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54+ Untranslatable, Beautiful Japanese Words & Phrases

Hey, you!

Learning Japanese and want to learn some beautiful Japanese words in the process?

Well, you’re in luck.

Japanese is chock full of words and phrases that are not immediately translatable into English. Words that don’t have an English counterpart and require explanation.

In this guide, you’ll learn 50+ words and phrases. Many are untranslatable. Some are. All are beautiful — in sound or meaning.

So, let’s jump in.

1. 木枯らし Cold, Wintry Wind

  • Pronunciation: Kogarashi

Kogarashi” is a chilly, cold, wintry wind. It lets you know of the arrival of winter. You know, the kind that sends the shivers down your spine and gives you goosebumps.

kogarashi

2. 木漏れ日 Sunlight filtering through the trees

  • 木漏れ日
  • Komorebi

When sunlight filters through the tree leaves and produces rays. You know that stands for tree, 漏れ/もれ means leakage and the  kanji stands for the sun. So, tree leakage (of the) sun.

komorebi

3. 物の哀れ Bitter-sweetness of fading beauty

  • Mono no aware

物/Mono means “thing.” And, “aware” looks like the English word, but it doesn’t have the same meaning or pronunciation. It means pity, sorrow or grief. So this refers to the “bittersweetness of fading beauty” – the acknowledged but appreciated, sad transience of things. Kind of like the last day of summer or the cherry blossoms – which don’t last long.

mono no aware

4. 幽玄 An awareness of the universe

  • Yuugen

Literally it means “subtle grace” or “mysterious profundity.” This word has different meanings depending on context.  But most of the time, it refers to a profound awareness of the nature of the universe – the oneness of all things – to the point where it affects you emotionally.

yuugen

Sound vague and odd? Well, don’t worry. To settle your mind, this word is not translatable and has no English equivalent… so if you’re confused, it’s okay.

5. 和 Harmony

  • Wa

This word means peace or harmony. It implies the importance to of avoiding conflict – so as to maintain the (Wa) harmony. And it refers to Japan and the Japanese way itself.

wa harmony

6. 改善 Continuous improvement

  • Kaizen

Literally, it means change for better. Whether one time or continuously – this is not implied or intended. It’s not until later that it become continuous improvement by the Japanese business world. Toyota kicked it off.

So, now, it’s just a word (used by businesses) to describe the process of “always improving” and getting better.

kaizen

7. 紫 Purple

  • Murasaki

Yes, the color purple. Why did it make the list of beautiful Japanese words?

Simply because of how it sounds to the ear. Say it with me – murasaki! Okay, there’s more. Back in the old, old days– say around the year 1400 – this color was the color of the upper class and only high level officials and Imperial family could wear it. So, this color is a pretty big deal and a pretty beautiful Japanese word, in my opinion.

murasaki purple

8. 森林浴 Forest Bathing

  • shinrin-yoku

So, 森林/shinrin means forest and 浴/yoku stands for bathing. And this refers to being immersed in a forest or talking a walk through the woods. It’s something to do to relax, reduce your stress and improve your health.

And studies confirm that this indeed lowers blood pressure and cortisol.

shinrin-yoku

 

9. 奇妙 Strange, odd, or mysterious

  • Kimyou

This is a word that can describe things that are strange or odd. For example, if you suddenly received an anonymous letter, you could use “kimyou.” It can also be used to describe creepy locations like forests, cemeteries, or houses.

kimyou

10. 浮世 Floating World

  • ukiyo

Now, this isn’t a recent term and you won’t hear it much. It’s rooted in Japan’s history. It literally does mean “浮 – float” and “世 – world/society.” Although it can also be interpreted as “transient world” or “fleeting life.” Basically, this word was used to describe Japanese life-style in Edo-period Japan, where normal people escaped the pressures of the samurai state to entertainment/pleasure districts (whether theater, tea-houses, etc.).

You won’t hear it much in everyday life.

ukiyo

 



11. 花吹雪 Cherry Blossom Blizzard

  • Hanafubuki

花 means flower, petal (or cherry blossom) and 吹雪 means blizzard or snowstorm. However, this typically refers to Cherry Blossoms (Sakura) and how their petals come floating down, slowly, en-mass, as if a snow storm or blizzard.

