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:
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:
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”.
Here’s a little side challenge: think of five Japanese words you know and see if they end with a vowel!
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:
Wasted space labo
I want to go to this labo, please tell me how it is if you ever go
This seems like a cool combination of collaboration/coworking/labo
Hair La Bo
Some kind of styling product I assume
Any guesses what this labo is about?
A soap labo, not a soup labo
A labo to hit balls into holes
A labo if you're in pain
A manga/anime labo
English teaching school labo
A labo that buys your old game consoles and such
A racing labo of some sort
oh my god
English school labo, this name seems to be common for some reason
Welcome to the future of labos
Stuff on shelves labo
I don't know
A dental labo for you to get your teeth fixed
A video game (I think?)
An Okinawa fancy hat labo? I dunno
There's fruit at this labo
Inside of a hair removal labo
A food labo with a Christmas flair but no dogs allowed!
This labo grand-prix starts tomorrow
In Japanese, "b" and "v" are often represented the same way (similar to "L" and "R") - so this is a rare instance of "LAVO" instead of LABO"
Learn English at the Labo Party
Here we see explicitly see that "Labo" is intended as an abbreviation of "Laboratory"
This labo never closes!
This labo is a secret acronym
Musical instrument labo
None of this text makes sense
A labo for holistic things
A fake scientist works in a cartoon labo
A labo for smartphones
A labo of some sort
Get your face fixed at this labo
Eat sugar at this labo
Have fun at this labo
A cafe labo of dreams
Japan loves hair removal labos
Oh, a science labo!
Goop from a skin care labo
A hair removal labo with a wiggly mascot
As you can see, "LABO" often gets written in English while almost everything else is in Japanese
Kitchens need labos too
A labo on Anime Street
Maybe the grooviest labo with the coolest guest name
A hobby racing car labo
All-English product packaging is common in Japan
A labo for fruit lovers
A labo with a surprising C
Trading card labo
It's hard to see but there's a "labo" in here!
A well photographed spice labo
A Bitcoin-esque labo with some acronym fun added
A leaf drinking labo
A labo for all your wining needs
An old PHP labo (but don't try to pass by reference today)
This labo will help you fill your space
A car care labo
Whoa we hit EarthBound again
Incidentally, the word "viking" in Japanese means something like "all-you-can-eat buffet"
Labo for putting funny things on your head and walking around like a goof
This labo can help you learn how to sell houses maybe?
Wow, I want to visit this labo
Learn about herbs at this labo
Labo for drinking and eating coffee beans
Bitcoin related labo
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!