Wednesday, December 27, 2017


The Japanese language is full of homonyms, and if you're planning on learning Japanese, or at least understand what characters are saying in anime, then you got to know what homonyms are, and what are homophones and homographs.


Basically, a homonym is a word that's not synonym with another word but is homograph or homophone with it. In other words: a homonym doesn't have the same meaning, but is written or pronounced the same way.


A homophone happens when two words pronounced the same way. Japanese is full of these.

English Homophones

In English, the most infamous homophones ever, the priority of the grammar nazi mantra, are:
  • there
  • their
  • they're.

—these three words, despite being pronounced the same way, are written differently. They are homophones.

Japanese Homophones

In Japanese, homophones are far, far, far, far more common. Ridiculously more common.

The reason for this is simply that Japanese has fewer sounds than English, so the chance of two words sharing exactly the same sound is higher. It's also an extremely regular language, so it favors certain syllable patterns more than others, leading to even more homophones.


In writing, the ambiguity of homophones is often fixed. This happens because Japanese writing has the kanji, and lots of kanji have meanings associated with them, so two words of different meanings get written with different kanji even if they're pronounced the same.

For example, sanka 参加, "participation," and sanka 酸化, "oxidation." These words are pronounced exactly the same, but because they're written with different kanji, a reader would easily be able to tell one apart from the other.

On top of that, Japanese has multiple alphabets, so not all words are written with kanji, some are written with kana, and that makes telling a word apart from the other even easier.

Examples of Homophones

A couple of examples of homophones, for reference:
  • kanji 漢字 and kanji 感じ
    "Chinese characters" and "feeling."
  • shibou 死亡, and shibou 脂肪, and shibou 志望
    "Death," and "grease," and "ambition."
  • chichi and chichi
    "Father" and "[breast] milk" or "breasts."
  • hentai 変態 and hentai 変体
    "Pervert" and "alteration of body."
  • jojoni 徐々に and JoJo ni ジョジョに
    "Gradually" and "to JoJo."

Sometimes, a homophone looks like it's the same word written with a different kanji. These are a bit dangerous since these words are very similar and it's easy to mistake one for the other.
  • hayai 早い and hayai 速い
    "Early" and "fast."
  • atsui 暑い and atsui 熱い
    "Hot weather" and "hot object."
  • mono 物 and mono
    "Thing" and "person."

Not Homophones

I want to note that, if you don't speak or listen to Japanese, you're only used to reading Japanese, you might end up thinking something is a homophone when it's in fact not.

This happens when two words have different pitch accents, so they are pronounced differently. But this pitch accent thing doesn't show in the kana. For example, the following words are heterophonic:
  • nihon 日本, (にほん)
  • nihon 二本, (にほん)
    Two cylindrical things.

This is because, despite the reading of both words being nihon にほん, as shown in the furigana, the words are pronounced with different pitch accents.

So they are not homophones, because they are pronounced differently, but they may be homographs if they're written the same, which they are not, at least not in actual Japanese, but they are written the same in romaji.

The most widely used romaji system to transliterate Japanese words, Hepburn, transliterates only the kana and not the actual pronunciation of the word. So if the kana is the same, the romaji is written the same, hence the words become homographs in romaji.

Not Even Homographs

Note, however, that in some romaji systems, such as JSL, words with different pronunciation are romanized differently. That means even if the reading of the word is the same in Japanese they wouldn't necessarily be homographs in JSL romaji. For example:
  • nihôn̄ 日本
  • níhon̄ 二本

As you can see above, JSL romaji puts accents on the words according to the pronunciation, so they are not romaji homographs any longer.


A homograph happens when two words are written the same way. This is rather hard to happen in Japanese when kanji is involved,

Examples of Homographs

In Japanese, there are many kanji that represent a word when written alone, but it's rare for a same kanji to represent multiple words. A good example of when such rarity happens is this:
  • kane
  • kin

As one would expect, if two words are written the same but pronounced differently, they're heterophones, that means the reading of the kanji varies.

Another example:
  • getsu
  • tsuki

The above concepts are somewhat related, I guess, but it's still different words written with the same kanji.

Another time example:
  • ichinichi 一日
    One day. First day of the month.
  • tsuitachi 一日
    First day (of the month).

Above, both words are extremely similar, but only ichinichi can mean "one day." The word tsuitachi always means "first day (of the month)".

Another case where time becomes ambiguous is in the words for the weekdays in Japanese. Because they are often abbreviated. For example, doyoubi 土曜日 is "Saturday," but it can be written as a simple do 土, in which case it becomes an homograph with the word tsuchi 土, "soil."

In many cases, a kanji used for a noun is also used as suffix. For example:

The above is one of the most confusing kanji for beginners, and it's easy to see why: they are both extremely common words. One is used to say "you" in Japanese, the other is regularly added after people's and characters' names.

True Homonyms

For most people, a homonym must be either a homograph or a homophone. This means a homonym might be a homograph heterophone, same spelling, different pronunciation, or a homophone heterograph, same pronunciation, different spelling. For a few people, though, a homonym is a word that must be both homograph and a homophone at the same time.

This sort of "true homonyms" are more common in Japanese than heterophone homographs (pronounced differently, written the same). This happens because of words loaned from English and other western languages, the so-called gairaigo 外来語.

When these foreign words get imported into Japanese, they undergo a type of transliteration called katakanization, they get written with katakana, but as I have mentioned before, Japanese has fewer sounds than English, so words that are pronounced differently in English may end up being katakanized the same, written with the same katakana, and, thus, pronounced the same way.


