“How do you say ‘mochi’ in English?” a student asked me. “You can just say ‘mochi’,” I said, “there’s no English word for ‘mochi’ so we can use Japanese, just like sushi.” The JTE rushed over to intercept the conversation. “’Mochi’ in English is ‘rice cake’!” she insisted emphatically.
After class, I argued the point. “Rice cake” in English usually means a cracker-type thing made out of puffed rice. I googled the word and showed her the image results. No, she said, those are “big rice-crackers (sembei).” I suggested that in English speaking cultures mochi does not exist natively, therefore we use the country-of-origin word (just like paella, sushi and gateau). She pulled out a dictionary. Under “mochi” it said “rice cake”. I queried the purpose of language: “rice cake won’t communicate the meaning of mochi to any English speaker who doesn’t have an interest in Japanese food already. If it doesn’t communicate the same meaning between two people what point does a word have?!” She was unmoved. The students spent the week carefully writing about pounding rice cakes.
The same thing happened at a different school with a different JTE. Shiitake in English, she taught them, was “Japanese mushroom”. I asked what matsutake, enoki or shimeji were in English then. “Japanese mushroom” she insisted. Helpful. She then taught that kabosu (a citrus fruit that resembles a lime) was a “Japanese lemon”. She could at least have gone with “Japanese lime”! I think I contributed to regional tensions when I argued against “Japanese fork” for chopsticks and “Japanese tea” for green tea on the basis that neither are actually Japanese in origin nor predominantly associated with Japan in the rest of the world.
A third JTE taught the students that “kotatsu” (a table with a heating element underneath and a quilt on top, or traditionally a sunken seating space with a heater and quilt) was “Japanese foot warmer” in English. That isn’t even close to being an English word, it’s a full blown description of the item and a shoddy one at that (how did a table you put more than half your body under morph into a lowly ‘foot warmer’??)!
The obsession with finding an “English word” for everything that exists in Japan, or finding something vaguely similar and whacking “Japanese” in front (who the hell came up with “Japanese pizza” for okonomiyaki? Someone who had never seen or eaten either?), drives me crazy.