9 Japanese Mistakes Foreigners Make That Result In Ridiculous Misunderstanding

No matter how good you are, or think you are, mistakes are inevitable. Most mistakes are harmless to whatever situation you are in… usually. There are some mistakes though (the legendary foreigner bloopers), that cause all kinds of surprise, laughter, and possibly anger.

9 Japanese Mistakes Foreigners Make that Result In Ridiculous Misunderstanding

What could you possibly do that would cause so many problems? Well…

9. 怖い(こわい-scary) vs 可愛い(かわいい-cute)

There is no better compliment than to call someone scary!

8. 可愛い (かわいい – cute) vs 可哀相 (かわいそう – sad, pathetic, someone unfortunate to sympathize with)

While we’re on the topic of “cute,” in the beginning when people learn the grammar 〜そう to mean “looks ___,” they think it is okay to combine that with かわいい (it’s not).

The result “かわいそう” or thinking incorrectly “looks cute,” when かわいそう actually means “how sad” or “how pathetic.”

7. 芸 (げい – art, performance, [magic] trick) vs. ゲイ (gay, homosexual)

What makes this so funny is that it can make you think that everyone in the Japanese entertainment world is gay. I was once asked what I interpreted to be “how do you like his gay?”

My response: “Umm sure, it’s just fine.”

6. 起こす(おこす – wake up) vs 犯す(おかす molest, sexually ravage)

Words can be dangerous…

5. いっぱい (a lot) vs. おっぱい(breasts)

Very dangerous.

Worst blunder: combine with (ほしい – want)

4. 人参 – (にんじん – carrot) vs. 人間 (にんげん – person, human)

What do you want to eat again?

3. 給料(きゅうりょう – salary) vs 恐竜(きょうりゅう – dinosaur)

Everyone wants and needs a bigger dinosaur.

2. 運行(うんこう – [bus, train] service) vs うんこ(poop)

Add a 中(ちゅう) at the end and either a train is in service or you are in the middle of pooping. Excellent.

1. 座る(すわる – sit) vs 触る(さわる – touch)

The best situation arises when you use the “please” form or “please let me” form.

Have you made any of these mistakes?

9 Japanese Mistakes Foreigners Make that Result In Ridiculous Misunderstanding 2

Tell your story of what happened. Or do you have your own different mistake that resulted in an amusing predicament?

Just to add my own, a long time ago I once ordered a hamburger and said “レタスとピックルスだけ – only lettuce and pickles.” I was quite surprised when I took a bite into that hamburger and found something was missing… the meat. There were only lettuce and pickles wedged between the bun. I learned quickly to use 抜き (ぬき-without) instead!

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


9 Japanese Mistakes Foreigners Make That Result In Ridiculous Misunderstanding — 35 Comments

  1. Your story reminds me of Good Burger (^_^) Hehehe. 無し can also be used in place of 抜き.

    I tend to mix up the pronunciation of 座る and 触る. Not that I don’t know the differences, I just fumble over differentiating them! Makes it tough when you’re trying to tell as kid 座って or 触っちゃだめ. When you’re on the spot it can just come out wrong. I should practice at home!

    Pronunciation is so important! You might just think, I just missed one syllable, but it makes a world of a difference. My first time babysitting a half Japanese girl, I asked her if she was thirsty, but was saying かわった instead of かわいた and she had no idea what I was saying, obviously, until I finally remembered how to say it right. Big lesson there.

    • I was also surprised how おっぱい isn’t that big of a deal to say in Japan (at least in childcare) than it is in America! The word’s in lullabies and everything, since it refers to breastfeeding.

  2. Tim Ferriss has a funny story about #6. In an interview he said that on his first night with the family that hosted him in Japan, he asked the mother if she would sexually ravage him at 6 o’clock the next morning.

    • Yeah I also remember 作る, 使う also getting mixed up for myself as well.

      3 (恐竜 vs 給料) always interested me, because it is an entire switch of the word (as opposed to just one sound), yet still was always a problem.

