Confusion over alcohol word labels on WK

I’m sure this question’s answer is something along the lines of “these words are used in several different ways, so it’s all correct.” Nevertheless:

In Level 10 vocab, お酒 is given the primary meaning of “Sake,” as in the specific beverage. A note is made that it can also refer to alcohol generally. Then, 日本酒 is given the primary meaning of “Japanese style alcohol.” A note is made that one big type of Japanese style alcohol is sake (specific rice wine beverage), so it can mean that specifically too.

I’m pretty flexible with just going with the flow on WK. I understand that it’s tough to put into exact words how vocab is used in context. I’ve decided to ask a question about this one because it directly goes against something I thought I had learned by accurate observation when I lived in Japan, and I want to make sure I am not picking wrong words due to confirmation bias. I plan on ordering lots of alcohol in Japanese and don’t want to be misunderstood. :slight_smile:

When I first arrived in Japan, I tried to order “sake,” the specific rice wine drink. I pronounced it correctly but the server was extremely confused. We looked at a menu together (I was able to read and pronounce hiragana and katakana but had no context for use). We determined that I was trying to order 日本酒. I quickly picked up after that that “お酒” on menus just meant alcohol generally, which is why he was confused when I kept just asking for alcohol, and 日本酒 was what I wanted if I wanted the specific type of Japanese rice wine that Americans (and maybe other foreigners) call sake.

WK’s explanations definitely allow for my understanding to be ACCEPTABLE (i.e. the vocab says お酒 “can” mean alcohol generally, and 日本酒 can specifically refer to sake (specific type of Japanese rice wine)), but it seems to just accept those as possibilities. My experience, through 2.5 years of probable confirmation bias, was that those words were ONLY used in those ways.

Please don’t think I am asking why WK is wrong. I understand that it is something I am missing about how the words are used in the real world, and I’d love to hear what your experiences are on this topic.


No, you should be more confident: WaniKani is wrong.

On the Japanese Wikipedia, お酒 redirects to , which has Alcoholic drink as the corresponding English page. If you do a Google image search for お酒, you need to scroll down seven rows before you see the first image showing rice wine.


I have also experienced that お酒 is used as a general term for alcohol, and 日本酒 is what we call “sake”. I’ve had many a drunk salaryman ask me “do you like Japanese sake???”, but if I say yes, they’ll follow up with “do you like 日本酒?焼酎?Japanese whiskey?”. Perhaps there are other formal definitions, but as far as I can tell, this whole situation seems like Matthew Perry came to Japan in 1854, tried some local rice wine, heard people calling it お酒 because in those days they weren’t importing other varieties of alcohol from the rest of the world, and assumed it was the drink’s name. Not literally this but I hope you get the idea.


Write feedback email to to bring it up to their attention. They do content updates regularly. I wrote to them about couple of missing synonyms, and they already followed up with adding one.


The Friends actor? :joy: sorry, I know the history, just this is where my mind went


So in my experience this has to do a lot with the coming and going of words as well as the traditions of drinking in Japan.
You are correct when ordering in a restaurant or something like that “sake” is 日本酒 and お酒 is more of a general term for alcohol. But this is seen much more in a restaurant setting. For example at my local supermarket the place where all the alcohol is Japanese or otherwise has a big sign above it the says アルコールコーナー (alcohol corner).
Im no history major but I assume that originally yes “sake” was 酒 because that was the only (once again not a history major so cant confirm this but yea) alcohol that Japanese people drank. As things progressed and they were introduced to more types of beverages and spirits they kept the original term around to mean alcohol while creating 日本酒 so that they could better define it as their national drink.


Oh my god, that is confusing. Did he say that to you in english or japanese? If he said that in english I would have understood that as japanese rice wine. But then he goes on to list different types of japanese alcohol and I realised he’s actually talking about alcohol in general made in japan. I mean, I guess in japanese he would have said something like 日本のさけ or 日本のアルコール or perhaps even ジャパニーズアルコール??

I can think of at least two occasions where I was asked this in English. When it’s in Japanese it’s a straightforward enough question. I’ve learned to just go along with whatever because it’s easier than trying to explain in either language to a drunk man who’s showing off his English skills in front of his friends

lmao! That was his intention? Showing off eng skills in front of friends. I just find that so funny.

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Also of note might be that the Wikipedia page in question starts as follows:

Sake is an umbrella term for beverages that include ethanol (a kind of alcohol)

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It is unfortunate that when talking in English ‘Sake’ has been adopted as the name for 日本酒, but it’s pretty hard to change at this point. It always irks me when someone uses it this way, but I wonder what could be said instead… Rice wine?

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Doesn’t this kinda always happen though when words are loaned into another language? There are tons of examples:

Salsa (Spanish: sauce, English: a specific tomato-based sauce)
Manga (Japanese: comics, English: Japanese comics)
Katana (Japanese: a subtype of sword, especially referring to those with only one cutting edge (note the French sword used as illustration), English: a specific type of Japanese sword.

I don’t think anything needs to be changed as such… I see no problem in using the word manga to refer to specifically Japanese comics when speaking English (“Yotsubato is the first manga I managed to read”) and comics in general when speaking Japanese “子供のころ、タンタンというベルギーの漫画が大好きでしたよ!”.

Same for sake, salsa etc.

EDIT: Tintin is Belgian, not French!


Don’t forget one of the most common examples of all, anime. It really should mean any type of animation like in Japanese but we think of it as purely japanese animations. It’s funny how it was loaned from english ‘animation’ and then we loaned it back!


Yeah, I thought of it but for some reason omitted it from the list but you’re right in that it’s interesting how it’s been loaned twice! :slight_smile:

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Another fun example I just thought of is how 将軍しょうぐん means “general” in Japanese.

I think it sounds very funny when Japanese people refer to General McArthur as マッカーサー将軍 :slight_smile:


(And worse, it’s pronounced sah-ki.)

Amusingly, whenever I’ve browsed for manga in a Japanese bookstore, the section is always labelled コミックス…


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