English in Japan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Oct 23 17:35:51 UTC 2002

New York Times, October 23, 2002

To Grandparents, English Word Trend Isn't 'Naisu'


    TOKYO, Oct. 21 When Ayako Komata, 18, talks fashion with her friends,
she throws around terms like "hippu hangu,"  or hip-hugging, jeans and
"shadoh" (eye shadow), and ponders their effect on "chou naisu gai" (very
nice-looking guys). This contemporary Japanese, spoken at breakneck pace
and filled with English-sounding words, is incomprehensible to her
grandparents. So when they complain that her underpants are showing, Ayako
patiently explains that the fashion these days is to wear jeans just above
the pelvis, which someone decided should be called "hippu hangu."

The Japanese government, like many older Japanese citizens, is unimpressed
by these linguistic imports that are transforming the language. Invoking a
widening communication gap in three-generation households, among other
reasons, it has decided to act. In an effort reminiscent of France's
doomed bid to halt the proliferation of English words in the language of
Molire, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently
appointed a panel to propose measures to stem the foreign word corruption
in the language of Lady Murasaki, author of the 11th-century "Tale of

Their target is words written in katakana, a script largely reserved for
writing the exploding number of trendy words imported from Western
languages, especially English even though Japanese has been borrowing
Western words, changing their pronunciation and giving them a Japanese
flavor, at least since the 19th century. Before that it did the same thing
on an even larger scale with Chinese words. With his permed mane, snappy
dress and plain speech, Mr. Koizumi himself has been a distinct trend
setter. But the politician, who studied at the London School of Economics
in his youth, has drawn a line when it comes to the purity of the Japanese
language. He was moved to action not by the puzzling speech of teenagers,
but by the English-infused and equally difficult-to-track bureaucrat-speak
that surrounds him involving clunky Japanese derivations of things like
outsourcing, back office, redundancy and accountability.

"How can ordinary people understand if I don't understand?" the prime
minister complained during a recent strategy session on how to revive
Japan's technology sector. Among the offending words was incubator,
rendered "inkyubeetaa" when pronounced according to the katakana spelling.
"You have got to use expressions that are more easily understood," Mr.
Koizumi said. No firm regulations have yet been introduced, but the
Council on the Japanese Language, a body somewhat akin to the Acadmie
Franaise, is already honing its powers of persuasion. It says it will
analyze newly arrived vocabulary each year and advise the government and
the media to avoid terms it regards as unwanted or as confusing intruders.

"We do not think that katakana words will disappear from the Japanese
language, because there are just too many arriving all the time," said
Satoshi Yamaguchi, director of the Japanese language division of Japan's
Cultural Agency. He continued, "The problem is there are so many words
that most people don't understand."

Among the recent offenders he cited were negotiation (negoshieishon),
literacy (riterashii) and interactive (intarakutibu). New terms that
mysteriously cleared the comprehension barrier, as measured by the
language agency, included home helper (herupaa) and treatment
(toriitomento). Some language experts here think Mr. Koizumi is treading
much too lightly.  Rather than seeing the growth of English-derived terms
as an inevitable side effect of globalization, which is striking cultures
around the world, they see the spread of katakana words here as a uniquely
Japanese peril.

"We Japanese have an inferiority complex over language which has turned
into a dangerous longing," said Chikara Kato, a professor of linguistics
at Sugiyama Jogakuin University in Nagoya. "As a result, Japanese
youngsters are taking a distance from Japanese and favoring katakana
words. If you go into a clothing store that caters to young people, you'll
find that everything is in English." In fact, although borrowings from
English are by far the most numerous, they are not alone in invading the
Japanese language. Many medical terms come from German, and in conformity
with national stereotypes, the language of romance has been invaded by

A young woman who sleeps out for a night, unannounced to her parents, is
said to have pulled a "puchi iede," or roughly a petit, or little, night
out "iede" is standard Japanese. People like Professor Kato become
incensed over the thought that entire sentences can be strung together in
contemporary Japanese using nothing but Western-derived words, save for an
occasional Japanese verb or particle. Try for example: "Kasuaru use of
katakana is not reezunaburu." Reasonable or not, the casual use of
katakana seems almost uncontrollable, and most Japanese people, especially
those under 50, seem unconcerned about the debate. The love affair with
English is so well established here that a Japanese purification program
would have to erase everything from the name of the country's perennial
baseball favorites, the Yomiuri Giants, to renaming virtually every part
in their automobiles, from the doa and taiya to the mootaa (door, tire and

For his part, in fact, Tomatsu Komata, the 79-year-old grandfather of
Ayako, affects nonchalance about the subject, claiming to have no
difficulty understanding. At 43, Sumiko Komata, right in the middle of
this yawning language divide, knows better, and slyly begins to pepper her
speech with borrowed terms like dilemma, policy and mental. A few moments
later she asks granddad if he understands, and he throws up his hands in

"To tell you the truth, if we go to a restaurant and I don't understand
what's on the menu, I just give it to her," Mr. Komata said, chuckling as
he gestured toward his daughter-in-law. "With all the new words, half the
time I have no idea what they are serving."

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