Japan from the inside out

The Korean language in Japanese–and vice versa!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 26, 2007

THE MAP SHOWN HERE highlights an important aspect of Japanese-Korean relations that’s often overlooked by outsiders, and even some Japanese and Koreans themselves. Notice just how close the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and the southern part of the Korean Peninsula are to each other. A flight departing from Fukuoka City takes 90 minutes to arrive in Tokyo and two hours to reach Sendai in the northeastern part of the country—but only 45 minutes to land in Busan, or an hour to touch down in Seoul. The hydrofoils that ply the Korean Strait between Fukuoka City and Busan make the trip in three hours, moving along at a speed slightly less than that of an automobile on an expressway.

In today’s era of nation-states, the Kyushu native has of course much more in common with the native of the Tohoku area, now a fellow countryman, than he does with someone from Busan. But in an earlier era, geographical proximity was the predominant factor in human interaction, until that aspect was vitiated by the creation of national borders.

There was so much interaction—both ways—between Kyushu and the southern part of Korea that more than a few scholars in both countries consider the region as a whole to have been one cultural sphere. That state of affairs continued until the 7th century, at least, and until the end of the 8th century, Kyushu (and the Japanese imperial court) interacted more extensively with the Baekche (Kudara in Japanese) and Silla kingdoms than it did with the northeast.

The fruits of this interaction were much the same as those for any two nearby regions throughout the world, and they include more than just intermarriage. There are many examples—burial mounds, tools, ornaments, artwork, architecture—but none more obvious than language.

Korean in Japanese

Anyone familiar with both languages realizes they share many similar characteristics. The sentence structure in Japanese and Korean is nearly identical (and quite different from Chinese). In fact, the sentence-ending particle denoting a question is identical (-ka in Japanese, -kka in Korean). Linguists estimate the languages have at least 200, and as many as 300, cognates.

For example, the word for village in Japanese is mura, while the Korean equivalent is maul. But linguists say that during the Silla era, it was also mura in Korean. Another is hana, which is the indigenous Korean word for the number one. That wound up in Japanese in the phrase, hana kara hajimeyo, or let’s start from the beginning.

The Japanese word for pan is nabe, while in Korean, it’s naembi. When two Japanese lift something together, they say in unison, “Seh, no” before exerting themselves. Some linguists believe that might be derived from the native Korean words for three and four (sett, nett), as in one, two, three, four. When Japanese carry mikoshi in a festival, they often chant, “Wasshoi, wasshoi,” which some suggest comes from the Korean “oasso”, or “(We) have come”.

One frequently cited example is “nara”. That’s the Korean word for “country” (as in nation), and which probably was used at first to refer to a settlement (as was the corresponding word in Japanese, kuni). Is it a coincidence that also happens to be the name of Japan’s first capital city, Nara? This comparison is especially intriguing because many people from the Korean Peninsula came to settle in the Nara area more than a millennium ago.

Others disagree, however. I have read (on a Japanese website I can’t find anymore) a short article by a man who claimed that Nara’s pronunciation 1,300 years ago was different than it is today, and that the word does not originate in Korean. Not being a linguist, I can’t say for sure, but his argument can’t be dismissed out of hand. Languages do change drastically over the centuries, as any native English speaker who has tried to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original can attest.

One expression I would love to know the origin of is “oh-rai”. The Japanese use this when someone is backing up a truck or a car. Another person standing outside the vehicle will say “oh-rai, oh-rai” to let the driver know that he still has clearance to his rear. This obviously comes from the English “all right”, but it’s curious that I never heard that used in the U.S. (From what I remember, the verbal assistance is usually, “back…back…ho!”)

I was stunned during my first trip to Busan when I watched a similar scene unfold from the sidewalk in front of my hotel. A Korean guy was backing up a small truck, and his partner was in the street behind him, waving him on and saying, “oh-rai…oh-rai”—the identical phrase as in Japan!

