Using Japanese terms when you don't know what they mean

    Keywords: Go term

SAS: Using Japanese terms when you don't know what they mean is a bad habit, particularly when you're writing in English and there is a perfectly good English term you could have used instead. I've just gone through and fixed all the misuse of kata that I could find. Misuse of nakade is so prevalent in Sensei's Library that it would be a brave person indeed who decides to tackle it. And sen means "tournament", not "title match".

SAS: I think I've mostly fixed the nakade stuff now.
DaveSigaty: Within this [ext] RGG thread you can see Bill beat me up several years ago on the grammar of nakade. However, stubborn person that I am, I still do not think that being 'correct' is being 'right' :-) It seems to me that by 'fixing' the use of the term nakade, we substitute implicitly something like 'big eye shapes that can be reduced to a single eye by a nakade'. I think that the common use of nakade in English to mean both the moves and the vulnerable shapes is far more sensible.
SAS: But "nakade" when referring to a shape means the shape after the nakade has been played. This is not how it was being used in the articles I fixed.
Bill: Dave, I apologize. :-)

Stefan: Well, brave or not - if you see stuff that you think is wrong, fixing it one item at a time would be much appreciated.

On a more general level, I think you see a bad habit where there isn't one. There is a difference between ignorance and a bad habit. People don't use these terms while they don't know what they mean. They use them while they think they do, i.e. with good intentions. Who was it again who told us that you don't know what you don't know? But leave it in the list. You and I are probably just disagreeing on definition, and the remedy is the same as for the other habits anyway: education.

On yet another note, as happens often, you seem to forget that not everybody in the world is a native speaker in English. For a majority of us both the Japanese AND the 'perfectly good English term' are foreign and new. In that respect, I personally prefer learning the Japanese term. I consider these more universal from a go point of view, and therefore more useful for communication in the field. In my own country, for example, which has three official languages.

SAS: Putting this under bad habits was sort of a joke. I didn't know where else to put it.

I certainly didn't forget that not everyone in the world is a native English speaker, but I was talking about go terms used when writing in English. (I didn't state this explicitly because I thought it was obvious from context. I've inserted a few extra words to make it clear now.) It's reasonable to suppose that someone reading or writing English has some knowledge of English, but whether they have any knowledge of Japanese is another matter.

As for Japanese go terms being more universal, this may be true, but isn't really a consideration when writing in English. (I wouldn't expect someone writing in Dutch to put all the go terms in Japanese just to make it easier for non-Dutch speakers to understand them.)

Some comments:

It's reasonable to suppose that someone reading or writing
English has some knowledge of English, but whether they have
any knowledge of Japanese is another matter.

We're not merely writing in English, we write about Go and use English because it is a/the international language. Writing about Go, it makes sense to use Go terminology, and for historical reasons the Japanese have become widely accepted.

Stefan meant that the likelihood of misusing Japanese Go terms is not that much greater than the likelihood of violating English. In fact, I'm sure we do this all the time.

When you enter a martial arts school (Aikido, Judo and the likes), you will also learn a lot of Japanese words. I think this is very charming and is also more likely to put you in the proper state of mind. Language and culture are tightly linked. Maybe Chinese and Korean have had the time to develop alternatives for the Japanese terminology but English certainly hasn't.

I'm sure you can do without this disclosure, yet I want to emphasize how I appreciate your efforts on SL. --Dieter

I agree with Dieter. It's as simple as this: everything has its own jargon which makes communication between peers easier and harder to get into for laymen. I know some go terms in dutch, but I wouldn't be sure how that go term would be called in other languages.

I think most people use terms like 'atari' and 'ko' without knowing what it means in japanese, but it's a hell of a lot easier than using translations of those terms, since the terms have meaning for every go player. For that matter, it could've been korean or russian or whatever.

Jargon is a blessing, since it provides a common terminology for all languages to use.

SAS wrote:

(I wouldn't expect someone writing in Dutch to put all the go terms in Japanese just to make it easier for non-Dutch speakers to understand them.)

I wouldn't expect someone writing in English (native or not) to use go-terms that are only used in English speaking countries, because then I'd have to know about English go terms, German go terms in German texts, French go terms, etc. UNLESS they are primarily meant for people coming from those countries.

If the text is meant for international readers, they should also use the international go terms, which so happens to be japanese. --ElDraco


I think we may be talking at cross-purposes here. People using common go terms like "ko" and "atari" do know what they mean as applied to go, so this isn't a problem. Moreover, there are no good English alternatives to these words. Similarly for "hane", "seki", "kyu", "dan", "joseki", "komi", etc.

