The term wasei Eigo (和製英語) literally means English Made in Japan. This is not to be confused with Engrish, the popular term for the ubiquitous nonsensical English that decorates clothing and accessories in Japan, or gairaigo (外来語), loan words. Rather, wasei Eigo refers to words that are based on English words but either are not used in standard English or have a different meaning than in standard English.
Languages evolve and change, and while wasei Eigo words are perfectly valid in their existence, they can be confusing for Japanese-learners and English-learners alike. The first problem is that native English speakers assume that a lot of English words will have entered Japanese with no changes to form. For example, when discussing film, I once tried to use the English word sci-fi instead of the correct Japanese wasei Eigo term, SF (pronounced esu-efu, エスエフ, but written SF).
The second problem is that it isn’t always clear which words are true loan words (using the original meaning) and which are wasei Eigo (using a new meaning), as in the case of スタイル (sutairu, style). Saying 「彼のスタイルはいい」doesn’t mean “he has good fashion sense” but can mean “he has a good body,” as スタイル tends to be used to mean figure, body or appearance. In case you were wondering, being stylish is covered by センス (sensu, sense), as in fashion sense. Saying 「センスがいい」 means someone has good taste in clothes, music, etc., or that someone has a knack for something or discerning tastes in something.
Wasei Eigo isn’t just a problem for students of Japanese but for English-speaking Japanese people, as well. Just as we assume some English words enter Japanese as-is, there is an equal assumption that wasei Eigo is proper English. In Japan, freebies, bonus items, or discounts are referred to not as ボーナス (bônasu, bonus), but サービス (sâbisu, service). Bonus typically refers to your year-end bonus at work (this is gairaigo, a true loan word). The word サービス probably comes from complimentary service but means something closer to complimentary goods/discount in Japanese. Grocery stores might have タイムサービス (taimu sâbisu, time service), a discount for meats and deli goods at the end of the day. The awesome English-speaking staff of my local gelataria offer a “topping service” (トッピングサービス, toppingu sâbisu), a free sample of another flavor of gelato with your regular cone, and I’ve been offered discounts at local restaurants with the explanation 「サービスです！」 .
My rule is that, if speaking Japanese, wasei Eigo‘s Japanese meanings are correct and trump the original English meaning. However, I think that those teaching ESL or working with Japanese learners of English ought to be really familiar with these terms so we can teach the proper English phrases.
For example, one person I know rarely uses the English word only correctly when we speak English, and I always assumed it was because in Japanese, だけ and しか。。。ない (only, just) are used after the noun. If I brought a salad for lunch, I would get asked, “Sarada only?” instead of “[You’re] only [eating] salad?” before getting a lecture on the importance of eating rice. I would correct his grammar but had no idea this was actually wasei Eigo until I read the phrase 鍋オンリー (nabe onrî, nabe only) in the manga What Did You Eat Yesterday? (『きのう何食べた？』). Here, the main character is preparing dinner and wondering if he should make a side dish for the pot of nabe he’s preparing or just stick to a one-pot meal.
My guess is that this phrase comes from phrases like “women only,” which is written in English on the doors of the 女性専用 (jôsei senyô) cars of trains in Japan. Still, “Is this car women-only?” is correct English, but “Are you eating salad-only?” is really awkward English. Since the usage of オンリーapproximates the usage of のみ in Japanese, that is, only, but clearly indicating a limit, and the phrase is an idea/concept rather than a grammatical phrase, サラダオンリー should only be used in Japanese. That’s precisely what is frustrating about wasei Eigo–it’s close but ultimately just not right to use when speaking English.
I don’t think wasei Eigo is bad, though, and I personally find that a lot of it has entered my English because it better describes a situation or idea. Just as the Japanese world umami (うま味) has entered English as a loan word to fill a gap in how we describe food, other wasei Eigo words fill a gap in my vocabulary. Salaryman (サラリーマン, saraîman) conjures up a very specific image of non-managerial Japanese (male) office workers. Love hotels (ラブホテル, rabu hoteru) simply don’t exist in the US, so what other word can I use for them? Unlike アメリカンドッグ (Amerikan doggu, American dog = corn dog), there is not usually an equivalent English word or concept, so why not use these wasei Eigo culturally specific terms in English, too?
Where can you learn to navigate the world of wasei Eigo to increase your Japanese or English fluency? To start, wikipedia.jp’s list of wasei Eigo has a very comprehensive (but by no means complete) list of these Japanese words, the English origins, and their meaning.
More lists of wasei Eigo (with English explanations) appear on sci.lang.japan, a site dedicated to commonly asked questions about the Japanese language. These include “What are these pseudo English words like salaryman?“and “What ‘false friends’ are there between Japanese and English?.” (Check out “What English words come from Japanese?” for the inverse.)
Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC also has an extensive list of wasei Eigo terms marked in the dictionary as wasei (Japanese-English).
Attaining true fluency in Japanese means learning these words, and attaining fluency in English means learning the correct English translations of said phrases, so give it your best トライ! ガッツポーズするように!