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July 21, 2010 / Katie

emergency exit

非常口 [fēi chǎng kǒu]: 1. super exit! 2. emergency exit in Japanese

Sitting in Decibel one night–a trendy yet low-key sake bar hidden away in a basement space in the East Village–philosophizing with a friend on happiness, human relationships, and the tale of the daoist butcher, I suddenly laughed out loud when I noticed these three characters on the emergency exit door, lit up in red neon: 非常口

Could it be that the words for emergency exit in Japanese translated as “super exit”? Luckily, that particular friend knows more Chinese and Japanese than I will ever aspire to know and explained that it was not really “super exit” in Japanese, although it certainly looked that way in Chinese.

If you are not a sinophile, a short explanation is in order. The Japanese language borrows heavily from Chinese, using many of its characters or, as they are called in Japanese, kanji; however, the meaning signified by kanji in Japanese is often different than the original Chinese. In addition to this set of Chinese characters, Japanese also has its own alphabet.

“Emergency exit” in Japanese is written in kanji, which is why I was able to read it–except that it doesn’t quite make sense in Chinese. Kǒu, represented by the mouth radical that looks like a box, means “exit” or “opening,” while fēichǎng means “very” or “exceptional.” When you put the two together, you get something very literal-minded like “very exit” or “exceptional opening.” But of course, with a bit of editorial flair, this easily translates to the exceptionally cute, SUPER EXIT!


Leave a Comment
  1. Lee / Aug 13 2010 4:11 pm

    One thing I find interesting is the number of words Chinese borrows from Japanese. I ran across an exhaustive list that I can’t find now, but a few I recall are economic and political terms such as 政府 and 经济 and 民主.

  2. Katie / Aug 13 2010 6:20 pm

    Huh, fascinating. I had no idea Chinese borrowed some words from Japanese. I’d love to see the list if you ever come across it again.

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