"Frog" and "Home" in Japanese

I’ve often heard that the word “frog” and the word “home” are written the same way in Japanese. I also know that a lot of these language things are often a little more complicated than that. Often, when you mention it to a native speaker, it turns out that it isn’t really true, or only true with bad grammar.

What is the scoop on “frog” and “home” in Japanese?

I just asked my Japanese wife about this. She says definitely not the same character used for both words.

“kaeru” meaning “frog” is not written the same way as “kaeru” meaning “return home”. The two words are, as far as I know, pronounced exactly the same way. There are lots of homophones in Japanese but the writing system allows them to be distinguished in writing.

frog: カエル
return home: 帰る

There’s no kanji for “frog”?

According to my dictionary 蛙 is the kanji for frog.

Oh, and why is *kaeru *(frog) written in katakana?

Yes, but it’s not on the lists of commonly used kanji. What I don’t understand is why “kaeru” is written in katakana, when it’s not a foreign word.

It’s pretty common to write animals in katakana. Also sound effects.

As mentioned, “frog” and “return home” are pronounced the same, but written differently. “Home” is different altogether (ie), but I’m not on a computer that has Japanese language support so I can’t write it out.

I’m not sure what the big surprise is. Every language, including English, has tons of words that are spelled the same, pronounced the same, or both, or are similar, or whatever, and still have totally different meanings.

The Japanese names of plants and animals are written in katakana, with few exceptions (extremely common words like dog or horse). Would many Japanese people recognise the kanji for rhino (犀) or octopus (蛸)? I don’t know.

I was wrong about the pronunciation. The two words have different pitch accents. I (like most foreign learners) don’t have a clue about the correct pitch accent of Japanese words. It’s complicated by the fact that the pitch accent in my wife’s dialect is different to that of standard Japanese.

But the two things are recognised to sound the same even here. My son’s after school club has a big wooden frog at the entrance that is holding a sign that says “Ki wo tsukete kaeru!” which means either “Be careful going home!” or “The frog is careful.”

There are lots of puns made on such words that are similar. Puns are considered a low form of wit, often referred to as “Oyaji gyagu” or “Geezer’s gags” but I like them because I can understand them and sometimes even make them up myself, though my kids usually groan.

I see. So they don’t sound exactly alike, but it’s a recognized relationship in Japan. That’s good enough then.

Good point about Kanji not use very frequently, but I think the question was not why are they written in kana, but why in katakana as oppposed to hiragana? If it’s just the way it is, that’s OK. Lots of languages do things for no apparent reason other than “it’s always been done that way”.

I found a very interesting forum discussion that addresses this exact question. Basically, nobody knows. One poster guesses that:

There was even a TV commercial in Japan a few years ago that played upon the similarity. A young couple on a date misunderstanding each other with regards to “I’m going home”, “frog” and “I’m buying it”.

But you could write “going home” in katakana, right (even if in practice it’s not usually done)? And if you did, wouldn’t it be the same as the katakana for “frog”?

Maybe baby wax frog?


You could, but it may not be understood unless it’s clear the entire sentence (or large portions of it) is written in katakana for some reason. You might do this when you’re trying to indicate poor Japanese spoken by a non-native speaker. Or it may be a telegram message (which used to be all-katakana).

Yup, in the manga One Piece there are a lot of these sorts of puns. Once the main characters were on a sea train going towards a prison to rescue two of their friends and the conversation more or less went:

“WHAT!? We’ve gone all this way and you want to turn back NOW!?”
“No, kaeru!” points to giant frog sitting on the tracks

Most of them are eyeroll worthy, even if you feel proud of yourself for getting them, but they’re juuuust clever enough to get a grin. So yeah, even if the inflections are different I’d say that the majority of Japanese people would consider them close enough to at least be joke worthy.

Though, sliiightly off topic, does kaeru mean “to return home” or “to return” in general? For instance, if I was at school could I say 牛乳を買って帰りましょうか*。“gyunyuu wo katte kaerimashouka?” “Shall I go buy milk and come back (to school)?” Clearly it’s most often used to imply home in some fashion (I’ve heard Japanese people refer to going to Japan in general as “nihon ni kaerimashita” even if they strictly didn’t go to their home town), but the frog pun in One Piece makes less sense to me since all of them were about 450 chapters away from anything they could consider “home.”

  • Apologies if this is mangled, it’s been a few months.

It’s a question of convention. Biology terms are written in katakana. Note that “human” in “human genome” is written in katakana where is is normally written in kanji.

Except for the pitch accent, they sound exactly the same. Very few non-native speakers have mastered Japanese pitch accents.

Yes, because the pronunciation is the same, and the kana does not indicate pitch accents.

To add to this, since “going home” would normally be written either in kanji or hirakana, writing it in katakana would convey that there is a special reason for it.

Yes. It means both. It also means “frog” :stuck_out_tongue:

Depending on the circumstances, it can be to return home or to another place. For example, if you are with a colleague at a customer’s place and go to leave, you could say, 帰りましょう。 “kaerimasho” meaning “Let’s go back to the office.” If however, your colleague suggests going out for drinks, you can decline by saying 今日、帰ります。 “I’m going (home) tonight.” If you were going to back to the office to work then you would say 今日、戻ります。“I’m going back (to the office) tonight.”

If you think of it as “come / go back,” it may make sense. It is frequently used for people coming back to Japan, and doesn’t mean going back to their home.