Ready to level-up your Japanese and sound めっちゃオシャレ (meccha o-share, “super fashionable”)?
Then start adding some cool Japanese words to your vocabulary!
Japanese may seem like a serious language with layers of formal speech patterns. But Japan boasts tons of fun, slangy words and beautiful concepts only captured in their language and culture! After all, this is the country that gave us 絵文字 (emoji, “emoji”), taken from the Japanese word for “picture characters.”
Keep in mind that many of these cool Japanese words are only used in informal situations with people you’re close to. This would be family, friends of the same age, and sometimes coworkers at the same level of seniority. You wouldn’t use these words with strangers, your boss, or anyone with senpai-status or higher seniority.
Using these cool Japanese words with friends will help keep you from sounding too stiff. They'll add more natural, casual language to your Japanese conversations.
行こう！(Ikkou, “Let's go!”)
Cool Japanese Words Unique to Japan
While every language has unique words that don’t translate well, I’m partial to those in Japanese. The Japanese capture concepts and images in life and nature, summing them up beautifully in one word. Because you may not have these words in your own native language, you may never have thought to learn them in Japanese before. But, learn these and you’ll show your “insider” knowledge of the culture!
- 木漏れ日 (Komorebi) means “sunbeam through the leaves.” It describes the beautiful scene when the light and wind flutter through the leaves and shadows dance on the ground.
- 浮世 (Ukiyo) means “floating world.” It describes the feeling of being present and mindful of the current moment, unbothered by stress. You may recognize this word as it’s used to describe the most famous style of Japanese art: 浮世絵 (ukiyo-e) paintings, such as those by Hokusai and Utamaro.
- 森林浴 (Shinrin-yoku): “Forest bath.” It describes the feeling of soaking in the green light within a forest. A peaceful image, right?
- 積読 (Tsundoku) means “accumulate,” but refers to someone who keeps buying books. They pile up, but they’ve yet to be read. That said, the kanji 読 (“to read”) gives the idea that the owner does intend to read them someday! There are so many memes about this for bookworms, but the Japanese captured it in one word.
- 食い倒れ (Kuidaore): “Topple over” is the exact translation. It's used to say you've eaten yourself to bankruptcy! If you’re a foodie, I’m sure you can relate.
- 渋い (Shibui): As an adjective, this word means “bitter.” But as a noun, it means “retro cool.” It’s used to describe something that is old-fashioned but cool because it’s retro. It often refers to the traditional minimalist Japanese style. But you can say it about anything retro cool.
- 取り戻す (Torimodosu): Summed up in one word, it has the same meaning as the famous English saying, “When life knocks you down, dust yourself off and get back up again.”
Cool Japanese Phrases For Everyday
There are many set phrases in Japanese that have no real equivalent in English. But these are prominent in everyday life in Japan. Knowing these and how to use them will help you sound more natural and respectful.
- おつかれ (Otsukare): Short for お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita), it means “You’ve worked hard!” It’s often said between coworkers or friends as a greeting or goodbye, or to express gratitude for their hard work and contribution. It can also replace 乾杯 (kanpai, “cheers”) to toast drinks after a long day's work.
- お邪魔します (Ojama shimasu): Whenever you enter someone’s home, you should say お邪魔します. It means “I’m sorry for intruding” or “I’m sorry for bothering you.” The noun, 邪魔 (jama), means “hindrance” or “intrusion,” so saying this when you enter someone’s home shows respect. You say this every time you enter someone's home, whether planned or unexpected. When you leave, you repeat the phrase but in the past tense: お邪魔しました (ojama shimashita).
- いただきます (Itadakimasu): Whenever you eat, you start by saying いただきます, which literally means “to humbly receive.” It's often translated as “bon appetit” or “let’s eat.” It’s rude to begin eating before you say this!
- ごちそうさまでした (Gochisousama deshita): After you’ve finished eating, you say ごちそうさまでした, which means “Thank you for this meal.” You always say this to the person who provided the food. Even if you paid for the food yourself, but enjoyed it with friends, you’ll say it to express gratitude for their company.
- よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku onegai shimasu): Or, to sound more casual, say よろしく (yoroshiku). It’s one of the most important and respectful phrases in Japanese and has many meanings. When you say it to someone you just met, it means “Nice to meet you” or “Looking forward to working with you.” But it can also mean “Please take care of me” or take care of something special. For instance, to take care of your luggage when you drop it off at the airport check-in.