Beautiful Japanese words hanafubuki

Here’s a sexy example –  if it moves you, you can say you felt “yugen” or that it’s “mono no aware.

12. 風花 Flurry of Snow in a Clear Sky

  • Kazahana

If you go by the kanji, the first one stands for wind and the other one is for flowers. Except, this word is used to describe snow flurries in the wind. Why the flower comparison though? Well, because it’s kind of like petals in the wind.kazahana snow flurry untranslatable japanese words

13. 生き甲斐 Reason for Being

  • ikigai

As the Japanese say, everyone has an ikigai. It’s what gets you up in the morning. It’s what moves you. What makes your life worthwhile. Work. Hobbies. Goals. Taking care of kids. Learning Japanese. It’s probably why I’m writing this at 3:17AM on a Saturday morning! Knowing your ikigai might require a lot of introspection and search. Now, let’s break it down:

  • 生き – Iki – Meaning: living or being alive
  • 甲斐 – kai (though it’s changed to gai) – meaning: worth or use

What’s your “ikigai?” Leave a comment.

ikigai Beautiful Japanese words

14. 一期一会 Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur

  • ichi-go ichi-e

This is actually a Japanese proverb; a Zen Buddhist one.

Literally, it means – one time, one meeting. Usually, it’s translated as “one chance in a lifetime.” But the BEST translation is: Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur. So, that meeting you had with a friend or someone… that EXACT moment and everything that happened will never, ever happen again in this life. It was one of a kind and hence it’s worth treasuring.

ichi-go ichi-e

Next on the list of beautiful Japanese words…

15. 恋の予感 Premonition of Love

  • Koi no Yokan

This is sort of like love at first sight but not really. There’s more. It’s not a sappy, head-over-heels, heart-pounding, butterflies-in-stomach “love.” It’s a sense you get when first meeting a person – that it’s INEVITABLE that you are going to be in love in the future. Even if you feel no love right now.

  • 恋 – koi – love
  • 予感 – yokan – premonition

Koi no Yokan

16. 侘寂 Beauty in imperfection; the accepting of life and death

  • wabisabi

Wabisabi describes a way of looking at the world. It’s about accepting the transcience and imperfection of things. And thus, for the time we have left, seeing beauty in the things around us. For example, take a rough, cracked, asymmetrical, simple piece of pottery – seeing beauty in that is wabisabi.

This would be a hard concept to accept for people that like new, shiny and perfect things.

wabisabi

17. 川明かり Glow of a river in darkness

  • kawaakari

It can be the reflection of the moonlight on the river. Or, it can be the gleam of light on the river during dusk. Here, 川/kawa means river and 明かり/akari means light.

kawaakari

18. 行逢りば 兄弟 Once we meet, we become brother/sister

  • Ichariba chode

This is the spirit of hospitality and friendliness to strangers.

And more importantly, you go from strangers to brothers or sisters. That kind of hospitality!

Ichariba chode

19. 金継ぎ Repair with Gold

  • Kintsugi

Also known as kintsukuroi. This is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver and making something broken beautiful – usually pottery. This is an example of wabisabi where something imperfect is still beautiful!

So with kintsugi, the big point is… you can take something imperfect or broken, and make it EVEN more beautiful than ever.

Kintsugi

20. 鏡花水月 Flower in the mirror; moon on water

  • Kyouka suigetsu

Both, a flower in the mirror and a moon’s reflection on water can’t be touched. So this Japanese phrase refers to something that’s visible but can’t be touched. Something you can feel (for example, beauty or an emotion) but can’t describe in words.

Kyouka suigetsu

21. 高嶺の花 Flower on a high peak

  • Takane no hana

Literally, this means 高嶺/high peak and 花/flower. What it TRULY means is a “goal that’s unattainable.” Something beyond your reach, like a flower!

Takane no hana

22. 風物詩 Things which remind of a season

  • Fuubutsushi

So, anything – feelings, scents, images – that bring memories, thoughts or anticipation of a particular season. Kind of like when you smell that crisp/burning-like scent in the air, long before snow starts falling, and you know winter is coming. The Japanese love their seasons so there are different foods, different fruit (that are grown) products and decorations for different seasons.

