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Why Japan took the word 'mansion' and applied it to condominiums

30 Comments

In Yukan Fuji (July 10), Atsushi Sakaki's "I don't really want to tell you" column, which covers topics related to real estate and residential property, starts off by touching on the condominium collapse that occurred in the Miami suburb on Surfside, Florida, on June 24. 

"Such a building collapse would be unthinkable in Japan," he writes. "But it brought my attention to another topic, which is use of the word manshon." 

Sakaki explains that manshon, derived from the English word mansion, is wasei eigo (made-in-Japan English). Among English speakers, mansion typically conjures up the image of a wealthy person's residence, which one might approach by driving through a gate and then eventually reaching the front door several minutes later. In Japan, however, the term has been corrupted to mean something along the lines of a "3LDK manshon" (abbreviation for a residence consisting of 3 rooms, living room and dinette kitchen -- plus bath, toilet, veranda, etc) -- with a total area of perhaps 70 square meters, inside a ferroconcrete housing complex. In cities it's also common to find "one-room" manshons further shrunk down to as small as 25 square meters. 

In any case, Sakaki says use of manshon to describe such mini-residences makes him "feel ashamed." 

Manshon as applied to ferroconcrete residences, is believed to have become familiarized from the early 1960s. 

"Probably real estate developers just pulled it out of a Japanese-English dictionary," he writes. "At the time, the English word 'apartment' was already being applied to wood-frame rental units, so manshon was coined in order to differentiate the type of structure, with little understanding of the correct meaning of the term."  

In Sakaki's view, when marketing condominiums, Japanese realtors devote massive efforts to coming up with appealing nomenclature, which they feel can make or break their sales campaign. Disappointing sales are often blamed on poor choices of words in promotional materials and ads, so at the planning stage it's common for developers to go all-out in search of an appealing name -- sometimes coming up with ridiculous results.  

"In my own experience, I can recall over 100 names suggested for a single building," he recalls. "And that is probably the norm. 

"In the end however, it's typical that some unimaginative, worn-out name will be the one most likely to get picked," he scoffs.  

Several years ago, Sakaki took notice of a "tower manshon" (high-rise) on the shore of Tokyo Bay. Its full name, combining kanji and katakana script, came to 17 characters. On a whim, Sakaki transcribed the name into English and asked a British acquaintance for his impression. The man  shrugged, rolled his eyes and remarked "What's that? It looks to me rather like garbaged computer code. Makes no sense at all." 

Sakaki's sense of embarrassment notwithstanding, the made-up word manshon -- defined as a unit in a ferroconcrete housing complex -- has achieved official recognition under Japanese commercial law. If considered in terms of its fine shades of meaning therefore, manshon works well enough among Japanese -- although upon hearing it for the first time English native speakers may find its adoption as risible, or pathetic, by turns. 

When it's all said and done, Sakaki concludes that from a cultural standpoint, collective housing in Japan continues to evolve. At some point in the future, it's entirely possible that manshon may be supplanted by some other term.

© Japan Today

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30 Comments
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Interesting article but I would recommend italicising non-standard English words taken from Japanese to highlight them and avoid confusion, e.g. manshon. Pretty common way to do it

2 ( +3 / -1 )

They can't pronounce "condominium"?

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Well, nothing new or particularly Japanese about real estate types using exaggerated language to try and describe a property as something it isn't.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

as they're still sifting through the rubble for survivors of the landslides in West Japan.

1) Atami is not in West Japan.

2) I don't see any connection between landslides and collapses of buildings due to slipshod construction and/or failure to make needed repairs.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

They probably wanted to avoid having to say コンドーム for short.

Better nomenclatures (than マンション) could have been:

a co-op

flats

residencies

nooks

quarters

abodes

dens

compartments

... but we're stuck forever with マンション.

sigh

7 ( +8 / -1 )

This made me interested enough to look at the etymology. Seems the original mansion definition just meant “place to live” which suggests the current English usage is the one which is incorrect.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@expat

They can't pronounce "condominium"?

With the Japanese habit of shortening the foreign words it will sound like "condom".

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Try googling "London mansion flats" and look at the images that come up. Adoption of this meaing of "mansion" seems a far more likely explanation to me.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This made me interested enough to look at the etymology. Seems the original mansion definition just meant “place to live” which suggests the current English usage is the one which is incorrect.

Because the "correct" meaning of a word can only ever be the original one?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

In Sakaki's view, when marketing condominiums, Japanese realtors devote massive efforts to coming up with appealing nomenclature, which they feel can make or break their sales campaign. 

This practice has always felt way more dystopian to me than the use of the word "Mansion" to describe apartment buildings.

Whenever you see one of those god-awful plastic grey buildings which are almost too ugly to imagine them being used for human habitation they always have names like "Sunshine Happiness Meadow" or "Nice Global Place Green" or something like that. The juxtaposition of the adjectives used to describe them and the reality of their depressing appearance always makes me want to throw up a little.

That these places are everywhere means I almost always want to throw up a little when I'm wandering around, which is one of the things I find most annoying about living here.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Because the "correct" meaning of a word can only ever be the original one?

That isn't the point I am making. Just because Japanese isn't using it the same way that English is using, doesn't mean that Japanese usage is incorrect. It could have been adopted before English added a different nuance, or maybe didn't even come from English. Latin origin so likely that several other languages have the same word.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

As soldier2 says, the term mansion is used for better quality apartments in the UK and the Japanese merely adopted the term.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I rather like the misapplication of English words in Japan. It's often quite charming.

-Such a building collapse would be unthinkable in Japan.

