The word “Thai” that means “freedom”

The commonly used name of Thailand is “Prathet Thai,” which can be translated into Japanese as “Tai-koku (Thai country).” Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since before World War 2, dating back to 1932.

Do you know the meaning of “Thai” in the name of the country?

Although some people believe that this country used to be called “Siam,” it was not Thai people but foreign people who referred to this area by that name. In 1939, “Siam,” which was used for a long time, was changed into the current official name “Thai,” which Thai people call themselves. In fact, “Thai” originally means “freedom.”

If you know this fact, you can understand Thai people’s way of thinking, lifestyle, custom, and behavior patterns.

For example, Thai people basically dislike restrictions and restraint. They want to make decisions for themselves. In other words, they want to be free.

That sounds like very selfish individualism. However, on the other hand, Thai people are very sociable, also valuing cooperation and humility. In other words, they tend to respect others and not to bind others or want to be bound by others.

This is called Thai-style individualism or Thai liberalism.

One of the symbols of such Thai people’s way of thinking is the mind of “mai pen rai.”

This phrase is used in various situations. For example, when someone has caused a problem, if others say “mai pen rai,” it means “No problem,” “That’s all right,” “That’s nothing,” or “Never mind.”

On the other hand, a Thai person can say it to himself/herself. In that case, it means something like “It can’t be helped” or “Things will work out.”

This “mai pen rai” would be difficult for Japanese people to understand.

For example, when a Japanese person has encountered some kind of trouble in Thailand, if the other party says “mai pen rai” unconcernedly, the Japanese person would wonder what the other party is saying. In particular, Japanese people nowadays tend to pursue self-responsibility. If the other party says “It can’t be helped” or “That’s all right” easily, a Japanese person might get angry.

However, “mai pen rai” implies a positive attitude toward looking ahead instead of being caught in the situation where the trouble occurred. In other words, it means trying to respond freely and flexibly to the problem.

It is said that when trying to do something, Japanese people take time to make a careful plan and then start it, while Thai people try to do it first and if they cannot do it, they play it by ear.

Of course, moving into action after thinking through could make things successful, but some cases require quick action.

In those cases, instead of being caught up in plans or promises, the skill to address and solve the problem on the fly is required. This is one of the skills that the freedom of “Thai” has cultivated.

University marketplaces, showing a side of Thai people

As another symbol of the free and easygoing Thai culture, Thai verbs have no inflection for tense.

Japanese verbs have past and present tenses, such as “Kino Gohan wo Tabeta (Yesterday I ate a meal)” and “Kyo Gohan wo Taberu (Today I will eat a meal).” However, in Thai, the word “Gohan wo Taberu (eat a meal)” can be used for any time. To specify time, another word such as yesterday, tomorrow, or now is added.

Also in greeting, “Sawatdee” alone can be used to say “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” and “Goodbye.”

In Japanese people’s eyes, Thai people could seem careless about time. Actually, Thai people may have disliked being restricted by time. Instead, they would have pursued a simple and easy life. Even if there are time gaps between others and themselves, they are “mai pen rai.”

On the other hand, the online university marketplaces, which were created in this coronavirus crisis, reveal another side of Thai people: being sociable and valuing cooperation.

These enable persons of a university (such as students, faculty members, and alumni) to send and receive a wide variety of information by making free posts on buying and selling food, real estate, cars, etc., holding free seminars, counseling and many more.

As a condition for posting, the poster’s name, faculty, year or graduation year and other identity at the university must be specified. In other words, it is impossible to make any anonymous post. The persons can be connected with and trusted by each other because they belong to the same university.

This network was created in many universities, and the largest, the Chulalongkorn University marketplace, probably has an enrollment of more than 350,000 people.

In the posts, calls for donations to help those distressed by the coronavirus can be found, which seem to get a lot of donations.

The spirit of helping any peer in need, instead of not caring about others, is also Thai people’s attitude symbolic of Thai.

Aiming to develop human resources to act as bridges between Japan and ASEAN

Now, I work at the Meiji University ASEAN Center.

This Center was established in Bangkok in 2013 with the aims to promote exchanges and coordination between Meiji University and higher education institutions and societies in ASEAN countries and to nurture both Japanese and ASEAN countries’ competent leaders who can demonstrate strong on-site competence in many practical fields as well as can act as a bridge between Japan and ASEAN.

I give lectures such as “Understanding Southeast Asia,” to students at the University, engage in the management of the Center, and provide support for international students of both countries.

When I deal with Japanese students studying in Thailand, I see that most of them are honest and shy. They rarely proactively start a conversation with Thai students.

However, Thai students regard students at the same university as peers. If they regard a Japanese student as a peer, they start more conversations with that student. It does not matter if the Japanese student looks perplexed.

Japanese students say that at first they are overwhelmed by such behavior, but soon they find that this is the appeal of Thailand by which they become attracted to the country.

On the other hand, Thai students studying in Japan feel that Japanese people have common culture with Thai people, such as humility, avoidance of bothering others and cleanliness, and come to like Japan a lot. Even after returning to Thailand, they keep in contact with Japanese friends.

This is the first step in cross-cultural communication, while it is also an essential part of cross-cultural understanding. It means understanding that each other’s characteristics are the attraction, not goodness or badness.

That understanding can broaden a person’s perspective or values. It would definitely help the person in the future.

For example, it is said that now there are about 6,000 Japanese companies operating in Thailand. The number should continue to increase rapidly. In prospering business situations, both Thai students studying in Japan and Japanese students studying in Thailand can work effectively.

Developing such human resources is one of the objectives of the Meiji University ASEAN Center.

Japanese adults working after graduating from university will also have more opportunities for exchanges with Thailand in the future.

On such occasions, in order not to experience culture shock, instead of applying Thai people’s way of thinking and behavior pattern to the common sense of Japan, please try to see the differences as attractions. Thai people’s behavior patterns, which may look careless, will seem easygoing.

In the first place, Thailand, which shares borders on all sides with other countries, was an exchange base and a trading hub for various people from ancient times.

In the history of accumulated negotiations with people from countries and ethnic groups with different cultures and values, Thai people’s communication skills were honed, and their flexibility to play it by ear while having their own pace and respecting others, instead of forcing their values or being irritated by things not going according to plan, was cultivated and has developed into the basis of Thai liberalism.

In addition, Thai people like Japanese culture and Japanese people a lot. If Japanese people understand those things, their exchanges with Thailand will expand rapidly.

* The information contained herein is current as of February 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.