Monday, July 24, 2017

異世界, Isekai - Meaning in Japanese

Lately there's been a lot of isekai 異世界 anime, which are anime set in "another world," often adapted from a light novel. And you might have noticed that sekai 世界 is usually translated as "world." But is this really true? After all, the difference between isekai and sekai is a mere i. Does sekai really means "world" and isekai really means "another world"?

The answer is: sort of.

The word sekai 世界 does mean "world," but at the same time it's made out of two kanji, 世 and 界, which both also mean "world" individually. I'll explain.

The first one, 世, is usually the "world" in the sense of the society, the people currently living in the world, the current generation, and so on. It can be found in words like:
  • seken 世間
  • sedai 世代
    Generation. (this generation is too lazy!)
  • yo no naka 世の中
    In the world. In society. (for example, when you get out in the world, it won't be as kind as school was)
  • kono yo この世
    This world (of the living)
  • ano yo あの世
    That world (of the dead)

The other kanji, 界, is a suffix that very literally means a delimiting boundary, but less literally refers to all sorts of "worlds" or "realms." For example:
  • makai 魔界
    World of the demons.
    Hell. (sometimes)
  • reikai 霊界
    World of the spirits.
  • tenkai 天界
  • gyoukai 業界
    The industry.
    The business world.
  • seikai 政界
    The world of politics.
  • gakkai 学界
    The academic world.
  • kikai 棋界
    The world of shogi. (shougi 将棋)

It also shows up in some common words like genkai 限界, "limit," shikai 視界, "field of vision," and, my favourite, kekkai 結界, "barrier." (probably where Blood Blockade Battlefront's original name came from, kekkai sensen 血界戦線, but do note it uses the kanji for blood, chi 血, instead, so you could interpret it as blood-world/barrier battlefront)


So with this we can be 98% sure sekai means "world." It can also mean "global." But it does not mean "planet," that'd be hoshi 星, and it does not mean the Earth, that would be tikyuu 地球. The word sekai just means "world."

You can see this more clearly in some phrases, for example:
  • sekai wo sukuu 世界を救う
    Save the world. (generic epic anime phrase)
  • tikyuu wo sukuu 地球を救う
    Save the Earth. (exclusively a sci-fi anime phrase, also used by environmentalists probably)

Some common expressions:
  • sekai seifuku 世界征服
    World domination. (conquest, subjugation, etc.)
  • sekai ichi 世界一
    Number 1 in The World.
  • sekai-kyuu 世界急
    World Class (often shows up in sports anime)
  • sekai ga horobiru 世界が滅びる
    The world will be destroyed.
  • sekai-juu 世界中
    All around the world.
    Between everyone in the world.

aru hi totsuzen sekai ni ana ga aita, one day suddenly a hole opened in the world. Panel from the manga Sen'yuu 戦勇.

The word sekai also makes it in some anime titles.
  • Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo! この素晴らしい世界に祝福を!
    Blessings For This Wonderful World
  • Shinsekai Yori 新世界より
    From The New World
  • Kami nomi zo Shiru Sekai 神のみぞ知るセカイ
    The World God Only Knows


Ok, but what about isekai 異世界? Does it really mean "another world"?

Technically, no.

The exact translation for isekai 異世界 would be a "different world," not just "another world." Now this might sound like a very stupid differentiation because normally when you say "another world" what you mean is, obviously, a "different world." You don't go to another world that's exact the same thing as the world you were before. That'd be pointless.

It just happens that in English people prefer to say "another world" instead of the more correct "different world." You could for example be travelling on your spaceship and then you visit one world, another world, and another world, and so on. That is not a case where isekai 異世界 would be the correct word, is what I'm trying to say.

Basically, the word isekai 異世界 refers to one sekai that differs from another sekai. And the differs part is important because that's what kotonaru 異なる means, "to differ." Yep, that's right. That lone i 異 kanji that was the difference between isekai, "another world," and sekai, just "world," meant "to differ," that's how such a single letter made such a big difference.

And since we are talking about differences anyway, the difference between this i 異 and the world chigau 違う is that chigau 違う is for any sort of difference, while i 異 is usually about how one thing simply is not the other thing. For example:
  • ijou 異常
    Abnormal. (seijou 正常 means "normal," "proper")
  • igi 異議
    OBJECTION!!! (seigi 正義 means "justice," "right")
  • iron 異論
    Differing argument. (seiron 正論 is an argument that sounds right)
  • iken 異見
    Different opinion. (iken 意見 means "opinion," and yes, it's a homonym)

So now you know what the new word that came with the trash harem anime fad of "another world" stories mean. (I'm joking. Not all isekai anime are trash harem. Only most of them.) Anyway, it's hard to ignore this word when it keeps showing in titles of anime now. Titles like:
  • re: zero kara hajimeru isekai seikatsu Re:ゼロから始める異世界生活
    Starting Life in a Different World from Zero.
  • isekai shokudou 異世界食堂
    Restaurant of a Different World
  • isekai wa sumaatofon to tomo ni. 異世界はスマートフォンとともに。
    For a Different World It's Together With a Smartphone (same sense as "for vanilla ice cream its strawberry syrup," implying what's better for one thing, in this case, isekai is better with smartphones)
    (also this anime is trash. It's pure trash. It's garbage. Don't watch it.)

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