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Tongue Tied: Easily Confused Japanese Words

A handy list of some similar sounding and oft-confused Japanese terms.

By 3 min read

When I lived in Kanazawa on the JET Programme, there was an apocryphal story going around about a (conveniently) unnamed person who was traveling on a train down country. Exhausted from the previous night out, he found himself nodding off. Worried about missing his stop and wanting the train conductor to wake him up, he politely asked him: “おかしてください.”

Immediately, the train conductor — in tellings of the story, usually a stony-faced older guy — started roaring in laughter.

This illustrates the ease of confusing Japanese words. The word that the hapless Japanese speaker had wanted was こして which means “wake me up.” The word he used, おかして, means “to violate.” In this case, the person he wanted to be violated was himself — politely! There are also similar stories with すわってください (“sit down, please”) and さわってください (“touch, please”).

While this is an extreme example, most foreigners have encountered the only slightly less offensive ばっか and 馬鹿ばか problem. The word  ばっか is a contraction of ばっかり meaning “only,” however it’s easily mispronounced as 馬鹿 (fool or idiot) before learners get used to pronouncing Japanese double syllables (hint: make a bridge with the front part of your tongue). Therefore, many people have unwittingly called their friends idiots when trying to get their tongues around phrases like たばっか (“I just arrived”) and はいったばっか (“I just entered”).

Of course, offending your coworkers is nothing compared to offending your partner — which is surprisingly easy with the relatively simple sentence 今日きょう美容院びよういんった. Most guys were probably shocked when they first heard this, since 美容院 (beautician) sounds really close to 病院びょういん (hospital). On top of that shock, you then have to explain to your significant other why you didn’t notice that they’d obviously been to the salon because they look radiant and are the most beautiful person in the history of the world ever, of course.

After struggling to get your tongue around these ones, you will soon find that not all problems are phonetic — some are grammatical.

When people take the next step, of course, there is plenty of room for error as an おくさん is a wife whereas an お母おかあさん is a mother. Similar examples include 叔父おじさん (uncle), 王子おうじさん (prince) and お爺おじいさん (grandfather or old man) to say nothing of お兄おにいさん (big brother) and おに (demonic ogre).

After struggling to get your tongue around these ones, you will soon find that not all problems are phonetic — some are grammatical. A very common source of confusion for beginner/intermediate learners is combining the word かわいい (cute) and the grammar ~そう (looks like).

It’s only natural to want to combine these two to make かわいそう, expecting your Frankenstein creation to mean something “looks cute.” In fact かわいそう means “pitiful” — pretty much the exact opposite of what you intended! Instead, the correct grammar for “looks cute” is かわいらしい.

Of course, this is just an introduction to the topic. If we included homophones such as 地震じしん (earthquake) and 自身じしん)  (oneself); あめ (rain) and あめ (candy) as well as はし (bridge) and はし (chopsticks), we could easily write a book!

So we want to ask readers: have you ever encountered any of these problems? Which words tripped you up at first? Let us know in the comments!

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