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100+ Japanese Words for Learning about Japanese Culture

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May 11, 2020

Looking to Learn about Japanese Culture? Here are 100+ Essential Japanese Words to Describe Unique Japanese Traditions and Customs

Want to make the most out of learning Japanese? 

Add depth to your Japanese language studies with these culturally-specific words!  

Even if you’re studying Japanese online, you can still familiarize yourself with its wonderful culture. Ready to dive in?

Drops is releasing several hundred new Japanese words and phrases related to Japan’s unique traditions and customs. 

Get ready to learn something new while immersing yourself! Here are some Japanese words and phrases you need to know for describing Japan’s unique culture. 

Politeness Plays an Important Role in the Japanese Language 

敬語(けいご, keigo) - “Respectful Language” 

You can show respectful language in your 自己紹介 (じこしょうかい, jikoshoukai)—”self-introduction”. When meeting people for the first time, you would say 初めまして (はじめまして, hajimemashite)—“it is the first time.” Then end your introduction with どうぞよろしくおねがいします (douzo yoroshiku onegai shimasu)—”please take care of me”. 

あいづち (aizuchi) - “Japanese Filler Words” 

Filler words in Japanese give indication that you’re engaging in a discussion. While it may seem odd to repeatedly say “yes,” or “uh-huh,”  during a conversation in English, it’s commonplace to respond うん (un)—“yes”, そうですか (sou desu ka)—  “Really?”, or なるほど (naruhodo)—“I see”. It shows your Japanese conversation partner that you’re paying attention!

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The Plural Form Doesn’t Exist in the Japanese Language

The Japanese language uses suffixes and sometimes even prefixes to show how much of a noun exists.

One common suffix every learner should know is 数え方 (かぞえかた, kazoekata)—”counters”. 

Japanese Counters and How to Count Anything in Japanese 

Japanese assigns counters to nouns based on their characteristics, such as shape.

個 (こ, ko)—the counter for small items, 回 (かい, kai)—counter for times, and 冊 (さつ, satsu)—counter for books are some of the most common ones. 

It's a good idea to start with the generic counter, used for objects with counters that may be difficult to determine. 

一つ(ひとつ, hitotsu) - “one”

二つ(ふたつ, futatsu) - “two”

三つ(みっつ, mittsu) - “three”

四つ (よつつ, yottsu) - “four”

五つ (いつつ, itsutsu) -”five”

六つ(むっつ, muttsu) - “six”

七つ(ななつ. nanatsu) - “seven”

八つ(やっつ, yattsu) - “eight”

九つ(ここのつ, kokonotsu) - “nine”

十(とお, too) - “ten” 

But what  about 一、二、三(いち、に、さん, ichi, ni, san) - 1, 2, 3? These differences lie in how you read the kanji.

The Difference Between 音読み (おんよみ, on’yomi) and 訓読み (くんよみ, kun’yomi)

漢字 (かんじ, kanji) are ideograms. Each character shows a visual meaning.


Kanji, originating in China, was brought to Japan through Korea.  音読み (おんよみ, on’yomi) is the Chinese reading of kanji. Kanji also has Japanese readings or 訓読み (くんよみ, kun’yomi). 

When kanji appear together, the Chinese reading is used. Usually when kanji is followed by hiragana, you’ll use the Japanese reading. 

It may sound like a lot at first, but remember that kanji are picture words. This makes Drops the perfect tool for learning Japanese because it’s an interactive, visual platform.  

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Japanese Onomatopoeia Expresses More Than Just Sound 

Sounds like WHAM and KABOOM sound just like something out of a comic book, right? 

How about sounds for getting angry or feeling lazy? 

In Japanese, these sounds or onomatopoeia are well integrated into the language. 擬音語 (ぎおんご, giongo)—are words that represent sound and 擬態語 (ぎたいご, gitaigo)— are words that represent conditions or states of being. 

The sounds are usually repetitive, which makes them easier to learn with Drops! You won’t get bored with the same old flashcards, either. Drops gives you enough exposure in a short amount of time and it works intuitively with your progress. So get ワクワク (わくわく、wakuwaku)—”excited”!

擬態語 (ぎたいご, gitaigo) - “Words to Describe Conditions” 

Sometimes there's no sound to describe certain conditions, like emotions or body movement. 

But the Japanese language does have expressions for these!  イライラ (いらいら, iraira) is the "sound" of someone feeling irritated. チラチラ (ちらちら, chirachira) describes someone glancing quickly.

擬音語 (ぎおんご, giongo) - “Words to Describe Sounds”

Did you know that sparkling makes a sound? In Japanese it's キラキラ (きらきら, kirakira). 

There are more sound effects such as ドンドン (どんどん, dondon)—the sound of a beating drum or グウグウ (ぐうぐう, guuguu)—the sound someone makes when snoring. You may already know the sound a cat makes, ニャンニャン (にゃんにゃん, nyan nyan)—”meow”. Dogs say ワンワン (わんわん, wanwan)—”bow wow”. 