Oh really? What about the recent data falsification scandal involving a tilting condo in Yokohama that led to concerns about piling work on multiple buildings? Wikipedia even has an article on 'Architectural forgery in Japan'.

Japanese residential blocks are often expected to have a short lifespan, so insulation can be poor and dividing walls can be thin. I understand the concern about quakes, but such disposable buildings are not good for the environment or for those who buy them and live in them.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

As Soldier2 says, multi-occupancy buildings with a name containing "Mansions" are fairly common in London, dating from 100 years ago or more. The units they contain would be called "flats" not apartments, and the word "condominium" was not used in Britain.

To return to the original article "Such a building collapse would be unthinkable in Japan" , but the reason is that we are in an earthquake zone, and structures get shake-tested every few weeks. During the Aneha-era "Such a building collapse" came close to being a possibility, and was only avoided by revisiting and re-calculating building structures and imposing re-inspections. Let's hope they continue to do this rigorously and that the authorities in Florida urgently start doing the same.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Flat 203 at 56B, Whitehaven Mansions is the home and office address of Hercule Poirot in the mid-1930s.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Such a building collapse would be unthinkable in Japan," he writes.

That's because Nippon is just so Sugoi!

Whenever you see one of those god-awful plastic grey buildings which are almost too ugly to imagine them being used for human habitation they always have names like "Sunshine Happiness Meadow" or "Nice Global Place Green" or something like that. The juxtaposition of the adjectives used to describe them and the reality of their depressing appearance always makes me want to throw up a little.

From a bus in suburban Fuchu I once saw a hideously ugly two-story apartment building named Palace Smell. For once the name was entirely fitting.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Actually a 3LDK is a 3 bedroom apartment IN ADDITION TO a living room, a dining room and a Kitchen.

This feels like something basic that shouldn’t be screwed up.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

3LDK is 3 separate rooms

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Our is a mansion. A tower mansion.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

So the debate is about a French word that entered the English language, and is used differently in British English and American English (curios about the Australian use?), and why the Japanese borrowed it with the British English nuance?? Apartment vs mansion seems an easy to understand classification to me. By the way, condominium (condo for short) is also used sometimes, mostly for tourism purposes.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan have been using the word Mansion way longer than Japan has. Don't you think they might be copying their neighbors?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

And 3LDK is not three bedrooms unless you change the often found tatami room into a bedroom.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

All rooms in a traditional home can be bedrooms during the night and some other use in the daytime. Beds are placed in cupboards.

Modern homes now tend to have bedrooms. We have four but only one is a bedroom. The others are storage. art studio, and painting storage.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

As the late Mitch Hedburg said, isn't it up to me how many bedrooms I have?

This bedroom has an oven in it.

This bedroom also has a bath.

This bedroom is in the toilet.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Love the naming of apartments and mansions in japan. You'll have some run down apartment called something like 'Monsieur Koenji' or some combination of french and the town.

My building has some french name which is literally impossible to say on the phone explaining the address to a japanese company. There's a bunch of 'L's and 'R's in it so we literally need to spell it out by saying the 'Ru' in 'Ra' 'Ri' 'Re' and so forth.

It amazes me the names they pick for apartments and mansions when for sure most of the names 1) mean absolutely nothing and 2) are nearly impossible to say.

Somebody needs to start a twitter account with the funny, western names used on japanese buildings.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

AdamToday  05:30 pm JST

Love the naming of apartments and mansions in japan. You'll have some run down apartment called something like 'Monsieur Koenji' or some combination of french and the town.

Somebody needs to start a twitter account with the funny, western names used on japanese buildings.

One that always makes me chuckle when I walk past is 'Sober Residence'.

Obviously not somewhere I could live!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Adam, mansions/apartments are built and named by big real estate companies (mostly the big mansions), by individuals who invest in real estate (mostly apartments and smaller mansions), and the government (UR, KKK-now that I think of it, dangerous name!). I don't know how big companies and the government come up with the names, but people who venture in real estate are often salary men, or OLs, or housewives who try to invest their money, and come up with whatever names they can think of, usually something that sounds somehow French or Italian

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

"Probably real estate developers just pulled it out of a Japanese-English dictionary," he writes. "At the time, the English word 'apartment' was already being applied to wood-frame rental units, so manshon was coined in order to differentiate the type of structure, with little understanding of the correct meaning of the term."  

It is obvious that the word some from the British English "mansion flats", which describe apartments/flats for the well-off, typically in London. I imagine that they originally got the name "mansion" because they were luxurious and aimed at the British upper and upper-middle classes. Please do some research, JT!

Examples:

https://www.dexters.co.uk/dexters-magazine/dexters-autumn-2018/10964-magnificent-mansion-blocks

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Funny for English speakers to complain about the Japanese using the word mansion the wrong way - when the English did the same thing. It's from a French word, and simply meant "place to stay". In that sense, the Japanese usage is just as accurate as the English usage.

And Japanese real estate agents are not the only ones in the world who make up ridiculous names to make ordinary properties sound grand. The US is filled with housing developments called Forest Hills, with no forest and no hills, or Highland Park, with no highlands or even hills and no park, Lake Meadow, with no lake or meadow, the list goes on...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

While it doesn't figure in the namings of buildings per se, I've always liked the creative thinking behind the word "oku-shon," which is a deluxe condo unit (or a unit located in an upscale neighborhood, or both) priced at over 100 million yen (ichi-oku en). The word first appeared just before the bubble economy of the mid-1980s. After the bubble collapsed, a lot of those oku-shon reverted to manshon, with their owners, or the financial institutions that provided the loans to purchases, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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