But English-language go books overwhelmingly use "invasion" rather than "uchikomi", "leaning attack" rather than "motare", "pincer" rather than "hasami" or "-basami", "tournament" rather than "sen", "placement" rather than "oki", "handicap go" rather than "oki-go", "shape" or "good shape" rather than "katachi", "shoulder hit" rather than "kata-tsuki", etc., etc. Therefore I simply do not understand Dieter's claim that English hasn't had time to develop alternatives to Japanese terminology. Nor do I understand why people want English-language pages on Sensei's Library to use different terminology than English-language go books generally use.

Dieter: Hm, I agree with you SAS. Thanks to have taken the time to clarify with some examples.

Mike Kaulbars: It seems to me everyone makes good points, hence a difficult situation. Many fields have gone through this period where something has gone international and there is a need to standardize terms in order to be able to communicate. Ideally some appropriate body wrestles with all of these considerations and designates the "offical" terms which are then the standard.

In the meantime is there any reason not to suggest certain conventions on SL? Perhaps using the GoTerms page as a place to indicate the preferred term for use on SL, as well as insisting that all terms used anywhere on SL appear on the GoTerms page? I would find that helpful, although I don't know how those decisions might be made or by whom.

Regardless, thank you all for thoughtful and helpful discussions, here and throughout SL. It is much appreciated.

ElDraco: SAS, I agree with the first part, but there is still a difference between english language books and english language pages. English language literature isn't meant to be international (with some exceptions), so your comparison to english literature is not valid.

Anyway, I don't mind as long as people don't get it into their heads to translate something as 'ko' and yell 'eternity' (or 'eeuwigheid' or 'Ewigkeit' or 'eternite'), which is a perfectly understandable english word. But I think we all agree on this point.

Mike, I doubt if some international standard would be useful, since everyone will be using their own language anyway. Though it would be useful to agree to some standard on SL. It would be a shame if you couldn't find a page just because it's the english term (you don't know about) and you were looking for a japanese term. Even more a shame if you went ahead and created a whole new page for that term.

Mike Kaulbars: El Draco. True, but the setting of Intl standards tends to have the following consequences. Once there is a set of standards, national and local folks all create synonym sources so that people know what the regional synonym is. These synonym sources introduce precision; eg tfdr = tesuji, not "a concept sort of like tesuji but not exactly the same, and overlapping some other concept".

The standard term then becomes your most searchable item because, if nothing else, you will at least find the synonym source which means you can always equate 'your term' = 'standard term' =' local term'. It really does help.

As I said, many fields have gone through this for centuries, from biology (which chose Latin standards for species names) to computing (which has largely defaulted to english).

Regardless, for those who do know what they are talking about (not me), making a consistent practice of putting synonyms in the GoTerms as well as definitions would help address the problem of correct usage and finding things. --Mike


There are many problems with adaptation of terminology. To many players the moves described in Japanese as "hane" and (sometimes) "osae" look the same but there are subtle differences in meaning. Likewise "kosumi" is often replaced in English by "diagonal" and the one-space nature of kosumi is lost. The Japanese terms have precise meanings which the English versions sometimes don't capture. Another example is the use of "stalemate" for "seki". Stalemate is borrowed from chess but in go a seki is not a stalemate. In chess there is no legal move for a stalemated player while legal moves are possible in a seki but no one wants to make them. I guess my real point is to advocate clarity and precision of meaning. Replacing a concise and clear Japanese (or Korean or Chinese) term by an imprecise term or a phrase that is too long doesn't help anyone.

I think Japanese terminology for go became adopted in the West because we learned the game first from Japanese teachers. You don't have to know a lot of Japanese aside from go terminology to communicate with a Japanese teacher.

Bill: I have already expressed myself on go terminology. I am, as many people know, something of a purist. ;-)
I just want to second the motion that stalemate is a crummy substitute for seki. If you want to use a chess term, mutual zugzwang is closer (and such positions exist). But hey, what's wrong with seki? :-)

John Fairbairn This is one of those fascinating but endless debates that are best enjoyed down the pub. There are no definitive answers but lots of questions and even more opinions. Apart from the above I'll toss into the mix the following:

1. We now have Chinese and Korean words on tap. We can either say they just add to the confusion or we can welcome new concepts not in Japanese (e.g.haengma, and lots of Chinese proverbs).

