Otaku Language

The land of cat-girls, glasses-boys, and giant robots[i], Nihon-koku[ii] is the true home of Anime, Manga, and much of the technological wizardry that many geeks (or otaku as we’re known in Japan) admire, in addition to many peculiar terms that are too 18+ for this article. But brush the cultural stereotypes aside and notice that the Japanese language has given us a plethora of words which are now in popular use in Anglophone countries[iii], just as Japanese has taken on English phrases[iv] and, more commonly, abbreviations of English[v].

Japanese’s multiple logographic alphabets differ greatly from our own Latin alphabet, and so the Japanese language remains almost as much of a mystery as it did when anime first arrived on North American shores in the 1960s, despite many efforts from television companies such as 4Kids Productions. Trying to read manga from right to left, watching anime where the mouth movements don’t quite match what’s being said… Though many problems present themselves as a part of the language barrier, the Japanese language has also given us many useful terms, especially those useful in the multicultural community of geeks, but also Japanese fashion, humour, and culture terms.


The following terms are what I consider the most interesting linguistically, not what are actually the most popular Japanese phrases or concepts. For more information on Cosplay, Japanese Fashion, or Anime/Manga, see the other sections of Paper Droids.



L-R: Kagami Hiiragi from ‘Lucky Star’, Yuki Nagato from ‘The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’, Usagi Tsukino from ‘Sailor Moon’.

Bishōjo (美少女, pronunciation: bih-shoh-joh, “bi” meaning “beautiful,” “shojo” meaning “girl”), meaning “beautiful girl,” is a young, pretty girl around high-school age. There are male variants of “bishōjo” to show feminine beauty qualities in men, regardless of sexuality, using the “bi” prefix, such as “Bishota” (male child), “Bishōnen” (high-school age male), “Biseinen” (a young man aged 20-30), and “Bichūnen” (middle-aged man).

Dojikko (ドジっ子, pronunciation: doh-jeeh-koh, from “doji” meaning “a blunder” with the feminine suffix –ko[vi]) are awkward and bumbling, but their mistakes are often forgiven due to their innocence and cuteness[vii].

Tsundere (ツンデレ, pronunciation: tsun-deh-reh[viii]), to describe a character that is unfriendly and mean, but turns kind over time, taken from “tsun-tsun” (ツンツン, a noise of disdain or disgust) and “dere-dere” (デレデレ, meaning ‘lovestruck’).

Tsunshun (ツンシュン, pronunciation: tsun-shuhn, the “shun” is a sound effect meaning depressed, like a sigh) is very similar to “tsundere” but the character later gets depressed about their previous harsh actions.

Yandere (ヤンデレ, pronunciation: yan-deh-reh, the “yan” is derived from “yanderu” meaning “mental illness”) is the opposite of “tsundere,” and describes a character who is initially warm-hearted but turns sour and often violent, exhibiting characteristics of mental instability and rage.

Yangire (ヤンギレ, pronunciation: yahn-gee-reh, the “gire” coming from “kireru” meaning to lose one’s temper), derived from “yandere,” is where the character doesn’t turn warm but instead snaps easily without remorse.

Dandere (ダンデレ, pronunciation: dan-deh-reh, the “dan” comes from “danmari” meaning “silent”) are shy and quiet, but then reveal their soft side.

Kūdere (クーデレ, pronunciation: kooh-deh-reh, the “kū” from “kuu-” meaning “cool”) are very similar to “dandere” but instead of shy and quiet, they are the cool and silent type, who also become warm-hearted.

Otenba (おてんば, pronunciation: oh-ten-bah) are tomboys.

Yamato Nadeshiko (やまとなでしこ, pronunciation: yah-mah-toe nah-deh-shee-koh; “Yamato” is an ancient name for Japan, Nadeshiko is a type of delicate flower) are epitomes of the perfect Japanese woman, often humble and domestically skilled, but this term had come under some scrutiny.[ix]

Honorific Suffixes


L-R: Honorific ‘-san’ in use in ‘Kiddy Grade’, Wikipedia’s mascot Wikipe-tan (using the childish suffix), and honorific ‘-kun’ use in ‘Clannad’.

In ascending order of politeness:

-Bo: used for male babies and young boys.

-Bōzu: used for boys younger than oneself, often affectionately, though can show irritation.

-Pyon: a cutesy/lovey-dovey suffix for someone you admire.

-Chan: used for people on your social level or below, such as your friends or those younger than you. It is a term of endearment, an affectionate term for those close to you.

-Onee/Oniisan: for brothers/sisters, but also family members who are slightly older than you, or friends you consider brother/sisterly.

