Quick Guide to Japanese Abbreviations

Explore a variety of abbreviations in Japanese and gain insight into Japanese culture.

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By Ayako Sasso · June 20, 2024 · 11 minute read

Understanding Japanese abbreviation is key to everyday communication. It is fair to say that Japanese people love to shorten words – abbreviations are very common in the Japanese language.

There have always been plenty of abbreviations and acronyms, but in addition to these traditional ones, new abbreviations are constantly emerging, especially since texting is such a big part of our daily lives. It is very interesting when we recognize the extent to which abbreviated words are used in daily life. Often the shortened version is almost more important than the original!

This guide will cover several types of abbreviations, including loan words from other languages, long Kanji words, acronyms and slang. By the end you should have a well-rounded understanding of Japanese abbreviations. Let’s get started!

Loan words and abbreviations

The Japanese language has borrowed many words from foreign languages. These are called gairaigo (外来語), which means ‘loan word’ or ‘borrowed word’ in Japanese. English is the origin of most modern gairaigo. Loan words are generally written in katakana and pronounced with Japanese syllables.

First we will look at some simple loan words. You may notice that they are already abbreviated.

Examples of common loan words

  • Depāto (デパート) – department store
  • Sūpā (スーパー) – supermarket
  • Biru (ビル) – building
  • Meiku (メイク) – makeup

Interestingly, for most of these words, there is also a ‘proper’ Japanese word which is not in katakana. For instance, ‘building’ is tatemono (建物・たてもの) and does not necessarily have to be called biru (ビル). For ‘makeup,’ we can say keshō (化粧・けしょう) instead of meiku (メイク). You are free to use either word depending on the situation.

Multi-word loan words shortened to 3 or 4 syllables

There are plenty of examples of loan words which are shortened to three or four syllables. For example, the phrase ‘personal computer’ has six syllables in English, but the Japanese version, pasokon, is shortened to just three syllables.

You can see from the list of examples below that these words are very common in daily life, so they are worth remembering as you will encounter them quite often.

  • Pasokon (パソコン) – personal computer
  • Dejikame (デジカメ) – digital camera
  • Rimokon (リモコン) – remote control
  • Eakon (エアコン) – air conditioning
  • Wāpuro (ワープロ) – word processor
  • Konbini (コンビニ) – convenience store
  • Famiresu (ファミレス) – family restaurant
  • Amefuto (アメフト) – American football
  • Puroresu (プロレス) – professional wrestling
  • Masukomi (マスコミ) – mass communication or mass media
  • Sumaho (スマホ) – smart phone
  • Meado (メアド) – mailing address
  • Kureka (クレカ) – credit card
  • Kopipe (コピペ) – copy and paste
  • Prezen (プレゼン) – presentaion

Most words here can be easily understood, and once you encounter them, you will know the meaning or might be able to guess it relatively easily. But be careful with the last word on the list, prezen (プレゼン). You might need to remember that it does not mean ‘present or gift’ but ‘presentation.’ It is often used in the context of conferences and academic lectures.

Examples of hybrid loan words

An abbreviated loan word can also be combined with a Japanese word to create a hybrid abbreviation. Here are some examples – we’ve broken each one down into its parts so you can easily see how these hybrid loan words work.

  • Shōene (省エネ) – energy saving
    Shō + ene

The first part, ‘shō’ (省), is the same as the verb ‘habuku’ (省く), which means ‘economize.’ ‘Ene’ (エネ) comes from ‘energy,’ so the whole word means ‘energy conservation’ or ‘energy saving.’

  • Dotakyan (ドタキャン) – a last minute cancellation
    Dota + kyan

Dotanba (土壇場・ドタンバ) in Japanese means ‘last minute’ and kyan (キャン) comes from the English word ‘cancellation.’ Therefore the whole word means ‘last minute cancellation.’

  • Keitora (軽トラ) – lightweight pickup truck
    Kei + tora

Kei (軽) means ‘lightweight’ and tora (トラ) comes from the word ‘truck.’ So keitora (軽トラ) is a type of lightweight pickup truck which is unique to Japan.

  • Depachika (デパ地下) – the basement floor of a department store
    Depa+ chika

Do you remember the word depāto (デパート)? Depāto (デパート) is the first loan word that we learned in this article – it means ‘department store.’ The word chika (地下) means ‘underground’ or ‘basement.’ So the whole word means ‘the basement floor of a department store.’

Typically in Japan, most grocery stores or deli shops are located in the basement of a department store. So this ‘depachika’(デパ地下) is a must-go place for food enthusiasts! It is also becoming very popular among tourists these days.

So far, all the examples that we have looked at are katakana words or partially katakana words. But that does not mean that abbreviations only exist in loan words. In the next section, we are going to see some abbreviations that do not contain katakana.

Long Kanji words made into abbreviations

We have a natural habit of shortening words that are rather long. Long words are often contracted into shorter forms, which in some cases then become the main form of the word.

For example, the University of Tokyo is called Tōkyō Daigaku (東京大学).The abbreviation for this is Tōdai (東大), made from the - of Tōkyō and the Dai- of Daigaku.

