My name is Bob, I created Dr. Moku. Catch me on Twitter for instant replies


Japanese Grammar

The Word For Termite In Japanese

By on February 07, 2011 in Japanese Grammar

Is an ant just a white termite?

When I first began studying Japanese I remember arguing with a classmate about whether termites are ants (specifically white ants). This was 2000, long before we had the power to whip out an iPad and fire up Wikipedia.

I was right (of course!) but that Wikipedia article confirms that in Australia they are really called “white ants”

In Japan too:

ants = ari 蟻 or アリ – in katakana
termites = shiro ari  シロアリ – white ant

Shiroi is the Japanese word for white. Since shiroi, or 白い is in adjectival form, before a noun we take away the i, or い , so that we have “shiroari”, 白アリ or termite instead of shiroi ari. (In the case above, the word for termite is written in all Katakana, which implies that the Japanese think that termites aren’t of Japanese origin.

However, they still call them white ants because of the shiro part, they just don’t use the kanji part for white, 白い.)



So what do you think?

  • Adam

    Hello! Just came across your very helpful site, while looking for different ways to spell “ant” in Japanese.

    Couldn’t tell if you were being a bit tongue in cheek in your breakdown of the ants vs. termites, but as a myrmecologist (one who studies ants), I just had to chime in- ants are, in fact, unrelated to termites. Here are some differences:

    Ants are descendants of wasps. They have a sterile, all-female worker caste, and like a butterfly, undergo complete metamorphosis. An ant begins life as an egg, hatches into a grublike larva, and does all its growing in this larval stage, where it is totally dependent on adult ants for food. When it is ready to change into an ant it becomes a pupa- in fact many species spin a cocoon for this. Inside the cocoon a drastic restructuring takes place, and the ant that emerges will stay the same size & shape for the remainder of her life. Most ants are predators, scavengers, insect herders or fungus growers. Almost no ant eats plant material directly, and no ant eats wood.

    Termites are closely related to cockroaches. They have a male & female worker caste, and in many species these workers can mate with one another & reproduce. Termites undergo INcomplete metamorphosis, which means that what hatches out of the termite egg is a small version of the adult- there is no major change. Unlike ants, termites DO eat wood, with the help of symbiotic gut microbes that break down the tough plant cellulose. Some termites also grow fungus.

    Both insect groups are remarkable for their social structure, and can behave like one another at the colony level. However this social behavior is a case of convergent evolution- similar behavior from dissimilar circumstances.

    All my best,

    • Bob

      Hi Adam, thanks for that info!