There are countless examples of this, specially in shorter words, because you can literally import the entire English lexicon into Japanese.
  • basu バス
  • basu バス
  • basu バス
  • fooku フォーク
  • fooku フォーク
    Folk. Folk song.
  • naito ナイト
  • naito ナイト

How to Tell Homonyms Apart

Given that homonyms are so common in the Japanese language, beginners will often ask: how do you know when this means this word or this word? And the answer is always the same: trust the context.

When the pronunciation is the same, it's impossible to differentiate two homophones by ear, because they are pronounced literally the same. But you can make a good guess assuming someone is talking about a "feeling," kanji 感じ, they felt, and not the "Chinese characters," kanji 漢字, that they felt.

Likewise, homographs, written the same, can't be told apart when reading, specially not if there's no furigana. However, unless you've been teleported to an isekai where people still use gold as a currency, it's very easy to tell when someone is talking about "money," kane 金, and when they're talking about actual "gold," kin 金.

Wordplay Usage

The Japanese homonyms are not always just a confusing mess. They're sometimes fun, too. Manga and anime often make puns, wordplays, and other TL-Note-warranting jokes using them, some of which only show up in the manga version.

Titles of Anime

A couple of titles of anime are homonyms with a second meaning.

For example, the following titles are plays on katakanizations of English words:
  • Saiko Pasu サイコパス
  • saikopasu サイコパス
  • Desu Pareedo デス・パレード
    Death Parade.
  • desupareedo デスパレード
  • to-rabu-ru To LOVEる
    to-rabu-ru とらぶる
    To Love-Ru.
    • In Japanese, ru る is a common ending of verbs, often added to made-up verbs.
    • guguru ググる, "to google."
    • So to-rabu-ru means "to 'to LOVE'," literally.
  • toraburu トラブル
  • goshikku ゴシック
  • goshikku ゴシック
  • Panchi Rain パンチライン
    Punch Line.
  • panthii rain パンティーライン
    Panty line.
  • kiru-ra-kiru キルラキル
    Kill la Kill
    • The word kiru can be 3 different things, so this title can mean 9 different things.
    • kiru キル
    • kiru 着る
      To wear.
    • kiru 切る
      To cut.
    • Note that "kill" is a katakanization, "to wear" is an ichidan verb (becomes kita 着た in the past,) and "to cut" is a godan verb (becomes kitta 切った in the past.)
  • Zombirando Saga ゾンビランドサガ
    Zombieland Saga.
    • A saga is "a long story of heroic achievement." [saga -, 2018-12-31]
    • But in this anime, saga also has a completely different meaning.
    • Saga-ken 佐賀県
      Saga Prefecture. (where the anime takes place.)

The titles of the monogatari series can be interpreted as if it fused the word monogatari with another word through the mono 物 part.
  • Bakemonogatari 化物語
    • bakemono 化物
    • monogatari 物語
  • Nisemonogatari 偽物語
    • nisemono 偽物


One use of homonyms like this is in the names of stuff. Sometimes manga will use gikun 儀訓 readings to add an extra layer of meaning to names, homophones are the less forceful version of that.

An example of this is in the manga School Rumble. The character Tenma falls in love with is called Ooji Karasuma 大路烏丸, probably hinting to the word "prince," ouji 王子. The cousin of Harima Kenji is called Itoko 絃子, which is literally the word for "cousin" in Japanese: itoko イトコ.

Love Carp

A certain repeating pun found in romcom series includes the homonymous words koi 恋, "love," and koi 鯉, "carp," which are such totally different things you'd imagine a chance for this pun to be made can't possibly exist, but love carp nature the author, uh, finds a way.

A pun on the Japanese words koi, "love," and koi, "carp," in the manga School Rumble: Tenma sees her sister make an extra school lunch, thinks it's for a guy her sister likes, when... neko no obentou!? "A cat's lunch!?" Zettai koi dato omotta no ni~~ "But I thought for sure it was love~~" Koi...? neko da yo. "Carp...? it's a cat."

Of course, sometimes something more instant, with less setup for the punchline, works too, like how it was done in Hayate no Gotoku! ハヤテのごとく!.

Character Hinagiku Katsura 桂ヒナギク from the anime Hayate no Gotoku!! ハヤテのごとく!! punching a carp, or koi fish, because of a pun with the word love in Japanese

One Hell of a Butler

Sometimes a series will make a certain Japanese-text-only pun kind of a big deal, to the horror and suffering of translators worldwide, which are forced to come up with creative ways to translate those punny lines in a way a non-Japanese-speaker can understand fearing waves of addicted fans that would blame them for butchering the series should they ever fail.

One great example of this is the iconic translated phrase "I'm one hell of a butler, you see," from manga and anime "Black Butler," Kuroshitsuji 黒執事. In the series, Sebastian, the demon-butler, says akumade shitsuji あくまで執事, "simply a butler," when he's actin as butler, and akuma de shitsuji 悪魔で執事, "demon and butler," or "being a butler [whilst] demon," when he is acting as a demon.

"I'm simply one hell of a butler," explanation of the phrase in Japanese, from manga Black Butler / Kuroshitsuji 黒執事. The akumade shitsuji desu kara あくまで執事ですから means "I'm simply a butler." While akuma de shitsuji desu kara 悪魔で執事ですから means "I'm a demon and butler."


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  1. The problem starts with homophones like these:

  2. A great read even after studying Japanese for 10 years and achieving N1 these still confuse me haha. Thank you for taking the time to write this.