Cool Japanese Slang Words
Adding slang to your vocabulary is a sure-fire way to sound more like a native speaker! These are some common, fresh and everyday slang terms you should know:
- やばい (Yabai): Hands down one of the most common slang terms said today. やばい means both “awesome” or “amazing,” and “awful” or “crappy,” depending on the context. Try watching any episode of Terrace House without hearing this at least a dozen times!
- すごい (Sugoi): You may know this one, but if you don't, you should! This is the catch-all Japanese word. It means “great,” “awesome” or “amazing,” but is also used as an exclamation like “wow!” It’s often used in response to others, even when it’s not truly amazing. It’s sometimes shortened to すげー (suge-).
- ウケる (Ukeru) means “that's funny,” “hilarious,” or “haha!” In fact, if you use Facebook in Japanese, the “Haha” reaction is labeled as “ウケる.”
- なう (Nau) comes from the English word, “now,” and it means the same thing. It’s often used on Twitter, to say something is happening at that very moment.
- ちょ (Cho) means “very” or “super.” It’s more commonly heard in the Tokyo area, and it's often used in the context of ちょかわいい (cho kawaii, “super cute”). If you've ever listened to Harajuku Girls by Gwen Stefani, you might have heard this one.
- めっちゃ (Meccha) has the exact same meaning and usage as ちょ, but is more common in Kansai dialect. You’ll hear the two used often, so it’s good to know both!
- まじ (Maji) or まじで (Majide) means “seriously” or “for real.” You say まじ when you're using it as an exclamation like “Seriously??” You add で when you use it to describe something, like このケーキまじでおいしい! (Kono ke-ki majide oishii!, “This cake is seriously delicious!”)
- テキトー (Tekito-) describes someone’s or something’s actions as lazy or careless. If someone is being too lazy to do the job right, you would use this word.
- KY: Yes, this is an English abbreviation for a Japanese word: 空気読めない (kuuki yomenai, “not reading the atmosphere”). More accurately translated, it means someone “can’t read the mood” and often says the wrong thing. It's used to describe someone who is socially awkward or insensitive to other people's feelings.
Cool Japanese Idioms Using Yojijukugo
Yojijukugo (四字熟語) are idioms expressed in four kanji. These can be a bit tricky to learn, but they have a lot of meaning and add depth to your conversation.
- 一石二鳥 (Isseki ni chou): “One stone, two birds.” It means the same as “to kill two birds with one stone.”
- 朝飯前 (Asa meshi mae): This one has only 3 kanji and is not technically yojijukugo… Still, I wanted to include it because it’s common and has a direct English correlation: “a piece of cake.” The literal meaning is “before eating breakfast.” As in the task is so easy, you could do it before you even enjoy your coffee and food.
- 悪戦苦闘 (Akusen kutou): Combining the kanji for “fighting hard” and “agonizing,” this idiom means “an uphill battle.”
- 以心伝心 (Ishin denshin): For this idiom, “heart-to-heart” is the best translation. It's also used to describe understanding someone on a deep, intimate level. Because you’re so close, you even know what the other person is thinking.
一期一会 (Ichigo ichie) means “once in a lifetime.” You can say it about things, situations, or people, similar to its English equivalent. For example, 一期一会の機械 (ichigo ichie no kikai, “once in a lifetime opportunity”) or 一期一会の友達 (ichigo ichie no tomodachi, “once in a lifetime friend”).
*一刻千金 (Ikkoku senkin): The literal meaning is “One moment, 1,000 pieces of gold.” Or, as in English, “time is money.”
*自画自賛 (Jiga jisan*): “Self-portrait, self-praise.” Or “to toot your own horn.” This kind of behavior is viewed negatively in Japanese culture, but it’s a fun expression to know!
Cool Japanese Onomatopoeia Words
Onomatopoeia play a big role in everyday Japanese speech, and it’s not limited to the “bang!” and “pow!” in comic books. Onomatopoeia express both sounds and emotions in Japanese. Knowing how to use them will make you sound more natural and improve your listening comprehension.
