What does it mean to be free?

Perhaps it’s the result of a frugal upbringing or perhaps it’s the fact that the day is cold and rainy and I want something to warm me, but as I am walking along the street, a sign that says “free coffee” catches my eye. What’s weird is that a price is given just below those words.

Similarly, during the year-end party season, I received an invitation to a party that read “buffet and free drinks, JPY6,000”.

“Free” is one of many words Japanese has borrowed from English where the meaning is slightly different. Curiously, even when the Japanese use the English word, they apply the Japanese meaning, without realizing it’s an invitation to confusion and miscommunication. Talk about lost in translation!

Whether used in English, “free”, or in Japanese, フリー, in Japan more often than not the word does not mean “without charge” or “zero price”, as a native English speaker might expect, but instead means “unlimited”. All-you-can-eat buffets, bottomless cups of coffee, and time-limited open bars at events are all characterized as “free” in Japan.

On a similar vein, I recently bought a t-shirt with “F” (for “free”) as the size on the label.  The sign above the rack of shirts in the store said “free size”, which my native English speaker mind immediately “translated” to “one size fits all”.

This usage of “free” to mean “unlimited” is not completely illogical, just a bit unnatural to native English speakers.  After all, we might say “please feel free to have all you like” as a generous gesture. And we have a similar usage in Japanese that results in signs like this one I recently saw at a rack of maps and pamphlets at my local train station.


It makes perfect sense.

There is one more interesting example in Japan of something that has become “free” and it, too, makes perfect sense, even though the thing started out as something else.

The humble “flea market”, an open, often outdoor market, where vendors sell used goods, often cast-offs, has risen in popularity in Japan over the past two or three decades (since the bursting of the economic bubble).

But more often than not, if there’s a sign in English advertising the market, it’s not a “flea market” but a “free market” (when speaking in Japanese, these two are pronounced, and written, the same; there is no way to distinguish them, which may have contributed to the issue).

These “free” markets take many different forms, ranging from antique markets to markets where established vendors regularly attend to sell used goods, to community-sponsored markets that are effectively one giant garage sale, at which the vendors are private citizens renting a booth to sell off their own unwanted goods in a one-off exercise. With the exception of really high-end antique markets, most markets do not have strict rules about what can be sold, making them “free” in terms of what you might find there.

As a name for a market, “free market” probably makes more sense than “flea market”. After all, have you ever bought a flea? In fact, if you managed to acquire a flea at one of these markets, you would probably have bought something else and got the flea for free.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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One thought on “What does it mean to be free?

  1. Sylvia Hoosen says:

    I, too was very confused over the “free” issue when I first arrived in Japan until a Japanese colleague explained it to me.

    Very useful article as this clears up a lot of confusion and allows you to enjoy your Japanese holiday that much more.


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