Fuubutsushi

23. 積ん読 Buying/Piling Up Books without Reading

  • Tsundoku

You know how you add too many shows and movies to your Netflix queue without watching? Or buy too many vegetables that you never eat? The Japanese have a word for this, except with books. Any book lover knows this. They have books they want to read. They want some other books. And with the overwhelm, they don’t get around to any and let them pile up.

Tsundoku is a combination of the verb 積む (tsumu – to pile up), and 読 (doku – reading.)

This is one of the beautiful Japanese words that I can relate with.

beautiful japanese words at linguajunkie.com Tsundoku

24. 居留守 Pretending You’re Not Home

  • irusu

This word is used to describe you when you flake out on the person at your doorstep. They ring the doorbell. *Ding-dong.* And you, suddenly grow very, very quiet, turn off the lights and hope they go away.

This word is a noun and literally means “pretending to be out.”

Beautiful Japanese words irusu

25. 懐かしい Nostalgia/Nostalgic

  • Natsukashii

Literally, this word means “nostalgic” and is an adjective. But, this carries a lot more meaning and emotion to the Japanese. People don’t normally blurt out “oh, how nostalgic” in English, because no-one likes nostalgia. It’s seen as negative. For the Japanese, it’s something that brings back memories and warms the heart.

Natsukashii

26. 食い倒れ Eating Yourself Into Bankruptcy

  • Kuidaore

Let’s break the phrase apart. Kui (食い) means to eat and 倒れ (daore) is a bad debt or collapse. It also comes from the verb  倒れる (daoreru) which means to go bankrupt. How is the word used? It applies to foodies and people that love going out to eat.

Kuidaore

27. しょうがない It can’t be helped

  • Shoganai

This is a very common and a very Japanese expression. When is it used? People use it as “I can’t do anything about it. I give up.” So, it’s used when things are out of your control (and sometimes when you just don’t want to try hard.)

As much as is this an interesting Japanese phrase, it’s also disliked by others due to the overall “I won’t even try” spirit it carries.

Shoganai

28. 無礼講 Putting everything aside to be yourself

  • Bureikou

Interestingly, this word sounds like “break.” And indeed, it is a break. This word represents a situation where you can speak freely, act freely and most importantly, enjoy yourself without worrying about your social status, relation to others, pressure or authority.

This happens at Japanese company drink-outings where the workers and their bosses get drunk and honest with each other.

Bureikou

29. ありがた迷惑 An unwelcome favor

  • Arigata meiwaku

Politeness and maintaining harmony is important in Japan. So, when someone does something nice. for someone else… Japanese people are compelled to return the favor. Even if they didn’t ask for the nice thing. This phrase captures that mix of needing to repay the favor as well as the annoyance of having to do it.

Arigata meiwaku

30. 渋い Old School Cool

  • Shibui

Old school cool like Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, disposable . However, this can also have a negative connotation; “stuff only old people like.”

Shibui

31. 微妙 “Delicate, subtle, fine or …Eh”

  • bimyou

Bimyou is quite a versatile word. And despite it being one of the chosen beautiful Japanese words, you also should learn it. It’s used in daily life. There are many uses. It can be used to talk about “subtlety” like a subtle change or “eh” if you want to comment on something’s quality. In other words, it’s “eh” or not so good.

Given this word’s vagueness, it’s also used as a way to say no or be vague about things. “Hey girl, Can I see you tomorrow?” “Well, it’s a bimyou…”

bimyou

32. 引き籠り Modern Day Hermit

  • Hikikomori

This is a word used to describe someone that’s a recluse and stays in. Beautiful Japanese words aside, it’s quite an issue in Japan. This word refers to adults or adolescents who have willingly pulled out of social life, interaction and live in extreme isolation. No friends. No contacts. The Japanese Ministry of Health designates this word for anyone that hasn’t left their home in over 6 months.

