Yesterday, Nintendo announced its new “Labo” line of DIY craft kits. The announcement took the world by surprise, so everyone’s talking about Labo now.
For me, the announcement felt like I had just gone full-circle: the very first time I ever encountered the Japanese word “Labo” was when I played the Japanese version of EarthBound back in the 1990s:
|Japanese release||English localization|
I was still learning Japanese at the time, so I had difficulty seeing the differences between the Japanese script and the English script. But this LABO/LAB change was one of the most obvious changes I noticed at the time. Other curious fans at the time had noted it as well.
In fact, “LABO” eventually became so iconic among EarthBound fans that we made sure to make the same change in the MOTHER 3 fan translation a decade later:
|Japanese release||Fan translation|
When I was first learning Japanese, I understood that the Japanese version of EarthBound said “Labo” because it’s the Japanese abbreviation for the word “laboratory”. The extra “o” is there because Japanese words work differently from other languages: in extremely simple terms, most Japanese words don’t end with consonants (except for “n”) – they almost always have a vowel at the end. We don’t have that in English, though, so our abbreviation is just “lab”.
As I studied the language more and spent time in Japan, I was surprised at how often I saw “Labo” everywhere I looked. On signs, on TV, in ads, in games – it felt like the word “Labo” was absolutely everywhere. And, whenever the word was used, it was usually written out in English rather than in Japanese for some reason. It was an intriguing little mystery I hadn’t expected to find in the Japanese language.
Over time, I picked up a few more nuances about “Labo”:
- ”Labo” is written out in English so often to evoke a confident feeling of skill and competence. Plus it just looks cool to Japanese sensibilities.
- While it does seem to be an abbreviation of the English word “laboratory” a lot of the time, it sometimes comes from the French abbreviation of “laboratoire” instead. This happens especially when a company or product is trying to give off a high-class, international vibe.
- In addition to “lab” as we normally use it in everyday English, it seems “Labo” is often used in situations where we’d probably use the word “classroom” or “workshop”.
You can see many real-life uses of Japanese “Labo” for yourself in the gallery below:
I’ve also compiled these images into a nice slideshow video here:
So if you ever see “Labo” on Japanese stuff or while in Japan, now you know what’s up!
If you ever come across any real-life examples of "Labo" (not counting Nintendo's DIY kit), let me know and I can add it to this gallery!