  3. If かわいそう has a negative connotation, what would be the correct way of saying “X seems cute”?

    • If you think about how that grammar is used, I’m not sure you’d need to.
      美味しそう (“[That] looks [like it would be] delicious [if I were to eat it]!”)
      難しそう (“[That] seems [like it would be] difficult [if one were to attempt it]”)

      You’re basically using this in the case where you want to express what you imagine something would be like based on a limited observation.

      It’s hard to think of a situation where you’d need to do that for かわいい, you know? You observe something, and it’s either cute or it’s not. There’s not really a point where you need to conduct further investigation to be sure >_>

      Of course, there might still be a (hypothetical) valid way to say it. Maybe Adam knows? XD

      • I said this in my longer comment, but I have actually heard a couple of Japanese people using かわいそう in that way. The example that I can remember is talking about a mutual friend who was pregnant, and seeing as our mutual friend is pretty good looking my friend was imagining what the baby would be like when it was born and she said it would be かわいそう. I actually thought that she meant the other meaning and questioned her about it, but apparently she wasn’t being randomly mean about our friend’s unborn child! Hehe.

        So I think you could potentially maybe use it if you have really obvious context for it and nobody is going to question you about your use of it, but to be honest she could easily have said 「絶対かわいいよね」or something and avoided the problem all together. And as my friend would happily point out about herself, 国語 isn’t really her strong suit so it might just be that she uses Japanese slightly weirdly sometimes (as some native English speakers do!)

        So maybe it’s best to avoid it yourself, but bear in mind that some people might use it, so pay attention to context (which you always have to do with Japanese anyway!).

        • Hmm, that still felt awkward (違和感!) so I did some research. Grammatically it isn’t wrong (as 可哀想 stems from 可愛い anyway). The consensus seems to be there are better ways to say it, and that most Japanese people wouldn’t use かわいそう.

          The most common phrase for imagining something would be cute (for example, a baby about to be born), would be something like 絶対に可愛いよね! like you said.

          Wiki also has a an interesting explanation of using かわゆそう instead:


          Thanks for adding in your input on this!

    • Matt’s explanation is spot on.

      And just to add, another linked common mistake is that people then think 可愛らしい (かわいらしい) is a way around this using the ~らしい (seems, looks like) instead. However, 可愛らしい, while having some similarities, is also a different meaning.

      Also might want to check out this article for a little more background:


    • You’ll have more fun if you do! Sometimes it’s these embarrassing situations that forever ingrain these words in your mind.

  4. I always thought that 8 was a definite mistake, but I have heard some of my Japanese friends use かわいそう to mean it looks cute (or in this case it was more like imagining that something would be cute), and when I questioned them about it they said that it was obvious from the context so… I think it’s probably still better to avoid it, but it does occasionally get used by native speakers out in the wild.

    I have made the 座る・触る mistake WAY too many times when speaking. I know the difference between them, just sometimes the wrong one comes out!

    The funniest mistake story I have isn’t a mistake that I made, but that one of my friends made while talking about me. When I was studying abroad in Japan, I got really sick for a month and a half or so, so she wanted to tell one of our friends that I wasn’t at university because I was sick, but she said “ムラムラ” instead of “ムカムカ”. So told my friend that I hadn’t come to university because I was horny. Hehe. Although I’m not sure that ムカムカ would have been the most appropriate way to say it either.

    • Oh and I just remembered an opposite example with my Japanese friend who was studying in the UK. She went for a walk in the countryside near my university town with a boy that she liked, and they both got covered in mud so she said “We’re a very dirty couple aren’t we!” to him… Apparently he got really flustered and didn’t entirely know how to react, hehe.

  5. This article gave me enough material for the next FaceExchange. I though of my own scenarios for most of these. I hope they’ll like it.