Hikikomori

33. わすれもの Forgotten thing

  • Wasuremono

Let’s break this word in half. “Wasure” means “forget” and “mono” means thing. So, it literally represents items that are forgotten and list

Wasuremono

34. 真面目 Hardworking

  • Majime

Anywhere else, if you call someone diligent, hardworking and dedicated to a goal, there’s a negative flipside to it. They’re seen as party poopers that won’t have any fun. In Japan, “Majime” carries positive meaning.

Majime

35. Yoisho

  • Yoisho!
  • よいしょ!

This word is a “kakegoe” or saying of encouragement to yourself or others. In fact, it’s more so an interjection than anything. Kind of like.. “Alright…” “Well…” “Let’s do this” and such… depending on the context.

You’ll often hear Japanese people say it to themselves before they start work. You will also hear it when people plop down into a chair or couch after coming home from work. Mostly, it’s said before or just as something is about to be done — before you lift something heavy or as you sit down after a long day. It varies.

Yoisho!

36. バックシャン A woman who is beautiful from behind

  • Bakkushan

This is one of the most interesting “beautiful Japanese words” here. It’s a combination of 2 words. First, the English word “back.” Second, the German word, “schön,” which means beautiful. So, beautiful from the back.

Bakkushan

37. おもてなし Japanese Hospitality

  • Omotenashi

This word goes above just hospitality. It carries a sense of selflessness obligation to the customer without expecting anything in return. You can see examples of this when store staff bow to you upon entry. Or, when restaurant staff cheerfully yell “welcome.” It’s even as subtle as a toothpick automatically provided inside your pair of chopsticks. Careful thoughtfulness, eh?

Omotenashi

38. 蛇足 Useless as snake legs

  • dasoku

So, the word means useless. Where do the snake and legs come from? The first character, 蛇, represents snake and the second one, 足, is legs. When you want to say something is useless or redundant, use this.

dasoku

39. 口寂しい Longing to have something in your mouth

  • kuchisabishii

Literally, this means “mouth lonely.” And this is in regards to food. So, this is when you eat when you’re not hungry but because you have nothing better to do.

kuchisabishii

40. 辻斬り Killing a passerby to test a new sword

  • Tsujikiri

If you’re thinking that this has to be a samurai sword word, you’re right. When one buys a new car, they take it for a drive. Bed? They take it for a nap. And a sword? Well, you do what swords are designed to do. If you were a samurai back in the day, where else would you find another person? While passing them by on the street!

So, tsuji means street or crossroad and the second part, kiri, is to slice or kill.

Definitely one of the more “fun” beautiful Japanese words here.

Tsujikiri beautiful japanese words at linguajunkie.com

41. 紅葉 Leaves changing color

  • kouyou

The first character means “crimson” or “red” and the second one means “leaves.” But, in general, this term is known as the changing of colors of leaves in Autumn. In Japan, this is a pretty big deal as well, akin to admiring the cherry blossoms in the Spring.

kouyou

42. いただきます I humbly receive (food)

  • Itadakimasu

I mean, who doesn’t want to receive food? The Japanese say “itadakimasu” before they eat. This is what’s known as a Japanese set phrase — a phrase used with certain occasions… like eating!  But, as with all beautiful Japanese words, this one has more nuance to it. It also includes thanks and gratefulness to everyone who was responsible in making the food. Farmers growing the veggies. Those that have delivered it to the city. And your cook as well.

This word also goes back to the Buddhist concept of being respectful to all things.

You’ll normally see this translated as “bon appetit” but translations won’t get the meaning and feeling right.

Itadakimasu

Here’s another one of my favorite beautiful Japanese words.

43. おじゃまします I will disturb you in your home

  • Ojamashimasu

Jama means disturbance. Shimasu means to do. It just means “I will bother you.” However, you use this when you enter someone’s home. It’s a sign of respect for the person you are visiting and their home.

Ojamashimasu

44.  お疲れ様です “it’s been tough and you must be tired”

  • Otsukaresama desu

This is another Japanese set phrase.

Like the 2 words above, this one also is a native Japanese saying and cannot be translated with one or two words alone. Otsukare is often used at the end of the day to others, like coworkers, team players or students where both of you literally worked hard.

It’s a parting greeting but is also used to acknowledge that “you have worked hard.”

