Japan’s Surprising Love of the Word “LABO”

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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!
If you liked this, check out This be book bad translation, video games!, my book dedicated to game translation disasters from the 1970s until today!
16 Comments
  1. I could see a good number of those examples working in English. The word “lab” is common enough that people don’t really notice it much.

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  2. My mind immediately went to Earthbound when I heard about the Nintendo Labo, too. My first reaction was to wonder if the Japanese version would have more weird red things on top than the English version has.

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  3. You know, I’m actually in the same city as Hamburg Labo. I can in fact let you know if I ever go there. ; )

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  4. I am suddenly reminded of Mato’s old website Sexy Beam page.

    I haven’t been paying attention but are the Minnesota All You Can Eats still in the running for the Super Bowl? 😀

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  5. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I think the “lavo” one is trying to sound Spanish. “Salumeria” sounds like a made up Spanish store name (Spanish stores end in -ería, although this one is nonsense unless it sells…. keystones, apparently. Like, the things that hold up arches) and “lavo” is a real Spanish word. It means “I wash”, though, so… nice try, I guess?

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    1. “Salumeria” is Italian for a shop that sells sausage, ham, and other (mostly) pork products.

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  6. Salumeria is Italian (charcutería in Spanish). 😉

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  7. Using “labo” as a “high-class” abbreviation reminds me of how Dexter in Dexter’s Laboratory always pronounced the “o” when referring to his own lab, probably for the same reason.

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    1. The o is supposed to be pronounced… how would you even say it otherwise?

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      1. Dexter really stresses the O in it though.
        A lot of English speakers in my part of the world also kind of just say what you would think of as an a, sort of like “Lab-a-tory”. Incorrect? Probably. A thing? Totally

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  8. I’ve been playing Pokémon Alpha Sapphire in French recently, and it uses the shortening “labo” too.

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  9. I lived in Nishinotoin for a couple of months right around the corner from Hamburg Labo (2nd pic). It was great!
    My burger of choice involved them squeezing a fresh lemon over the cooked patty with various greens and then blowtorching it right there. I need to go back…

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    1. Whoa, that sounds really good, I’m jealous!

      Reply

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