Yes, the Japanese Know

Koreans suggest that Japanese don’t like to admit their ancient debt to the peninsula, but my experience doesn’t bear that out. Some years ago, I taught an English class for a small group of first-year high school students, and one day I ran through a short list of Korean-derived Japanese words with them. Not only were they all familiar with the information, they seemed to be bored by it.

In other words, this is common knowledge for 15-year-old Japanese, which means that they must learn it in junior high school, if not earlier. Their boredom has nothing to do with a negative attitude toward Korea; it’s just that like most people, they have a limited interest in etymology. How impressed or curious would the average 15-year-old English native speaker be after learning that the word “alcohol” was derived from Arabic and “ketchup” came from Malay?

Japanese in Korean

I also wonder how many Koreans realize—or care to admit—that linguistic borrowing is a two-way street. The Korean word for beer, or mekju, is derived from the Japanese mugishu, literally, barley liquor. That’s what the Japanese used to call beer when they built the first breweries in Korea. (They call it biiru now.) Often the borrowing is not apparent on the surface; the Koreans use the basic Chinese characters underlying the Japanese word, but have applied their own pronunciation for the characters. One such example is “red ink”, in the sense of financial loss. That’s akaji in Japanese, while the Koreans pronounce it jokja.

Another example is the Japanese word toriatsukai, which means handling, or dealing with. The Koreans thought that word useful enough to adopt as their own, pronouncing it chuegup, though my Romanization might be off. (Even the Chinese have borrowed that one.)

Writing in The Korean Language, linguists Iksop Lee and S. Robert Ramsey go into more detail: they cite as obvious borrowings the Japanese words kaban, for bag or briefcase; sakadachi, for headstand; suri, for pickpocket; and wairo, for bribe.

They also provide examples of how Koreans applied native readings to the Chinese characters used to write the Japanese word. A partial list includes the Korean words for vague, magazine, planet, pollution, comprehend, newspaper, social standing, and tap water. Further, they state:

…there are literally many hundreds of words constructed out of Chinese morphemes and written with Chinese characters that were coined in Meiji Japan to accommodate Western words and concepts. This vocabulary of modern life (which also was adopted by China) includes such now common terms as science, physics, art, philosophy, civilization, culture, folklore, communism, capitalism, stock market, trade union, national language, subway, highway, telephone, electron, compromise, and so on…

Koreans might indignantly claim these words entered their language only because of the colonial period, and of course they’d be right. But Koreans also have devoted a lot of energy over the past half-century to eradicating other loanwords from the Japanese language. The ones mentioned here are some of those that remain unchanged, and they’ll probably stay that way.

Besides, that’s how forces interact in a cultural sphere. Influences go back and forth for many different reasons, not all of them pleasant, and to claim otherwise would just be a silly, pointless discussion, or what the Japanese might call a kudaranai hanashi. Speaking of which…

Recall that the Japanese term for the Baekche kingdom was Kudara. Back in the 7th century, the Silla Kingdom conquered Baekche, and many people from the latter kingdom fled to Japan rather than stay in Korea. The Japanese term kudara, some theorize, is derived from an old Choson word meaning large village. Adding “-nai” to the ends of verbs and adjectives in Japanese creates the negative form, so the story goes that today’s Japanese word kudaranai originally meant something that was not “kudara”, or “Baekche”—or not very important or good.

Indeed, it might be a good idea for some folks on the peninsula to take some of their own advice and “draw the proper conclusions from history”. One of the first conclusions that scholars from many different disciplines usually draw is that there’s no such thing as purity.

A specialist in evolutionary biology, for example, might even say that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

24 Responses to “The Korean language in Japanese–and vice versa!”

  1. Goku said

    “I also wonder how many Koreans realize—or care to admit—that linguistic borrowing is a two-way street.”

    Koreans know it too. But all too often discussions like this, on blogs, message boards, etc. turns into a pissing contest and any hope of having a rational conversation about it becomes nearly impossible. Both sides get way too emotional.

