12 Famous Japanese Words You All Have Heard

Famous Japanese Words - Ling

Did you know that you (yes, you!) already know some Japanese words? Many Japanese words are actually living in your mind rent-free. That’s because you’ve probably picked them up from anime, TV shows, books, or the people around you, without even realizing it.

Let’s see how good your Japanese vocabulary is as a non-learner. If you’re an anime lover, you probably know even more words!

Let’s get started and see what these famous Japanese words are.

Famous Japanese Words And Their Meanings

In this blog post, you’ll learn 12 popular yet basic Japanese words and their meanings, to help you better grasp Japanese culture. These might not be the most useful Japanese words, but it’s still important to know their meanings.

However, if you want to learn more useful and conversational Japanese phrases, make sure to scroll through our previous blog posts!

Alright, it’s time to get to the Japanese words. (By the way, I’ve ordered these words randomly, so they are not from the most popular to the least, or anything like that.)

Famous Japanese Words - Otaku holding a Nintendo Switch.

1. Otaku (オタク)

The word otaku refers to someone who is a fan of watching anime, reading manga and playing video games (well, that’s me!). Otaku basically means “geek” or “enthusiast” in a fandom context. While some people consider this as an insult, some are proud of being an otaku. The meaning of otaku certainly changed with the rising popularity of anime.

2. Sensei (先生)

You often hear this word in anime or Japanese movies when the main character is called a gray-haired wise sensei. It actually means “teacher” or “master.” Note that sensei is also considered a title for doctors.

Famous Japanese Words - Emoji on the phone

3. Emoji (絵文字)

I hope you didn’t think this was an English word. Nope, it’s actually a loanword from the Japanese language. Let’s break this Japanese word into pieces. 絵 (え) means “picture,” and 文字 (もじ) is “letter.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? We use emojis on our smartphones to convey a message with little pictures. Now you know where emoji comes from!

4. Senpai (先輩)

Japanese manners, rule #1: always show respect to people who are older than you. Japanese people use senpai to address someone who is older or senior to them at school or work. In a typical anime setting, the younger student looks up to their senpai as a role model, and they get motivated and inspired by their senpai.

A small kitten among flowers

5. Kawaii (かわいい)

This one may be the most famous anime word in Japanese. You can use kawaii to describe anything cute. Kawaii literally means “cute” and “lovely.” Oh, is that a kitten I see over there? Kawaii desu ne!!

6. Sugoi (すごい)

This Japanese word means “amazing” or “great.” You often hear anime characters say sugoi when they see something impressive. You can also hear native Japanese speakers say other versions of sugoi, such as sugge.

7. Baka (バカ)

Again, here we have another popular word that all anime characters say: baka. It means “idiot” and is often used to insult or tease someone.

Famous Japanese Words - Girl saying what

8. Nani (なに)

This is one of the easiest Japanese anime words to pronounce, and it has a kind of irritating sound when you say it out loud, right? Nani means “what,” and you can say it when you’re surprised or confused. This one is also a popular word used in memes.

9. Anime (アニメ)

I bet all of you already know this word, but I had to include it. Did you know that anime means “animation” in Japanese? So, the word “anime” is the Japanese word for “cartoon.” So, here’s my approach to the “is anime a cartoon or not” debate: Even though it has its own unique Japanese style and may not be appropriate for kids, it’s still a cartoon in the end. All anime shows are cartoons, but not all cartoons are anime!

Famous Japanese Words - Japanese girls wearing kimonos

10. Kimono (着物)

First, let’s break this kanji into pieces. 着 (き) means “to wear,” and 物 (もの) means “thing.” So, kimono literally means “something to wear,” which makes perfect sense! A kimono is a traditional Japanese dress worn by women. It’s still worn today at special events like festivals and ceremonies.

11. Yakuza (ヤクザ)

In the past, yakuza was used to refer to “useless people” or “gambling people.” However, today yakuza refers to the mafia-like gangster groups formed in Japan. You must know that, today, the yakuza are still active and hold power in areas like Tokyo.

12. Ikigai (生きがい)

This one is my favorite Japanese word, which I think shows what a fascinating language Japanese is. There is even a book named Ikigai, if you’re into self-development books. The word ikigai describes the reason for being, the reason for living, and the reason why you get up each morning.

If you already know all these famous Japanese words, it is your sign to start learning Japanese and take it seriously.

Have you always wanted to learn Japanese, but have no idea where to begin? Thousands of Japanese students had the same question before starting to learn Japanese from zero, but they’ve already begun their Japanese journey with Ling!

And you’re still waiting? What for? Go grab your phone and download Ling now!

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Until next time, じゃあまたね!

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