ドキドキ (Doki doki): Used to express excitement or nervousness, and often paired with the verb する (suru, “to be”). You'll see this one in 少女 (shoujo*, “young girl”) comics a lot, when the young heroine is feeling nervous around her crush!
- ぞっと (Zotto): If you get a cold chill, or you have a chill go down your spine from fear or seeing something gross, you can say ぞっとする (zotto suru).
- ムカつく (Mukatsuku): From the onomatopoeia むかむかする (muka muka suru), this means “disgusted.” But ムカつく has a stronger meaning, as in “pissed off.”
- ぐっすり (Gussuri): This means “to sleep like a log.” It's used to describe your own sleep, or to ask others if they slept well. You can ask,夕べはぐっすり眠れましたか (Yuube ha gussuri nemuremashita ka, “Did you sleep soundly last night?”).
- ガツガツ (Gatsu gatsu): If you’re ravenously hungry and devour your food, you could say ガツガツする (gatsu gatsu suru, “devouring”) or ガツガツ食べる (gatsu gatsu taberu, “eating ravenously”).
- ペコペコ (Peko peko): “Starving.” You may know the phrase お腹が空いた (onaka ga suita, “I’m hungry”), but why not change it up? You can express that you’re hungry by saying お腹ぺこぺこ！ (onaka peko peko, “I’m starving!”)
- キョロキョロ（Kyoro kyoro): If you visit Japan for the first time, you may look around curiously like tourists! Whenever you describe looking around curiously (or nervously), you say キョロキョロ見る (kyoro kyoro miru, “curiously looking around”).
Cool Japanese Adjectives
By now, you might have learned several Japanese adjectives to describe situations or people. But why not learn some cool, popular adjectives to add a bit more color than the generic きれい (kirei, “pretty” or “clean”) and かわいい (kawaii, “cute”)?
- うまい (Umai) means “wonderful,” “nice,” or “splendid.” It’s often used to say that something is delicious, too. Change up that ol’ standby 美味しい (oishii, “delicious”) and say うまい！
- うざい (Uzai) means “annoying.” You often hear うるさい (urusai) for both “noisy” and “annoying,” but you can also use this one to describe an annoying situation or person.
- 怠い (Darui) means lazy, sluggish, or even comatose. You can use it to describe the feeling of being completely worn out, burnt out, or even very sick.
- めんどい (Mendoi): A more slangy form of 面倒くさい (mendokusai, “bothersome”). めんどい means “a pain in the neck.”
吞気な (Nonki na) means cheerful and easygoing. Use it to describe someone's cheerful personality: 吞気な人 (nonki na hito, “a cheerful person”).
*感情的な (Kanjou teki na) means “emotional.” It's another word to describe a personality, as in 感情的な人 (kanjou teki na hito*, “an emotional person”).
- 複雑な (Fukuzatsu na): “Complicated.” Need to change your Facebook status to “It’s complicated?” Here’s how you say it in Japanese: 複雑な関係 (fukuzatsu na kankei, “complex relationship”) or 複雑な心境 (fukuzatsu na shinkyou, “complicated feelings”).
A Note About Making Words “Cool” in Japanese
One thing to know about making words “cool” in Japanese: Almost any word can be made cooler or more slangy by combining or shortening it. For instance, おしゃかわ (oshakawa, “stylish and cool”) combines the words おしゃれ (oshare, “stylish” or “fashionably cool”) and かわいい (kawaii, “cute”). A lot of words like this frequently pop up to save time while texting.
Plus, words can be shortened by leaving off the last syllable. While this is more masculine and usually heard from guys, some girls use this, too (though it’s very informal). Words like すごい (sugoi, “amazing”) and やばい (yabai, both “incredible” and “horrible” depending on context) are often shortened to すげー (suge-) and やばっ (yaba). The small っ “clips” the word with a glottal sound in the throat, while the long ― means the sound gets dragged out. Both make the words sound more slangy.
You’ll hear this last example a lot in everyday casual speech. The い at the end of い-adjectives is often omitted, and may even change the last syllable to the え row of the kana chart (as seen with すごい to すげっ). Don’t know what that means yet? Then check out this article about understanding Hiragana and Katakana.
What Are Your Favorite Cool Japanese Words?
What cool words do you like to use in your language? Have you learned the Japanese equivalent? Or, what are your favorite cool words in Japanese? Let me know in the comments.