ゴロゴロ (ごろごろ) is the sound for something rolling heavily. It can be used for thunder but it also means a person rolling around in their bed lazily. It’s also the sound of a grumbling stomach! But Japan has plenty of food to satisfy your appetite, so no need to use this word in that sense, here!   

From Sweet to Savory: Japanese Food and Drink 

Sushi is a great example of minimalism and balance, major themes in Japanese culture

Japan has some of the best food in the world! There’s much more than what’s on your plate, however. Maybe you’ve noticed the warm おしぼり (oshibori)—the wet hand towel used to clean your hands before eating. Or the 柚子 (ゆず, yuzu)—”citrus yuzu” used to clear the palate between courses. Here are some more customs related to Japanese cuisine. 

Words for Mealtime in Japanese 

頂きます(いただきます, itadakimasu)—words said before having a meal meaning “I humbly receive.” After a meal, it's customary to say ご馳走様でした (ごちそうさまでした, gochisousama deshita)—“Thank you for the meal.” Of course, you’ll want to know how to say delicious—美味しい (おいしい, oishii) because you’ll be using this word often when eating Japanese food!  

Savory Japanese Foods You Should Know 

麺(めん, men) — Noodles. Japan has various kinds! Can you guess which kind this is?

Japan has several types of noodles other than ramen, which came from China. Japanese noodles include うどん (udon)—thick udon noodles and 素麺 (そうめん, soumen)—thin wheat noodles and more.  

蕎麦 (そば, soba)—soba or buckwheat noodles are made from a grain, not wheat. That means グルテンの入っていない (guruten no haitte inai)—”soba is gluten free”! It can be served cold as ざる蕎麦 (ざるそば, zarusoba) or fried as 焼き蕎麦 (やきそば, yakisoba)—”yakisoba”.

On New Year's Eve, people in Japan enjoy “end-of-year soba” or 年越し蕎麦(としこしそば, toshikoshi soba) with some 醤油 (しょうゆ, shouyu)—”soy sauce” and だし (dashi)—”soup stock”. The long noodles represent crossing from one year to the next. 

Another popular dish is お好み焼き (おこのみやき, okonomiyaki). These savory pancakes are sometimes topped with かつおぶし (katsuoboshi)—”dried fish flakes” and 天かす(てんかす, tenkasu)—fried bits from 天ぷら (てんぷら, tenpura)—”tempura”. While Hiroshima and Osaka prefectures are known for their takes on the dish, okonomiyaki is available all over Japan. 

A Western breakfast may include eggs and toast, but breakfast in Japan has  味噌汁 (みそしる, miso shiru)—”miso soup”, made with みそ (miso)—”miso paste”. Miso soup contains ワカメ (わかめ, wakame)—”wakame”, one of the three types of seaweed. のり(nori)—”dried seaweed” and 昆布(こんぶ, konbu) or “konbu kelp” also appear in many Japanese dishes. 

And of course, you can’t have a conversation about Japanese food without mentioning sushi! Sushi contains a slice of carefully prepared raw fish on  寿司飯(すしめし, sushimeshi)—”sushi rice”. 

Without the sushi rice, it’s 刺身 (さしみ, sashimi)—”sashimi”. They're commonly presented as 巻きずし (まきずし, makizushi)—”sushi rolls” and served with ガリ (gari)—”pickled ginger” and わさび (wasabi)—”wasabi”. 

Sushi also has different forms. 握り寿司 (にぎりずし, nigirizushi)—hand-pressed sushi, いなり寿司 (いなりずし, inarizushi)—sushi wrapped in bean curd, and 押し寿司 (おしずし, oshizushi)—pressed sushi with vinegared fish. You can try these varieties of sushi at 回転寿司 (かいてんずし, kaitenzushi)—restaurants where sushi comes to customers on a conveyor belt! 

Japanese Drinks 

Tea has a deep-rooted tradition in Japanese culture

抹茶 (まっちゃ, maccha)—”matcha” or green tea powder plays a powerful role in Japanese culture. It’s a part of 茶道 (さどう, sadou)—the Japanese tea ceremony, where tea is prepared ritualistically. It’s a very serious but serene tradition. 

Other teas, such as  むぎちゃ (mugicha)—”barley tea”, are served cold in Japan’s hot summers. And 緑茶 (りょくちゃ, ryokucha)—”green tea”, goes well with many Japanese sweets. 

Japan also has drinks known for their bitter taste, such as 酒 (さけ, sake)—”sake” or rice wine. But there are also sweet drinks like ラムネ (らむね, ramune)—”ramune” and a popular sports drink, ポカリスエット (ぽかりすえっと, pokari suetto)—”Pocari Sweat”. These are available in almost every 自動販売機 (じどうはんばいき, jidouhanbaiki)—”vending machine”.