-San: the most general honorific, used respectfully by equals regardless of age. It equates to “Mr.” or “Miss/Mrs.,” but can be used on occupational titles, animals, companies, or inanimate objects.

-Kun: used by seniors to their juniors, also used by women to close male friends, and used by male superiors in the workplace/schools.

-Sama: a more polite way of saying “-san,” this is more respectful and is used for people you admire or have to be polite to, such as customers or guests.

-Senpai: used for those who are of a higher status than you in institutions such as schools, offices or sport clubs.

-Kohai: the opposite of “-senpai,” often replaced by “-kun.”

-Sensei: used for those in a position of authority, such as teachers, lawyers, and heads of Dojo.

-Shi: very formal term for official documents and for speaking to people whom you have never met.



L-R: Konata Izumi from ‘Lucky Star’, a close-up of a maid outfit, a cell phone novel on a flip phone.

Ahoge (アホ毛, pronunciation: ah-hoh-geh, from “ah0″ meaning “stupid” or “idiot” and “ke” meaning “hair”) means “idiot hair,” referring to that rogue lock of hair often found defying gravity above anime characters’ heads. It sometimes indicates that the character is ditsy, but this isn’t a steadfast rule.

Zettai Ryōiki (絶対領域, pronunciation: Zeh-tie Rih-yoy-keeh, literally meaning “absolute territory,” a term originating from Neon Genesis Evangelion) is the gap between the top of a lady’s thigh-high socks and the bottom of her skirt. Such is the fascination with this “golden zone” that it has a dedicated Tumblr[x], its own Facebook fan page[xi], hoards of adoring fans[xii], and even its own grading system[xiii] to decide which is the best type. This is sometimes considered a fetish, but thigh-socks are well known as a Japanese fashion staple worn by many women.

Keitai Shōsetsu (携帯小説, pronunciation: Kay-tie Shoh-set-soo) are “cell phone novels,” literature that can fit onto your phone, with short chapters to fit character limits. They are highly popular in Japan and often top literary best-seller lists, and they have now spread throughout Asia and the world. This is clear evidence that Japanese’s characters do not hinder the language’s transfer to technology, despite arguments that such technology dilutes Japanese as a language,[xiv] similar to arguments on the harm of “text talk” in English.

[i] Nekomusume, Megane Danshi, and mecha respectively.

[ii] “Japan.”

[vi] This suffix can also be seen in Japanese female given names, such as Hanako, Aiko, Momoko, etc.

[vii] Kawaiiiii~

[viii] The t and s are merged together, like at the end of “cats” in English; the r is pronounced closer to an L, similar to “rock/lock” mixed together.

[ix] Yamato Nadeshiko is a nostalgic/patriarchal term, often used during times with less independence for women.

Helena has been nicknamed ‘Nelpas’ since birth, but nobody knows why. Other mysterious aspects of her existence include a worryingly intense love of books, a penchant for fruit teas, and a modest collection of N64 games stored in a wooden box. Helena also likes vintage clothes, being really tall, baking cakes, and IGGPPC. Most of all, Helena is a linguist, and a fierce one at that. Namárië!

  • arielletje

    I miss using honorifics on the regular as part of normal speech.

    Also, as I learned it, “ko” does literally mean “child”. Kinda weirds me out that it’s a suffix on SO MANY female names in Japan. Not that people really ever think about it like that as it’s so prevalent and normalized, but worth making note of.

    Zettai Ryoiki skeeves me out so bad fr srs. I didn’t know about it until this article.

    A lot of cultures with highly institutionalized systems of class hierarchy and patriarchy have variants of Yamato Nadeshiko – “English Rose”, “Desert Bloom” etc coming to mind. Also the Chinese Lotus Foot ideal for women; it goes on, all sorts of flowery, sugary names for those exemplary females who shut up, do as they’re told, and look pretty while doing it.

    • arielletje

      Addendum: I love Japanese literal translations of names though, esp when you just go on the sounds and not the kanji. For example, the names in footnote vi are: Flower Child, Love Child, and Peach Child.

    • HelenaNelpasSchoey

      I know ‘ko’ means ‘child’, I see it so very often!

      Zettai Ryoiki is well known as a concept (i.e. the popularity of thigh-high socks), but yhe exact name is rarely used. Bit creepy.

      I agree with the different variations of Yamato Nadeshiko. Personally, as an Englishwoman, ‘English Rose’ is more about classical appearance and patriotism than compliance to patriarchy. I’ve been called an English Rose before, and don’t find it insulting, but I suppose it depends on the culture.

      Glad you learnt new things from the article!

  • I love how detailed this article is. Great job, Helena! (Linguist extraordinaire!)