan, this time from the post-World War II occupation of the nation by the Allied Powers.

There are a couple of words or phrases in use in English that have occassionally been traced back to Japanese, though the etymology is inconclusive or at the very least fanciful: hobo, and hunky-dory (as in the expression “Everything is hunky-dory.”).

There are some who wonder if the word hobo, meaning “One who wanders from place to place without a permanent home or a means of livelihood” (American Heritage), whose etymology has always been listed in dictionaries as “of unknown origin,” might be from the Japanese word houbou, meaning “here and there”. But this seems to be pure speculation, and speculation not shared by too many at that. Merriam-Webster seems to think hobo has a purely American origin.

According to the Word Detective, there are some that believe that hunky-dory originated from a street popular among American sailors in the 19th century in Yokohama named “Honcho-dori.” The story is fascinating, but unfortunately the facts don’t add up so neatly. See this thread at Phrase Finder for more.

5 Replies to “The continuing Japanese to English trade imbalance”

  1. Nice read! “Hunky-dory” made me wonder a while what Japanese it was. It’s interesting “taikun”, which we don’t use now, lives in the English language.

  2. 毎日、毎日、英語で書くのは凄い時間かかるじゃない?日本の事情だったら世界の何処でも書けると思うよ。どうして日本語で書かないのかな。せっかく日本に行ったのに、日本語の勉強を避けるのようだね。こんなに時間を使うのがもったいないじゃん。

  3. Before I moved to Japan (having grown up on westerns on US television in th 1950s and 1960s), I thought honcho was of Spanish origin. What a surprise to discover, then, that cowboys and Mexican bandits of the 1860s didn’t ask for the “head honcho” as those TV screenwriters so redundantly wrote in their post-WWII slang.

    I’ve often wondered if “tote” (to carry) came from the Japanese “totte” (to carry). Isn’t a furoshiki the original “tote bag”?

    And is tickling a baby’s mouth and gurgling “cootchie-gootchie-goo” a habit English-speakers picked up from the Japanese?

  4. M. Sinclair, funny, I too always thought “honcho” was Spanish, perhaps in part because my father’s nickname (he was a Texan by the way) was “Pancho”, which is most definitely Spanish.

    Re: anon’s post, here is a translation from my wife:

    “Doesn’t it take a long time to write in English
    everyday? If you want to write about Japan, you can write anywhere. Why don’t you write in Japanese? You went to great trouble to go to Japan, yet you seem to avoid studying Japanese. Using your time like this is a waste, no?”

    Anon (hey, c’mon, what’s with using the “anon” cover?), I’ll assume a tone of friendly encouragement here. To answer your questions, I don’t write in English everyday, and being that it’s my native language, no it doesn’t take terribly long. I’m not sure where you get the idea that I’m avoiding studying Japanese, I study everyday, in fact often it’s studying that spurs ideas about language that then leads me to write some of my blog posts. I sort of look at this blog and studying Japanese as mutually inspiring pursuits. Along the same lines, living in Japan and writing about Japan seem to naturally go together like, well, sushi and green tea. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that I could write about Japan anywhere.

    With respect to not writing my articles in Japanese, trust me, I’m doing you and every other reader who can understand Japanese a big favor! Unfortunately my Japanese level is not as yet at an sufficient level to to adequately express my thoughts and feelings. I’m confident one day it’ll get there, but it won’t be happening any day soon.

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