  2. infimum said

    Linguists estimate the languages have at least 200, and as many as 300, cognates.
    For any two words in different languages to be considered to be cognates, those two words have to observe a systematic sound correspondence observed thoughtout the laguages in question. If you search such keywords as “English”, “German”, “cognates” in Google, you will easily find what I am talking about. The word “systematic” is important, and if I ignore it, I could find some relation between Japanese and English as follows.

    name – 名前 (namae)
    owe – 負う (owe)
    tray – たらい (tarai)

    Now, can a systematic sound correspondence be found in native Japanese and Korean words? No, at least not in modern forms of those languages. How about in old forms? After all, the relation between Englsih and German becomes clearer when one looks at Engillsh in its old form. Here lies the biggest problem of comparison between Japanese and Korean. Japanese can be traced back to the day of Manyoushuu where the so-called manyougana was used to adapt Chinese characters to represent native Japanese sounds and modern day kana started develop. This is why we know about Old Japanese. The same can’t be said about Korean where even after Hangul was developed in the 15th century, the Chinese writing system was the dominant writing system.

    So, I’m sorry to say that the examples you listed are highly speculative, probably in the same rank as the English-Japanese correspondence I listed above and some of them are discussed to death in the Japanese blogsphere and messages boards, e.g. “nara”. But let me comment on a couple of examples.

    Another is hana, which is the indigenous Korean word for the number one. That wound up in Japanese
    in the phrase, hana kara hajimeyo, or let’s start from the beginning.

    The word in question is written 端 in Japanese. Other pronunciation variants of this word is ha, hashi, and hata. A similar reading pattern can be observed in 粉 (ko or kona). An instance of hana (端) can be found, for example, in 有房集 written in 1182. Now, it is a pure specualtion that this word comes from the Korean word for “one”. Not much is known about the origin of the Korean “hana”. Some say that the “n” sound used be a “t” sound. But again this is speculative and even if true, the deviation from the Japanese “hana” is wider in old form.

    Adding “-nai” to the ends of verbs and adjectives in Japanese creates the negative form, so the story goes that today’s Japanese word kudaranai originally meant something that was not “kudara”, or “Baekche” or not very important or good.

    I have to say that this is the most speculative of all. First of all, the old form of -nai is -nu. This is, as you point out, attached to verbs, not nouns such as “village”. The word “kudara-nu” started to appear in the 17th century in Japanese. (The Baekche kingdom disappeared in 660.) The present form “kudara-nai” started appear at the beginning of the Meiji era. Is the story of this grammatically peculiar “kudara(Baekche)-nai(present form of -nu)” form really believable?

    There is a verb “kudaru” (下る) which literally means “to go downward”. Some say that the meaning changed to “to be straightforward, to make sense”, then “kudara-nai” came to mean what it means today.

  3. tomojiro said

    Actually the word “oh-rai”, comes from English. Its an adaptation of “all right”. In the japanese context it can mean various things, like “ok” or “I’ve got it (during baseball games, outfielders are shouting “oh-rai” to let other outfielders know, that he is ready to catch the fly)”.

    During backing up a truck or a car, I think it means “ok (you have still room to back)”. So a person standing by the car, guiding the backing would shout “oh-rai,oh-rai (still room to back)”, and then “sutoppu(stop)”.

  4. Bender said

    It’s interesting that no one has been able to comfirm any substantial “genetical” relationship between the languages of Korea and Japan apart from some borrowings. In contrast to other languages like Indo-European and the Semitic languages, no one has been able to present any credible theories of single source. If no one can do it today, I’m sure no one will ever be able to do it in the future because it’s not like other sciences where you get to “discover things”…if there’s no written records of an ancient tongue, all is but wild guesses.

    Like ampontan points out to a certain point, the “similarities” of modern Korean and Japanese seem to lie in the fact that the Japanese were the ones to first translate tons of western Eurpoean concepts into “Chinese” by way of inventing new “Kan-go” (“chinese words”). Since everyone in the Far East was using Chinese, it spread to China and Korea, and of course, Korea was administered by “modernized” Japan for a while. I’ve seen Korean discusions about expelling these Japanese-made Chinese words…that is like the French expelling new latin/greek words like “dinosaur” just because it was coined by the English (haven’t checked out who coined the word “dinosaur” so my example might be wrong)- which would seem somewhat silly maybe.

