In English, most loanwords from Japanese are pronounced similarly to the Japanese word. It isn't an exact match, for example with "karaoke" the pronunciation of the second "a" differs between English and Japanese, but it's fairly similar.

Likewise, many languages that are unrelated to English, but are not from East Asia, have a similar pronunciation as the Japanese word. For example, according to Wiktionary, the Hebrew word for origami is אוֹרִיגָמִי (origami). (I don't know whether Hebrew got the word from English, or directly from Japanese)

It seems that the pronunciation of the Chinese translation of words that, in English, are loanwords from Japanese, is radically different from the pronunciation of the word in Japanese.

I don't speak Chinese, but it meant that when I was speaking in English with Taiwanese people who were native speakers of Chinese but reasonably fluent in English, they didn't understand some Japanese loanwords I used.

I'm finding it a little hard to find good examples, but "origami" seems to be one. None of the Chinese translations of origami seem to have a similar pronunciation to the Japanese word. (I could be mistaken though - maybe the pronunciations of the Chinese words "摺紙", "折紙", "折纸", "折紙藝術", and "折纸艺术" are the closest thing you could have to pronouncing the syllables of "origami" in the Chinese language)

Is this the case? If so, why?

Is it because Chinese speakers take the written form of the Japanese word, turn it into a written Chinese word, and then pronounce the word the way they would pronounce a native Chinese word that was written the way it was written?

Alternatively, are words that are Japanese loanwords in English derived from Japanese words that are ultimately derived from Chinese words, and it's the Japanese word that's "different" in pronunciation, not the Chinese word?

In addition, in which languages is the pronunciation of words that are loanwords in English greatly different from the pronunciation in Japanese? For example, does this happen in Korean?

  • 2
    Generally words loaned to English (e.g. origami and karaoke) are pronounced as they are written (and by analogy to similar-looking English words), using English pronunciation rather than the original language. Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 7:47
  • 1
    @JustinOlbrantz the last "e" in "sake" (the alcoholic beverage), "karaoke" and "karate" are pronounced, unlike "sake" (other meanings) and "take".
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 8:19
  • 1
    Variations like that are allowed for foreign words; they help mark the word as foreign. Note, however, that the final E is not pronounced /e/, but /i/, which is English pronunciation.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 16:32
  • Relevant: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/66640/… Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 18:53

2 Answers 2


Yes as you speculate, when Chinese borrows a Japanese word, its pronunciation is often determined by the Chinese characters, no matter how it is pronounced in Japan. This results in loanwords that sound totally different, especially when they are native Japanese words, rather than Sino-Japanese words (i.e. Japanese-coined words that are made of Chinese-originated roots), as is the case in your example of origami. Other examples include torikeshi (ja) / quxiao (zh) (取消 'cancellation'), and tetsuzuki (ja) / shouxu (zh) (手続/手续 'procedure'). This often happens in proper names as well. For example, the auto manufacturer Suzuki is pronounced Lingmu in Chinese.

Korean also has words that are borrowed from Japanese as the form of Chinese characters. Examples include toriatsukai (ja) / chwuykup (ko) (取扱/취급 'handling'), and hagaki (ja) / yepse (ko) (葉書/엽서, 'postcard'). However, proper names in Japanese are usually borrowed phonologically in Korean.

  • One exception to this is karaoke, which is 卡拉OK kâlā OK (the latter pronounced as in English, approximately) in Mandarin, rather than 空OK (or something like that). The last bit is of course a loan from English into Japanese to begin with, so you'd hardly expect it to be 空乐团 kông yuètuán a priori… Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 8:27
  • actually oke in karaoke is not OK but short for オーケストラ (orchestra) Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 8:58
  • @LưuVĩnhPhúc Yes, that's what I meant by using 乐团 (orchestra) in the nonexistent pseudo-translation above. The normal Chinese rendition of the Japanese word, however, uses OK (written in Latin letters), ignoring the origin of the term completely. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 7:55

Yes it is the case. Chinese usually read a Japanese loan word according to the pronunciation of the characters in Chinese.

"they didn't understand some Japanese loanwords I used"

That's because English borrow a Japanese word by its pronunciation, while Chinese borrow the same Japanese word by its meaning.

The main reason is that Chinese and Japanese both use Chinese characters in their writing system. Japanese use Chinese characters to coin new words for new concepts, just like Europeans coin new words with Latin or Greek roots. Even though the pronunciation of the same Chinese character are different between Chinese and Japanese, the meaning is usually the same. Take origami(折り紙) as example, ori(折り) means folding, gami(紙) means paper. In Chinese, 折 also means folding, 紙 also means paper. After all, 拆 and 紙 in Japanese are just adopted Chinese characters, so it's not strange they share the same meaning. To a Chinese native speaker, it's the characters making up the word that make sense, rather than the Japanese pronunciation of the word.

"Alternatively, are words that are Japanese loanwords in English derived from Japanese words that are ultimately derived from Chinese words, and it's the Japanese word that's "different" in pronunciation, not the Chinese word?"

The answer to this question is: It's not the Japanese word that are ultimately derived from Chinese, it's the characters or morphemes out of which the Japanese word are built that are derived from Chinese. Japanese use these Chinese derived morphemes to coin new words, which may not exist in Chinese.

Another example is proper names. As @Yoshi Asao mentioned, when Japanese proper names are translated to Chinese, the characters making up the word are usually kept intact and pronounced according to the Chinese pronunciation of the characters. Refer to the "Japanese names in Chinese" part of Japanese name. Take Japanese Nobel laureate Hideki Yukawa as an example. It's written as 湯川秀樹 in Japanese, 湯川秀樹 in tranditional Chinese, and 汤川秀树 in simplified Chinese. It's read as Yukawa Hideki in Japanese. But in Chinese, it's read as Tāng Chuān Xiù Shù, just how a Chinese speaker will read 汤川秀树 in Chinese.

Chinese characters are logograms. A logogram is a written character that represents concept rather than sound. When Chinese borrow new word from all other languages, not specific to Japanse, it prefers free translation to phonetic translation. Take telephone as an example. When the word telephone was first introduced to Chinese in 1920s, it was phonetically translated to 德律风(délǜfēng), but later 电话(literally means "eletric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes according the meaning of telephone, became prevalent, bacause it's more comprehensible to Chinese native speakers, and it's easy to see the logic behind the word. Interestingly, the word 电话 was first coined in Japanese and later borrowed to Chinese, but almost no Chinese native speaker will notice this fact unless someone else tell him about that explicitly.

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