2. The remarks here are addressed to people who have already welcomed/overcome/ignored the issue of Japanese terms. We must not forget the many people said to have avoided playing go because it has so much Japanese jargon (I believe the BGA did proper opinion poll research on this many years ago and found a split down the middle between people who enjoyed go because of Japanese and people who refused to play because of Japanese - the war was fresher then, of course; but shogi has encountered similar problems in recent times).

3. A lot of problems are caused by people who know some Japanese but not quite enough to be accurate. The problem may be shallow knowledge (thinking ko means eternity; that's only in Buddhism - in go it means threat as it's from Chinese). It may be choosing a translation that works in the present context but being unaware it can be used with different meanings or nuances elsewhere. A pernicious problem is not being aware of the highly elliptical nature of Japanese. Add to this the difficulty of coming up with a readable translation and the temptation for the translator to sacrifice accuracy for readability (we've all done it). The end result is a hodgepodge of meaning from which people feel free to take whatever bits they like. In the circumstances I'm always more surprised by how close English meanings stay to the Japanese than how far they have drifted.

4. It may be worth recognising that there is a lot of passion about. Any proposals to do something about the issue must include being prepared to cope with this. I have had innumerable letters and e-mails out of the blue about terminology and what is common to virtually every one is that they are highly abusive. In the past I have taken a high profile on this topic, and so I have probably had far more than my fair share of abusive mail, though other go writers tell me of similar experiences. I grow tired of feeling sorry for these people so I drop away for a while. The sort of things people have abusively complained about include the use of dan; the title of Kato's book Attack and Kill (PC rules in go); the use of English; the use of Japanese; not using macrons; saying turn for hane; saying bend for hane; saying hane for hane. I do not exaggerate.

5. Some terms become accepted or mutate for non-go reasons: they sound nice; they are fitted to the native grammar; they may be used by a strong local player with a strong personality. Indeed, two clubs in adjacent cities can use quite different terminology.

I think a useful test is to try to catch what you say yourself in your own club when there is no pressure on you (and assuming you are not trying to impress anyone). Another is to listen in on conversations and see which terms cause quizzical eyebrows. I, for example, say hane, good shape (not katachi), invasion (not uchikomi), ko, fuseki, joseki, pincer (not hasami), gurugurumawashi (cos I like the sound of it), shoulder hit, moyo, erasure, nakade shape (not nakade unless I mean the move), san-san, komoku. There are some terms where I vacillate - usually depends on the audience, may depend on whether I've had a hard day at the office, e.g. yose/endgame; kakari/approach move. In some cases I vacillate but one side of the couple dominates, e.g. shimari but occasionally corner enclosure; star point but sometimes hoshi. I NEVER EVER say goban and NEVER EVER squared say sen (tournament).

Overall I'm influenced by who I'm talking to. A dan player or a foreigner is more likely to get a bigger dose of Japanese (or Japlish). In writing I'm more likely to drift towards English because I can't control who the reader will be so a lower common denominator seems appropriate.

This just proves I'm irrational and inconsistent, and probably normal.

I wouldn't, however, go so far as to say just give up and accept the hodgepodge. There is value (a) in defining existing terms more rigorously if by doing so you are adding potential insights (the current guzumi discussion might be an acceptable example); and (b) in devising English equivalents, even new ones, if you are targeting a particular audience (e.g.beginners) or broaching a new concept (e.g. some of Charles Matthews' theory discussions, or CGT). Just be prepared not to get upset if your choices don't become commonplace.

BenjaminTsai: Sometimes it's hard for me to comprehend why this would even be an issue. When writing in English about Go, there exists no advantage to adopting Japanese terms. Do people think that the Japanese language somehow had these terms defined in the precise manner they are today before the theoretical progress of Go was achieved? Of course not! Japanese terms are not inherently any more precise than English terms.

It makes the game much easier to approach when the terms are written in English. This attitude about using Japanese term is really a rather snobbish one, as if knowing the precise definition of so-and-so in Japanese will makes you a superior player. I do agree however that it has great usefulness in psychological warfare .. intimidating your opponent by the use of these strange and exotic terms. =P

Those that point to the advantage of communicating with a foreign teacher - there are now more Korean teachers than Japanese. Maybe we should all start adopting Korean terms now so that we'll have an easier time communicating with them? Why at this rate, in no time we'll all be able to take on a part time job translating! =)

Charles Matthews I believe in using English terms wherever possible (which is nearly always); and consistently with that I've been adding terms gradually to SL. That being said, John Fairbairn has made over the years a whole range of points about go terms and the way they are used and misused, and engaging in such discussions with an open mind can help one's appreciation of go as a 'traditional art'.