  5. The Buddhist monks in Japan, Korea and China would have had some language in common as well. The same sutras are still read in all three languages, using the same kanji (or similar) but with different pronounciation. For some concepts, you have sanskrit words that spread East over the centuries.

    The National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo has many items (with English explanations) that clearly show how culture flowed from China and Korea to Japan. It is worth a visit if you get a chance.

  6. […] A look at linguistic similarities between Korea and Japan-  News from Japan I like to read about.-  Beware of the Viagra Vamps of […]

  7. Haisan said

    I remember studying Korean in a class with a couple of Japanese businessmen, way back when… Every so often we would learn a new word that would make them light up and start laughing and talking… I knew that whatever word the teacher put on the board must have been a Japanese loan-word.

    Anyhow, some scholars are now thinking that the language of the ancient Goguryeo Dynasty had more in common with Japanese than Korean. Which would be pretty wild, if true. Certainly seems within the realm of possibility — over 2,500 hundred years or so of history, one would expect more than a couple of migrations around the region.

  8. Haisan said

    Huh… a quick check of the accursed Wikipedia tells me that the Goguryeo-Japanese theory dates back to 1907. I did not know that. I only knew Christopher Beckwith’s 2004 book.

  9. bender said

    I heard that one before…and also that the language of Shilla, which is the old Korean tongue, not much related to Japanese.

    But then I see claims that Goguryeo was “Korean” and that China is trying to “steal” Korean heritage by claiming Goguryeo was a “regional kingdom in China”. Now I don’t see how China could be wrong in this, since as far as I know, Goguryeo originated in Manchuria-which is Chinese territory now- and if Goguryeo language was not that much related to modern Korean, who is the one stretching the facts?

  10. Kkachi said

    To Infimum,

    There IS a systematic sound correspondence between Japanese and Korean. Beginning G in Japanese becomes W in Korean. Gaijin becomes Wei-in in Korean. AI in Japanese becomes AE in Korean. Taihun (typhoon) becomes Taepung in Korean.

    These are only two examples, but there are several systematic sound correspondences. You just have to look.

  11. infimum said


    Those words are Sino-Japanese(or -Korean) readings of Chinese characters. Do you know that Chinese characters were commonly used in East Asia? To determine a genetic relationship between languages, you have to exclude borrowed words.

  12. Aki said

    kkachi’s comment reminded me of a conversation with a Korean woman. When I visited Seoul in fall, leaves of ginkgo were changing color. Seeing them, a Korean guide told me that ‘bank’ has the same name as ‘ginkgo’ in Korean language. She did not know the reason. But I could easily speculate it. Bank is called ‘ginko’ in Japanese. Probably, ‘ginkgo’ (銀杏) was introduced from Chinese, while ‘ginko’ (銀行 = bank) was from Japanese; the latter noun was made in Japan in the beginning of Meiji era. Since these nouns have similar pronunciations, Koreans seem to call them with the same pronunciation without knowledge of original Chinese characters.

    As for the similarity and difference of old languages in the Korean Peninsula and Japanese Archipelago, an article here in Neomarxisme was quite informative.

  13. Peter said

    As for bringing up “Chinese” kingdoms, there were many ethnic groups in several distinct countries that became states subjected to one emperial fad or another, which resulted in a present day single nation of China. The widely divergent letter shifts between “Chinese dialects” may reflect a variety of languages that collapsed under one of many ethnic groups’ domination for many centuries.

  14. Overthinker said

    The new National Museum near Fukuoka is very good about showing the continental links. I personally rate it the highest of the four national museums, at least for anyone who either has seen enough Buddhist sculpture or prefers to view it in situ.

    The ‘kudaranai’ idea sounds, well, pretty ‘kudaranai’. The explanation I have been given was that it refers to going ‘down’ to the capital: goods not worth shipping to the capital were not ‘going down’: kudaranai.