Otsukaresama des

45. もったいない “What a waste…”

  • Mottainai

While this first and foremost is used to express regret over waste – like food, there are other uses too. You can use it to say that there’s too much of something, and thus it’s a waste. Or, you can use it to say you are “mottainai” in the event that someone is too good for you.

Actually, this is a common way to say “it’s not you, ‘it’s me” as a way to reject someone in Japanese.

Natsukashii

46. 猫舌 Having a cat’s tongue & a dislike for hot food & drink

  • nekojita

The real meaning of this word is just a “dislike for super hot foods and drinks.” But, for some reason, it’s made of 2 characters. The first one means cat. The second is tongue. While we have no proof that cats hate hot/warm food, that’s the way the phrase goes. So, if you can’t handle that, you’re said to have a cat’s tongue.

nekojita

47. 落葉 Fallen Leaves

  • Rakuyou

This is another fall-themed word. Why is it on my list of beautiful Japanese words? Well, in English, it takes 2 words to express it. In Japanese, it’s just one. And because it’s one, it carries a stronger image of autumn, fallen leaves and the atmosphere.

Rakuyou

48. 月見 Cherry Blossom Viewing

  • Hanami

Hanami is literally translated as “flower viewing.” But, it  is mostly used for going to see the Cherry Blossoms (also known as Sakura). This is a Japanese tradition where many Japanese head out to see the Sakura in their full bloom.

hanami cherry blossom viewing

49. 月見 Viewing the moon

  • Tsukimi

Just like there’s a “cherry blossom viewing,” there’s also a moon viewing. When does this happen? Usually in September or October when there’s a full moon.

beautiful japanese words at linguajunkie.com Tsukimi

50. 雪見 Snow viewing

  • Yukimi

You heard of cherry blossom viewing. You heard of moon viewing.

Well, then there is “Yukimi” which means snow viewing… and watching the snow come down. For the Japanese, this is preferably done while in a warm onsen bath/hot spring resort with a view.

yukimi means snow viewing

51. 紅葉 Japanese crimson maple leaves

  • Momiji

Pick apart the characters and this just means “crimson” and “leaves.” However, say this word out loud. Momiji. It’s nice sounding word and hence made it on the list!

Momiji

52. 猫かぶり Wolf in sheep’s clothing

  • Nekokaburi

This means “feigned innocence or naïveté.” In other words, the person is pretending to be dumb and innocent, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, the Japanese word here is totally different. If you pick apart the words, it means “to put on a cat.” Why cat? Well, know how cats decide to whack items off tables and look at you like they’ve done nothing wrong?

That’s where it comes from.

shinrin-yoku

53. ボケット Gazing vacantly into the distance, without thinking.

  • boketto

This word comes from ぼけとする/boketosuru – to daydream. Boke, interestingly enough, also means fool. But, don’t let that tarnish this word. It’s nice not to think sometimes. Some things are not worth thinking too much about!

boketto

54. じがばち Red-banded sand wasp

  • jigabachi

You’re wondering – how in the WORLD did a wasp land on the list of beautiful Japanese words?

Well, this article is sweet like honey and it just buzzed over here.

I know, I know. No deep profound meaning. No sexy message that will send shivers down your spine. Okay, fine. But, say it with me… out loud… jiga-bachi. I think it’s a pretty nice sounding word. It feels powerful! JIGA. BACHI. Okay, it’s  a personal favorite, so I stuck it last.

Itadakimasu

Now you now the top 50 beautiful Japanese words. Yes, you’re right – there are TONS more. But this is a quick, easy lesson for Beginners that want to start slowly.

So… here’s my question to you:

Do you have any favorite beautiful Japanese words? Any phrases that I missed or that you want me to add to the list?

Let me know in the comments and I’ll add them.

Want to learn even more words and learn Japanese? Check out my other posts:

– written by the Main Junkie

3 thoughts on “54+ Untranslatable, Beautiful Japanese Words & Phrases”

  1. Pingback: 18+ Unique Japanese Words for Learners to Know

  2. Hi I really liked wabi Sabi, I was wondering if there was any Japanese quote encompassing it? Or a translation perfectly imperfect, was wanting to get something of this nature as a tattoo. Thanks!

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