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Kotoba Asobi: Kaibun – Learning the Japanese Style of Wordplay 1

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/19 Traditional Culture , , , , , ,

The Japanese language is a very beautiful and fun language. On the contrary though, it’s also a very difficult language for non-native speakers. A word in English can have many translations in Japanese depending on the context. Wrong pronunciation of a certain Japanese word can also mean another non-related word. A fun way to learn more about Japanese language is through Kotoba Asobi or Japanese wordplay.

kana cards

The Japanese language is a very fun language to learn. In this picture is the Moekana made by Culture Japan. It is a set of flash cards that helps in learning hiragana and basic vocabulary. (Photo by Danny Choo on Flickr)

Kotoba Asobi

Just as the versatile Japanese word for the word “play”, which is asobi (遊び), can have different meanings: from hanging out with friends to visiting a friend’s house (even if you go there for a meal or chit-chat), the Japanese language, too, can be very versatile. In this post, well introduce some of Japanese wordplays: Palindromes, tongue twisters, puns, riddles, and other games.


“Was It a Rat I Saw?” is the same sentence when spelled backwards. This type of words, phrases or sentences, as we know, is called a palindrome. In Japanese, it is called kaibun (回文, literally means spinning sentence”). Because the Japanese language is written syllabically, kaibun, unlike an English palindrome, differs when read as well as when spoken. When forming a kaibun, you may take note of the following:

  1. The topic marker wa which is spelled as the same as ha (は) can be treated as
  2. Small kana ya, yu, yo (ゃ,ゅ,ょ) are usually allowed to be interpreted as big kana や,ゆ, andよ.
  3. In classics, dakuten and handakuten (diacritic marks) are often ignored. These marks are the one you see above the syllable to change its pronunciation. (e.g. は・ば・ぱ, which is ha, ba, and pa respectively)

Here are some examples of kaibun:

  • Watashi makemashita wa. (私負けましたわ) – I have lost.
  • Takeyabu yaketa. (竹藪焼けた) – A bamboo grove has been burned.
  • Naruto wo toruna. (なるとを取るるな) – Do not take my naruto (that spiral-shaped fishcake and not that city of whirlpool)
  • Natsu made matsuna. (夏まで待つな) – Don’t wait until summer.
  • Nagaki yo no too no neburi mina mezame naminoribune no oto no yoki ka na. (長き世の 遠の眠りの 皆目覚め 波乗り船の 音の良きかな) – Everybody gets awakened from a long sleep and enjoys the sound of waves on which the boat is gliding along.
  • Yo no naka, hokahokana no yo. (世の中、ホカホカなのよ) – The world is a warm place.
  • Shinamonpan mo remon pan mo nashi. (シナモンパンもレモンパンも無し) – There is neither cinnamon bread nor lemon bread.
  • Yasui isuya. (安い椅子屋) – a cheap chair shop
  • Washi no shiwa (わしにしわ) – my wrinkles
  • Kui ni iku. (食いに行く) – go to eat

We’ll continue the other types of Japanese wordplay in our next posts.

What Japanese palindromes or kaibun do you know? Share it with us in the comments section below!


1. Playing With Words Japanese Style: Kotoba Asobi. Tofugu.

2. Kaibun. Wikipedia.

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