Traditional Japanese Sweets 

和菓子(わがし, wagashi) are traditional Japanese confections. These sweets are not super sugary but have a natural flavor to them. 餅 (もち, mochi)—”mochi” or sticky rice cakes, for example, are very chewy and soft. When filled with red bean jam, it’s known as 大福 (だいふく, daifuku) and as 団子(だんご, dango) when steamed and glazed with sweet soy sauce. 

It’s not hard to find wagashi at any of Japan’s many festivals. They’re also sold by street vendors or found at convenience stores. If you ever attend one of Japan’s festivals or visit a temple or shrine, be sure to try どらやき (dorayaki)—pancakes filled with sweet bean jam and かき氷 (かきごおり, kakigoori)—”shaved ice”. 

Use Drops to help you remember all the great food you’ll want to try! In just 5 minutes a day, you can keep track of these words for Japanese food. Just try not to get too hungry while studying. 

Japan isn’t just all about amazing food. The culture is filled with historical landmarks and structures that make visiting the country a memorable trip. 

Tradition and Modernity: Japan’s Landmarks 

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo, Japan’s capital, has a population of over 9 million people. That’s more than New York! The metropolis has skyscraping landmarks such as 東京タワー(とうきょうたわー, toukyou tawaa)—”Tokyo Tower” and 東京スカイツリー(とうきょうすかいつりー, toukyou sukai tsurii)—”Tokyo Skytree”. 

But not too far away lies 浅草寺(せんそうじ, sensouji)—Sensou-ji temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo known for its large lantern gate and striking red colors. 

There’s also 明治神宮 (めいじじんぐう, meiji jinguu)—Meiji shrine, dedicated to the late Emperor Meiji. People visit there year round to wish for good fortune, celebrate holidays, and even get married. It’s located in Shibuya, which is also known for its 渋谷スクランブル交差点 (しぶやすくらんぶるこうさてん, shibuya sukuranburu kousaten)—Shibuya scrambled crossing.

Shubuya Crossing

Outside of Tokyo in 関西地方 (かんさいちほう, kansai chihou)—the southern central or “Kansai” region of Japan is Osaka, known for 小坂城(おさかじょう, osakajou)—Osaka Castle and 難波 (なんば, nanba)—it’s famous crowded shopping district. 

Osaka Castle

Similar to Tokyo’s 銀座 (ぎんざ, ginza)—Ginza District, there’s plenty of shops and stores for you to embrace your inner オタク (おたく, otaku)—”otaku”. 

If you’re a fan of アニメ (あにめ, anime)—”anime” and 漫画 (まんが, manga)—”manga” or Japanese comic books, you’ll meet die-hard fans in コスプレ (こすぷれ, kosupure)—”cosplaying” and see places to buy figurines. Check out the プリクラ (ぷりくら, purikura)—picture taking machines at the arcades and カラオケ (からおけ, karaoke)—”karaoke” by visiting a karaoke box. They serve food and drink there while you sing to your heart’s content! 

Kyoto, which was once the capital of Japan, has 金閣寺 (きんかくじ, kinkakuji)—the splendid golden pavillion with its famous Zen Buddhist garden. It brings several tourists to Kyoto year round but no one is allowed inside. 

Another famous temple, 東大寺(とうだいじ, todaiji)— Todai-ji temple, is located in Nara, a city that borders Kyoto. A central part of Japan’s Zen Buddhism, the temple holds one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha in the world.  

Every day Drops can give you the name of a new destination to visit in Japan. Start using the app to learn about the various parks and museums you can visit! 

Japanese Culture Emphasizes Spirituality 

Zen gardening

Zen Buddhism and Shintoism are some of Japan’s largely practiced religions. Spirituality is a deep part of Japanese culture, as shown through traditional Japanese pastimes. 膳 (ぜん, zen)—”zen” means meditation and the philosophy focuses on achieving spiritual enlightenment. 

Japanese Martial Arts and Creative Arts 

Spiritual harmony influenced the way of the 侍 (さむらい, samurai)—”samurai” and other 武道 (ぶどう, budou)—”martial arts” such as 剣道 (けんどう, kendou)—”kendo”, 空手 (からて, karate)—”karate”, and 弓道 (きゅうどう, kyuudou)—”Japanese archery”. 

There’s also Japanese performing arts, known as 歌舞伎 (かぶき, kabuki)—”kabuki”. Actors dance and act extravagantly in traditional dress, which may include 着物 (きもの, kimono)—”kimono”, 下駄 (げた, geta)—wooden sandals. In the background, traditional stringed instruments like 三味線 (しゃみせん, shamisen) or 琴 (こと, koto)— the “koto”. 

Kimono

生花 (いけばな, ikebana)— Japanese flower arrangement and 折り紙 (おりがみ, origami)—”origami” are prime examples of seeking serenity through art. These artforms have been honored by many other cultures for being relaxing and entertaining at the same time. 

Now that you have a wide breadth of knowledge on Japanese culture, you can start practicing your skills with Drops!

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