    I have also heard the Nara-nara (state) idea, and it makes a lot of sense when you consider how many Koreans helped. However it is not set in stone and probably never will be – there simply isn’t enough documentation from the period, as my professor of ancient Japanese history pointed out.

  15. mmori said

    Regarding comments 10-12: I believe the sound correspondence between Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean words is not entirely irrelevant, and it is highly systematic, considering that Japanese and Korean phonetics (very similar) have so little in common with Chinese and its tonal monosyllables. I think this kind of correspondence is useful precisely because it is fairly recent, occurred in well-documented waves, and went both ways.

    (I understand the concern: I once had a fellow comment, in all seriousness, how interesting it is that “radio” is nearly the same in most every language….)

    Although Sinicisms are pervasive in both languages, the similarities in native grammar and rarer pre-Sinitic vocabulary are so striking that I really don’t understand why the genetic relationship between Japanese and some historical dialect of Korean is an open question, (except for nationalists on either side). What am I missing? (In particular, the Buyeo/Fuyu hypothesis seems to do a fair job of lining up the proverbial ducks.)

    I am puzzled as to why ampontan presents such highly suspect (and typically Japanese?) “folk etymologies” in his article: Much more compelling are examples such as “himawari”/”hebaragi”, though I’m personally not competent to rule out “cross-pollination” of the sort that ampontan appears to be discussing here.

  16. mmori said

    I should note that only the “hi”/”hae” roots in “himawari” and “haebaragi” are possible cognates. (“mawari”

  17. mmori said

    Maybe I should explain that only the “hi”/”hae” roots in “himawari” and “haebaragi” (“sunflower”) are possible cognates. (“Mawari”

  18. Ansi fort said

    Goguryeo originated in Manchuria. Before the Qing dynasty, that Manchurian region did not belong to the Chinese but to others.

  19. Aki said


    As to “himawari”/”hebaragi” (words for sunflower in Japanese and in Korean), “himawari” literally means “sun-rotator” in Japanese. “Hi (日)” is “sun”. “mawari (廻り) is “rotater” or “things that go around something”. Thus the Japanese name was made after the heliotropic nature of the plant. I wonder if “hebaragi” has any literal meaning in Korean.

    Sunflower is native to North America. It was introduced into Europe by Spanish in 16th century. The first record in Japan that mentioned sunflower was Yamato Honzou (大和本草) published in 1709. It is highly probable that sunflower was introduced into Japan in 17th century. The similarity between “himawari” and “hebaragi” would only suggests that there were interaction between the two countries regarding the plant after 17th century.

  20. manchu said

    Don’t forget manchurian and mongolian languages are more similar to Japanese.
    Korean language is one of the derivations or epigones under the long Chinese influence.

  21. Zajac said

    FYI, hebaragi in Korean does literally mean ‘looking/wishing for sun’.

    It really should have been written as “Hae-Ba-Ra-Gi” in which
    ‘Hae’ means the sun,
    ‘Ba-ra-gi’ is the noun form of ‘want/wish’ (depending on context).

  22. DJ said

    As Haisan already mentioned here, there is that connection theory of the old Koguryo tongue and proto-Japanese. Many linguists would also back up that claim. What’s interesting to note here is that the founding king of Paekche was the third son of Koguryo’s founder. So, that would connect the dots a bit better with shared vocabulary as we also have an idea of the relationship between Paekche and Japan.

  23. Very interesting post and ever-interesting comments! Just when i think I know all there is to know about a language and its origins more information and more people come into my life to challenge my preconceptions. I have added this post as a link on my site where I had previously thought about such word similarities. I had always thought them (Korean and Japanese) as simply derivatives of ancient Chinese, but I was also aware of the near-total extinction of Korean history/records (making it prohibitively difficult to do any research on the subject). Undoubtedly more will be discovered about the complex relationship between these languages. The unknown does add mystery and intrigue though, doesn’t it?

    ~Dorian Wacquez

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    propose him/her to go to see this website, Keep up the nice job.

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