  6. Here are my notes, hope I can make them laugh. I want to mimic Nakai-san from Utaban when I talk:
    Foriegner Mistakes:
    A. それを読んで「なんか、外人の間違いは天才的ですね。www。」と思った。 でも、ありますよね。勉強している方は間違えをするのが怖いですけど、ちょっと変な外人になってもいいじゃないですか。過ぎは何言うか分からない、そ言う人は面白いでしょう。
    1. 怖い(こわい-scary) vs 可愛い(かわいい-cute)
    2. 可愛い (かわいい – cute) vs 可哀相 (かわいそう – sad, pathetic,
    B. 座る(すわる – sit) vs 触る(さわる – touch)
    C. 給料(きゅうりょう – salary) vs 恐竜(きょうりゅう – dinosaur)
    なんか友達と話すとき、「いや、今の仕事 きょうりゅうは少ない。」
    D. いっぱい (a lot) vs. おっぱい(breasts)

  7. I remember #8 well. When I first came to Japan I didn’t know any Japanese. The first few months here I didn’t have much free time to study so I just relied on what I could figure out. I heard both 可愛い and 可哀相 a lot, but my listening comp wasn’t nearly enough to figure either out. I was eventually able to figure out that 可愛い meant cute (which I didn’t know. I wasn’t an anime fan so I had no exposure to this); I was told some grammar and combining the two I guessed 可哀相 meant “looks cute”. Luckily I didn’t say anything!

    A few months later (after having started studying and learning the real meaning of 可哀相) I caught Chicken Pox. (Yeah, I survived 30+ years in America without ever catching the virus, but here in Japan few months and I get it. Tough luck.) Anyway, for some reason I was sitting in my work office with these pox all over my body. I honestly forget why I was there (this episode was 10 years ago) but I do remember everyone was looking at me and the room was filled with many a 可哀相. Another gaijin waked in, listened for a few minutes, and then loudly announced “Why are all of you saying he looks so cute?? Look at the poor man: he’s not cute, he’s in piss poor shape”

    heh. Easy mistake for beginners.

    • Haha that’s a great story. I bet he never forgot the difference between the two words after that! I wonder if up until he said that, in his mind he was computing “hmm, so in Japan chicken pox are cute…?”

  8. Just remembered a fun one to add here.

    Back when I was still taking Japanese in college, we’d just gotten back from winter break, and were asked to talk about what we did during that time. A classmate decided to talk about his family trip. However, he slipped up on the word for ‘family’ (家族・かぞく), and accidentally said that he went on a trip with ‘pirates’ (海賊・かいぞく).

    I guess if you’re not careful, you can unintentionally make your life sound more exciting than it really is XD

    • I was just about to mention this! My sister-in-law’s Egyptian husband is a huge One Piece fan, and mentioned how in his Japanese class people would mix up かいぞく and かぞく. Hehe. Seems like it’s a common mistake.

  9. Friendly tip: Don’t confuse ごみ (garbage) and ゴム (rubber). They don’t tend to mix well…

    [For example, when discussing why you’re not that fond of octopus/たこ…not that I’d know… Not that I would confuse this today while at lunch with four of my seniors! haha! Luckily, one of them understood what I meant and saved me by explaining that I meant octopus is chewy like rubber,…not chewy like garbage. #^_^# Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a hole that’s calling my name.]

  10. The anime うさぎドロップ has a cute little joke: 電車がうんこしてる, so no one should feel bad. Kids learn from mistakes too!

    I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I once tried to ask if batteries were included with an artsy camera I wanted to buy. Maybe I called the batteries でんき? Maybe I used the wrong form of 入る? 嫌だった!もう覚えたくない!>< The clerk understood and answered me, but I never went back, and no one knew me, but it still haunts my memory ;_; pain.

  11. When I worked as an ALT in Japan, I learned that I had to work hard to clearly pronounce 婚約、 lest it sound like こんにゃく… u_u

  12. My Japanese teacher could never seem to figure out why students mixed up おてら (お寺) and おてあらい (お手洗い). I think they’re pretty similar!

    Does かわいいそう (have heard is cute) have the same problem?

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