Wasei-kango (Japanese: 和製漢語?, "Japanese-made Chinese words") refers to words in the Japanese language composed of Chinese morphemes but invented in Japan rather than borrowed from China. Such terms are generally written using kanji and read according to the on'yomi pronunciations of the characters. While many words belong to the shared Sino-Japanese vocabulary, some kango do not exist in Chinese while others have a substantially different meaning from Chinese.
During the Meiji Restoration, Japanese words were invented en masse to represent western concepts such as revolution (革命 kakumei) or democracy (民主 minshu). Towards the end of the 19th century, many of these terms were re-imported into Chinese. As the form of the words entirely resembles that of native Chinese words in most cases, Chinese speakers often fail to recognize that they were actually coined in Japan.
Since antiquity, the Japanese have supplemented their native vocabulary, known as yamato kotoba, by borrowing many words from Chinese. After integrating the Chinese words into their vocabulary, they began creating their own kango.
One source of wasei-kango is the reinterpretation of yamato kotoba via on'yomi readings of the characters as opposed to the original kun'yomi. For example, the archaic word for Japan, 日の本 (ひのもと), has become the modern 日本 (にほん or にっぽん). Another example is the word for daikon, 大根, which changed from おおね to だいこん. Sometimes, an inversion of the character order is necessary, as in the construction of 立腹 (りっぷく) from 腹が立つ (はらがたつ), for anger. Terms have also been coined for concepts in Japanese culture such as geisha (芸者), ninja (忍者), or kaishaku (介錯).
As Western influence began to take hold in Japan during the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, Japanese scholars discovered that they needed new words to translate the concepts imported from Europe. As Natsume Sōseki once wrote in his diary,
law ハ nature ノ world ニ於ル如ク human world ヲ govern シテ居ル
or in English, "Law governs the human world as the natural world." Given that even such simple words had no equivalent in Japanese, the need for new coinages was evident. Eventually, it became possible to write the above sentence as
in which the above sentence would nowadays be written as "法律は自然の世界に於る如く人類世界を統治している。"
Sometimes, existing words were repurposed to translate these new concepts. For example, 世界 was a Classical Chinese Buddhist term which became the modern word for "world." Other words were completely new creations, such as keisatsu (警察, police), denwa (電話, telephone), kagaku (科学, science) and tetsugaku (哲学, philosophy). The majority of wasei-kango were created during this period. Following the Meiji Restoration and Japanese victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, many of these terms found their way into the modern Chinese and Korean languages where they remain today.
- Chung, Karen Steffen (2001). "Chapter 7: Some Returned Loans: Japanese Loanwords in Taiwan Mandarin" (PDF). In McAuley, T.E. Language Change in East Asia. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. pp. 161–179. ISBN 0700713778. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
- A similar concept in Chinese exists for vocabulary invented in the process of translating Western texts. See (zh:華製新漢語)