Bill: Benjamin, we are talking about a situation in which English terms do not, or did not, exist. In English go literature, there is no problem with using the term, invasion, rather than using the Japanese term, uchikomi. OTOH, each field has its jargon, and go has a rich vocabulary. And people will use the vocabulary that they have learned. For instance, people regularly say komi, when compensation would be quite understandable. There is no snobbery in that, just familiarity. But take the term, atari. There is no English word for that. It has sometimes been translated as check, which is, IMHO, ludicrous, exchanging one piece of jargon for another. Why not treat atari like any other word that carries a meaning? You should learn the meaning, learn the word at the same time. Why go around inventing words to convey the same meaning, or coming up with words or phrases that do *not* convey the same meaning, like check for atari, just so you can use English? Believe me, that leads to confusion.

Charles I think anyone who writes about go has to come up with some way to deal with the issue Bill raises. My solution is to use just a handful of words of Japanese origin. Most strong players know many more than that, because they are there in the English-language literature; but those for the most part ought to be phased out since English-language equivalents have been found. To some extent it's the same in music: ostinato becomes riff, and so on, and which you use depends on the audience you are addressing.

Bill: (I was writing this as Charles was posting.)
Consider the Korean term, haengma. It says on the SL page about it, "Haengma is a Korean word which means roughly the way the stones move." I could be content with the English phrase, and leave it at that. However, I know that there is much, much, more to haengma than that, and that, by studying haengma, I can learn something about go. What do I then say about that learning? "I know something about how the stones move."(?) I think that it sticks in my mind better, and is better communicated to other students of go, to say, "I know something about haengma." That's a large part of why people have jargon. In go, a good indicator of someone's strength is how much of the go vocabulary they have learned, because that means that they have learned the concepts involved. I think it is best not to consider this vocabulary as specifically Japanese, Korean, Chinese, or English, French, or Dutch, but as Go. (There are English, French, and Dutch go terms, too, BTW.)

Comments on Charles's last post:
Audience is very important. You certainly do not want to overwhelm beginners with jargon. Familiarity matters, too. Because of the company, Westerners have heard of atari.
But when Charles says that English equivalents have been found, I cringe. I cringe because many of these socalled equivalents make me cringe. Maybe it's not fair, because it's not really an equivalent, but Focal Point is a good example of why I cringe. I am assured that the term is well established. But dammit, it's not the focal point of anything! I have taught people about the importance of such points, but I always said that they were on the frontier, or extended the boundary between moyo. A frontier is not a focus. Grrrr%%% We are talking about language usage and change, and that's an evolutionary process. I would be quite happy to see some of these English renderings die off, to join upper hand (a translation of sente) in the Happy Hunting Ground. (OTOH, I am quite happy with the German equivalent for sente, Vorhand.)

Benjamin Geiger: I sometimes use 'the initiative' for 'sente'. Conversely, though, I've used 'sente' when playing chess...

Bill: Charles's analogy to music is a good one. When I was studying music, I knew that much of the vocabulary *came from* (not *was*) Italian. So what? Yes, you can render crescendo as increase in volume. But why?
OT, but worth a laugh, perhaps. In the 70s there was a good bit of experimentation with music scores. In a book about experimental scores I saw one that, in the place where you usually see a term like adagio or allegretto, had Morton Feldman. I thought that was wonderful: "Play in the manner of Morton Feldman."
It turns out that Morton Feldman was the composer. ;-)

George Caplan I really like the comments on this page, and agree with many of them. Since I am old enough to have learned from the Japanese sources, I find the Japanese terms useful when they summarize a multi-word English concept in one term. In fact, I have had strong Chinese friends of mine claim that it is easier to learn go (wei chi) in Chinese because the terms are even more useful.

However, this discussion does belong in the "bad habit" category in two respects. The snobbery factor of dropping Japanese terms in kibitzing and then refusing to explain to weaker folks is perhaps the most annoying example. The other is the use of terms with perfectly good translations. The best example of this is the sudden Hikaru related appearance of "moku" everywhere, when "point" does the job quite nicely. Played go for 20 years, and a bit of a terminology snob myself, and never heard that word until Hikaru. please help us edit this.

See Also

Japlish page for examples.

Using Japanese terms when you don't know what they mean last edited by hnishy on November 2, 2022 - 02:16
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