The same method can be applied to the names of other universities, such as Kyōdai (京大), which is Kyoto University, and Meidai (明大), which is Meiji University. Just remember that not all university names can be contracted in the same way.

Another example is the word kokuren (国連). Kokuren (国連) is a contracted form of kokusai-rengō (国際連合), which means ‘the United Nations.’ For this word, the contracted form is more commonly used, and you will find that even in formal broadcasts and newspapers they tend to use the contracted form more than the original word.

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English-style acronyms

In English, there are many acronyms such as ATM, DNA and HR. Japanese uses acronyms in the same way. Interestingly though, many Japanese acronyms are based on English words, not on Japanese words! The table below shows several examples so you can see what we mean.

Japanese acronyms

Acronym Pronunciation in Japanese Original English words Meaning
OL Ōeru (オーエル) Office lady or ladies Female corporate employee
CM Shīemu (シーエム) Commercial message Commercial break during a broadcast
NG Enujī (エヌジー) No good Commonly used to indicate that something is not acceptable
PV Pībī (ピービー) Promotional video Generally used for a music video or trailer
NEET Nīto (ニート) No education, employment or training To refer to someone who is not willing to work or unable to get a job and typically lives with their parents
JR Jēāru (ジェーアール) Japan railway Collective name for six railway companies that were established when the Japanese national railways were privatized
KY Kēwai (ケーワイ) Kūki yomenai *See explanation below the table
GW Only used in written form, not spoken Golden Week A period of consecutive holidays from the end of April to the beginning of May

Now let’s look at the one acronym from the table that is formed from Japanese words – _KY__. This acronym comes from the expression ‘kūki yomenai’_ (空気読めない), and the literal translation would be ‘cannot read the air.’ A ‘KY person’ is someone who is unable to read the situation or pick up on the mood of the conversation.

In Japanese culture, it is vital to pay attention to the proper atmosphere to maintain harmony. KY people are those who lack the skill to maintain the right atmosphere, and they are usually a source of awkwardness or discomfort at social gatherings. To point out that kind of awkwardness without being harsh, while also adding a bit of playfulness to it, the abbreviation KY was formed. When in Japan, let’s be careful to avoid KY-ness, and try to read the air!

Slang abbreviations

People’s need to quickly type and send text messages has resulted in the creation of many new abbreviations. Let’s look at some abbreviations which are rather new and not used in formal situations.

To celebrate the new year in Japan, we usually greet each other by using the phrase akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます), which means ‘a happy new year.’ Younger generations use the abbreviation ake ome (あけおめ) – a very much contracted form of the full phrase. You might regard this word as slang as it should not be used in formal situations.

The single letter ‘w’ is also an abbreviation in Japanese. This is like ‘lol’ in English. The verb ‘laugh’ in Japanese is warau (笑う・わらう), so the letter ‘w’ is an abbreviation of it. Some use ‘ww’ or ‘www’ as well.

Fun facts about Japanese abbreviations

Regional differences

We can go on forever listing abbreviations, but let’s now look at one funny example of an abbreviation. You may already be aware that the Japanese language has many dialects. Often the vocabulary used in the Kantō region of Tōkyō and surrounding areas is different from the vocabulary used in the Kansai region of Ōsaka and surrounding areas.

In Japanese, the famous fast food chain McDonald’s is called makudonarudo (マクドナルド). Interestingly, people in the Kanto and Kansai regions have yet to reach a consensus about the abbreviation for this word.

People in the Tōkyō or Kantō area tend to abbreviate makudonarudo to Makku (マック), while those in Kansai abbreviate it to Makudo (マクド). Isn’t it interesting that regional dialects affect abbreviations as well?

Why Japanese people love to abbreviate words

You may wonder why Japanese people love to make abbreviations. Apart from the convenience of having a shortened form, some argue that this habit is influenced by Haiku (traditional Japanese poetry).

In Haiku, a poem must be organized into 17 phonetic units (similar to English syllables) in the pattern 5-7-5, which means each word should not be more than seven phonetic units. This could have an influence on the length of Japanese abbreviations, which are usually three or four syllables long.

Some other reasons why Japanese people love to use abbreviations are for fun and to maintain social harmony. People everywhere enjoy creating their own codes, making their meaning more secretive or inventing a special language that only their inner circle can understand. After all, we all enjoy wordplay to some extent, especially language lovers like you and me!

Especially in Japanese society, where politeness and maintaining harmony is valued highly, some abbreviations are useful so as to be less obvious when describing something negative. The abbreviation KY that we discussed earlier is a good example of this.

Wrapping up Japanese abbreviations

As you can see, abbreviations play a big role in Japanese communication. Whether to borrow words from English, shorten especially long phrases, or to maintain social harmony, it’s important to know the many abbreviations and acronyms that are used every day in Japan.

The examples in this article just scratch the surface when it comes to Japanese abbreviations. You are sure to encounter many more when you interact with Japanese speakers. So keep on learning! Now that you know the main ways in which Japanese abbreviation works, it will be much easier for you to understand new abbreviations that you come across.

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