Mar 13

Translator’s Corner: Keep Our English Out of Your Japanese Puns!

By translator and writer Jamie Graves (Saitama-Ken 2002-2003)

The Japanese language is notorious for having a relatively small number of phonemes compared to other major world languages, which can be a hindrance when having to learn new sounds outside that structure (the infamous “L” and “R” distinction), but results in a tremendous number of homonyms. While there are slight changes in emphasis between the words for “hair”, “god” and “paper”, they are all kami. I think we can safely assume that the Japanese have been making linguistic tricks like this into bad puns for centuries, if not millennia.

When the Chinese writing system first crash landed onto the Japanese language around fifteen-hundred years ago no one could have predicted the historical fallout:  an explosion of bad puns. As Chinese characters were gradually adapted to Japanese, all of the tones that had previously distinguished words like(“horse”, 馬) from (“hemp” 麻) were flattened out. In a language already rife with nearly identical words, this produced a new explosion of homonyms, the building blocks of puns. (The Chinese also use these for puns. In an effort to mess with government censors the phrase 草泥马, “grass-mud-horse” has gone viral on the Chinese blogosphere because the same sounds with different tones mean… something not really printable here. ( This page explains the whole phenomenon.)

Case in point, the furious Japanese tongue twister “Uraniwa niwa niwa, niwa niwa niwa, niwatori ari”. (裏庭には二羽、庭には二羽、鶏あり). Niwa in this case is both the word for “garden” (native Japanese), “two birds” (derived from Chinese), and two grammatical particles indicating  the object of the sentence and the location. This sprightly little sentence is simply conveying that there are two chickens in the back yard, and another two in the front yard.

With compulsory English education flooding the country in the last fifty years, the Japanese language now has a massive new vocabulary of improperly understood words to wrangle into bad puns. Just like Chinese tones were jettisoned for flat syllables, nuances of English pronunciation between “she” and “sea” are being dragged into Japanese.

I started thinking about all this from a discussion on the Google Honyaku translators forum. Edward Lipsett brought up an ad he’d seen on the train that advertised a line of seafood flavored snacks.

Hanging in front of the door was a two-panel ad
featuring a line of seafood-flavor snacks (ebi and stuff), and across the
top it read



This set off a wave of recollections of similarly terrible puns, none of which I will dignify by repeating. If your curiosity gets the better of you you can read the entire thread here.

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