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5 Japanese Words We Use in English

'Sudoku' but not 'Number Place?' What are the origins of these Japanese words we use in the West?

By 4 min read

So many Japanese words have made their way into everyday English conversation, but do you know what they really mean? Sure, you know what Sudoku is, but do you know why it’s called that?

Here are five Japanese words commonly used in English and a brief dive into their backgrounds.

1. Sudoku

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Swiss, French, American or Japanese?

Sudoku combines the words suji (numbers) and dokushin (single). It comes from suji wa dokushin ni kagiru, or “the digits must be single” or “the digits are limited to one occurrence.”

The sudoku story began in 1783 when a Swiss mathematician named Leonhard Euler came up with Latin Squares, a simple grid where every number had to appear once in each row and column. Around the 1900s, the game Carre magique diabolique, or diabolical magic square, a predecessor to modern sudoku, was popular in French magazines.

However, American Howard Garns is considered the father of the sudoku we know today. His game, “Number Place,” appeared in Dell Puzzle Magazines in the 1970s. Maki Kaji—the founder of Nikoli puzzle company—spotted the game while abroad and introduced it to Japan in Monthly Nikolist in 1984. It quickly became a sensation.

After picking the game up in Tokyo, Wayne Gould spent six years developing a computer program to generate sudoku puzzles, which he introduced to various media like  The Times newspaper in the U.K. After that, it took off, becoming a popular game worldwide.

2. Sushi

Don’t mind if I do.

The sushi that we see today has undergone several changes. First, it was introduced as nare-sushi and required a very long fermentation process that could take over a year. Then, the rice was discarded, and only the (smelly) fermented fish was eaten.

The dish was popular enough to spread to China. One of the first documented characters for this fermented fish was “鮓” in Chinese, meaning “fish pickled with salt and rice.” It’s still one of the commonly used characters for sushi in Japan today, though two others are also used: “すし” and “寿.”

Flash forward to the invention of the refrigerator, and the fermentation process (already shorter over the years) was no longer necessary.

3. Tofu

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Tofu jokes are tasteless.

Although the term “bean curd” is used in English, “tofu” is more common these days. With that in mind, the literal meaning of tofu won’t surprise you. To means bean, and fu means decay or sour.

In ancient China, tofu found its origins during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD). However, it wasn’t until the Nara period (710–784) that tofu was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, and the first mention of tofu didn’t come about until the Heian period (794-1185).

Tofu’s popularization in the Western world started with Li Yu-Ying, a Chinese national living in Paris who began Europe’s first tofu manufacturer in 1910, “Usine de la Caseo-Sojaine.” He called his tofu fromage de soja, meaning “soy cheese.” Slowly, other tofu makers opened up around Europe.

So why Japanese “tofu” and not Chinese “dofu?” This can largely be attributed to the popularity of the 1975 publication of The Book of Tofu, which was researched and written in Japan and encouraged American tofu manufacturers to adopt the Japanese term. Added to which, most of the tofu shops in America at the time were Japanese-run.

4. Origami

It was this or sticks before Nintendo.

Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. Ori comes from the verb “to fold” and kami (which turns to gami when combined with ori) means paper.

Origami’s popularization abroad started in the early 1800s with Friedrich Froebel, an educator from Germany. He saw paper folding as having educational benefits, and many basic folds were accredited to him, called Froebelian folds or Froebel folds.

After WWII, origami was picked up in the U.S., and the Origami Center of America in New York opened in 1958.

5. Haiku

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Not everyone is a poet.

haiku is a poem with 17 syllables, broken into lines of five, seven and five syllables. This style of poetry has been around since the 17th century but didn’t get its name until the 19th. Traditionally, a haiku would have a seasonal or natural element.

The word haiku derives from another form of Japanese poetry, the renga (linked-verse poem). A humorous form of a renga is called a haikai, and the first stanza of a renga is called a hokku. Combine haikai and hokku, and you have haiku.

When Japan ended isolationism, there was a lot of intrigue from the West into Japanese culture. In the early 1900s, many writers of note tried their hand at English haiku, and Ezra Pound spread it through his Imagist movement in the 1910s.

What are some other Japanese words we use in English? Have any trivia for us? Let us know in the comments!

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