Japanese is a difficult language! Even putting kanji aside, there are many words that sound very similar but have very different meanings (kawaii vs. kowai, for example). This article will introduce 10 common mix-ups that often confuse Japanese-learners as well as tips for avoiding the mistake.

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Introduction

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“Kawaii” (かわいい) (kah-wah-ee-ee) is Japanese for cute or adorable. This is a very common word that you will see in many different contexts as Japanese culture loves everything and anything cute. However, be very careful when pronouncing the word.

猫が可愛いい (Neko ga kawaii) - cat is cuteIf you try and say it quickly, you may end up saying “kowai” (こわい) (koh-wah-ee) instead. Kowai means scary, afraid, or fearful, and it is also a relatively common word. When you see something cute, make sure to pronounce your “ka” and the extended “ii” sound or chance being very misunderstood!

猫が怖い (Neko ga kowai) - cat is scaryThere’s even another common kawaii-related mistake that is explained in number 7 below.

2. Suwaru / Sawaru

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Dmytro Voinalovych // Syda Productions / ShutterstockThe differences between this pair are a bit less disastrous, but can still be cause for a fair bit of confusion. Okusan (奥さん, おくさん) (oh-koo-san) is a polite term for one’s wife. Okaasan (お母さん, おかあさん) (oh-kah-ah-san) is a polite term for one’s mother. The key here is in the second syllable: with wife, make sure you pronounce it “ku” while with mother, it’s a “ka,” with an elongated vowel sound.

私のお母さんです (Watashi no okaasan desu) - This is my mother私の奥さんです (Watashi no okusan desu) - This is my wife

4. Okashi / Okashii

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As a language, Japanese is very keen to discern between things that are alive versus things that aren’t. When you are describing things that exist around you, it is key that you make that distinction or risk confusing whoever you are talking to. If something isn’t alive, for example a forest, you would need to attach “aru” (ある) (ah-roo) at the end of the sentence to describe it’s existence:

森がある (Mori ga aru) - "There is a forest"On the other hand, say your friend Mori is right over there and you wanted to point him out in a relatively casual fashion, you might say:

森がいる (Mori ga iru) - "Mori"s here" In this case, “iru” marks Mori as a living being, and therefore a person’s name, as opposed to a forest. Aru/iru makes all the difference between pointing out your friend or remarking about trees. Although they don’t sound too much alike, it’s important to keep their distinction in mind and use them correctly when speaking.

6. Oni / Ani

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A slightly more advanced mistake, this one involves grammar as compared to just sound. When learning how to build up Japanese words and sentences, learners are often introduced to the compound “sou” (そう). This is a suffix you can throw on the end of adjectives in order to express the observation “seems to.” For example, you might hear someone say:

おいしそう!(Oishisou!) - "That looks delicious!"In this case, the person hasn’t tried the food yet, nor has anyone told them the flavor, but merely from the presentation alone they can gather that it seems like something they would eat. “Sou” is quite versatile, and you can use it in many different situations with many different adjectives.

However, upon seeing something adorable, one might be tempted to say:

かわいそう! (Kawaisou!) - "That seems cute!" ❌What they’re actually saying is:

かわいそう! (Kawaisou!) - "How sad!" ✅“Kawaisou” (可哀想) is an actual Japanese word that translates to “pitiful” or “sad.” Use it when you see a small child fall down in a puddle or when someone drops their sandwich. If you want to describe something as “seeming cute”, it’s better to use the compound “kawaii rashii” (可愛らしい).

False Friends

For the final three items, we’re going to look at some false friends or words that are known as “wasei eigo” (和製英語) meaning “Japanese-made English.” These are words that sound like English, talk like English, and may even walk like English, but have completely different meanings than their similar-sounding brethren.A lot of these words may originally derive from their English counterparts, but through their daily usage in Japanese have slowly drifted in meaning until they’re affixed to something completely different.

8. Konsento

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This word is doubly dangerous. “Baikingu” (バイキング) can easily catch the English speaker off-guard. Some might hear “biking,” like “my hobbies are collecting Pokemon and biking.” Others, who know the Japanese trouble with the letter “V,” might instead imagine our ancient Norse friends in their giant warships. However, baikingu is neither biking nor Viking, but rather, it means “buffet.” This is because the first buffet-style restaurant to open in Japan was called the “Imperial Viking,” itself named after the 1958 American film “The Vikings,” which was popular at the time.

If you’re ever tempted to shorten it, don’t! Baikingu is all very well and innocent, but “baikin” (黴菌) means bacteria or germs!

10. Faito

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This list includes just the most common cases, but the more you study Japanese, the more you’ll come across homophones and tricky phrases like the above. However, miscommunications due to mispronounced words actually occur less frequently than you might imagine. When it comes to many similar-sounding words, they are often used in such different contexts that even if you mess up the sounds, most people will understand what you’re talking about and mentally fill in the correct words.

If you want to perfect your speech and never make the above mistakes, the best way to do so is to study and practice. Studying helps you make sure you know the differences, while practice will cement the correct sounds to the correct situations in your mind. The more you practice and the more you use the correct/words and grammar, the easier it will become to hear the differences between words and pronounce the words correctly when speaking.

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No longer will “kawaii” sound like “kowai.” Cute and scary will become the two separate words they deserve to be.