Tsundere: what the Japanese word really means

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What does tsundere mean? The short answer:

Tsundere is an adjective used to describe a person or character who swings between emotionally hot and cold, in particular when dealing with a love interest. Especially used to describe someone who is usually cold or cranky but occasionally shows a soft, kind, mushy side. 

Tsundere is typically used to describe anime characters – for example, a tsundere character may be harbouring a secret crush, or a pivotal moment could leave them suddenly infatuated.

But the characterisation it describes is a literary trope older than Shakespeare. In fact, Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing and Katharina from The Taming of the Shrew are excellent examples of behaviour that could be considered tsundere.


Feeling cold toward this article you once loved?

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Want to know more? Here’s the long answer:

Well, well, well, look who’s back for more information. You really wanted to learn more than that? I guess, if you want, I could teach you a little more of what I know about tsundere… 

Origin story of tsundere

Who exactly coined the phrase tsundere is up for debate, but a few things are for sure.

First, it’s definitely a combination of the terms tsun tsun – acting cold, haughty, like a big jerk – and dere dere – lovestruck, acting sweet, snuggly, openly affectionate, cuddly, soft, and so on. 

Second, the first tsundere characters in manga, upon whom many tsundere anime characters are based, are widely agreed to be Heckett from Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (1963) and Lum from Urusei Yatsura (1978). 

But from there, it gets a little murkier. One well-known manga writer, Kazuo Koike, claimed to have coined tsundere himself in a manga called “Koukousei burai hikae” (1972). But upon closer inspection, he just showed the two words – tsun tsun and dere dere – in the same sentence. 

From this, it’s safe to say that tsundere as a term didn’t come into popular use until the early 2000s. 

And the most likely origin story for this delightful word? 

It probably came from internet message boards, as so many things do. It seems that people chatting on a message board about Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, a 2001 interactive video game that became a 2003 show, mentioned that they liked the “tsun tsun dere dere” nature of one of the characters, and the combo stuck as a way to describe characters like her. (Of course it would – after all, they’d found a new way to identify a literary trope older than literature itself!)

Then, as happens on the internet, somewhere in the dark void of 2002 chatrooms, it got shortened into a single, sleeker term: tsundere. (lmao rofl w00t.)

Regardless of who actually said it first, the phrase clearly touched a nerve, because not only has it stuck around, it was even nominated for Japan’s 2006 Buzzword of the Year!

Worth noting:
Possibly because of the source materials, possibly just because things tend to change and distill over time, tsundere in practice is more often used to refer to female characters, especially tomboys who occasionally show some girly tendencies, and has become more and more about characters that switch between cranky and affectionate in an instant, versus a slow burn change driven by the plot. 

Spelling and pronunciation 

Tsundere is pronounced using typical Japanese pronunciation, based on how it’s spelled.

ツンデレ

tsundere

ツ = tsu

ン = n

デ = de

レ = re

Don’t know about Japanese pronunciation? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

In Japanese, there are a set number of sounds and syllables. Each hiragana or katakana character (two of the three Japanese alphabets) represents a sound or syllable. And, while some syllables get more weight and some are more likely to be glossed over, as a general rule, we pronounce every syllable.

So let’s take a look at each of these syllables. Tsu (ツ ) may feel like an unfamiliar letter combination, but you can pretty much think of it like the tsu in tsunami – tsunami is, after all, a Japanese word that you know in English!

N (ン) is exactly what you’d think – it adds an “n” sound. In fact, with the word tsunami, you’ve already got tsun covered! 

So how about de and re?

In Japanese, the vowel sounds are always the same, except when combined (like in Italian, if that helps you!). “E” is always pronounced “eh”, like the “e” in heron, or if you said just the first bit of “day” and “ray”, without closing off into the “y”. So, you get “deh reh”. And “r”s in Japanese are famously not pronounced the same as in English. It’s sort of like a rolled “r”, or something between an “l” and an “r”. 

Pronunciation trick:
One of the easiest ways we’ve found to teach people how to say a Japanese “r” without a live tutor present is to make an “r” sound and then an “l” sound the way you normally would, paying attention to where your tongue goes in your mouth. Then, put your tongue halfway between those two points and make a noise – you should be pretty close to the right sound!

So put that all together and the pronunciation of tsundere is: “tsoon(tsun)-deh-reh”.

Examples of tsundere characters 

Still a little confused about tsundere’s meaning? No problem! Maybe something you’ve watched or read can help hammer it home. 

Here’s a list of some favourite anime tsundere characters – and some bonus characters from elsewhere in literature and pop culture, in case that helps clear things up.

CharacterMedia
Lum InvaderUrusei Yatsura
Kyou CLANNAD
Mikoto MisakaTo Aru
Asuka Langley SoryuNeon Genesis Evangelion
Taiga Aisaka Toradora! 
VegetaDragonball Z
Faye ValentineCowboy Bebo
Kat10 Things I Hate About You
MegaraDisney’s Hercules
Jackie BurkhartThat ’70s Show
Gibbs  NCIS
Sam Puckett iCarly
Sherlock Holmes Sherlock
EVE WALL•E
Perry Cox Scrubs
GingerChicken Run
Major Margaret HoulihanM*A*S*H
Major Kira NerysStar Trek: Deep Space Nine
BeatriceMuch Ado About Nothing
Mr. Darcy (and arguably Elizabeth Bennett)Pride and Prejudice
Queen GuinevereArthurian Legend
PeleHawaiian volcano goddess

And that’s everything you need to know about the meaning of tsundere

I hope that makes understanding tsundere easier for you. Now get out of here, baka! U-unless, of course, you want to stay… 


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Emily Duncan is a Canadian writer, comedian and avid language learner currently based in New York City. Emily’s first language is English, she’s fluent in French, speaks some Irish, and is currently learning Japanese and Spanish. Emily loves dogs, iced coffee, and cooking experiments.