Japanese: A language in a state of flux: 'Torrential' import of foreign words threatens the basis of communication
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Sun Sep 23 18:30:20 UTC 2007
Japanese: A language in a state of flux
'Torrential' import of foreign words threatens the basis of communication
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Languages are never static. They change and evolve with people over time.
They also interact with other languages, and through an endless cycle of
loaning and borrowing of words, ideas and concepts are shared, exchanged and
nurtured across national and cultural boundaries.
[image: News photo] *Japanese as it is now often written, with headlines
announcing "Manga Creating a Worldwide Sensation"; "Can't Wait for the
Special Night"; "iPhone to go on Sale"; "Always I Love You More than You";
"Nobody Else I Can Love that Much"; and "Check the Web for Details." As
well, keen students may be able to read the katakana versions of 11 English
expressions that most baffled people in a survey of native Japanese
speakers, namely: road pricing, public involvement, incubation, enforcement,
consortium, off-site center, accessibility, accountability, agenda,
recipient and task force. *SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO / JT ILLUSTRATION
But the torrential influx of foreign words into the Japanese language in
recent years — overwhelmingly, these days, from English — has got linguists
and also language policymakers here worried. They say the use of these
so-called loanwords, known as *gairaigo *in Japanese, has happened at such a
rate that many Japanese are now unable to fully understand each other. That
is because while one may use loanwords just to show off — despite there
being plenty of Japanese expressions to convey the same meaning — the other
may not understand a word rooted in another language. In other words,
communication is being lost — not in translation, but because of no
Not that this is a new phenomenon. The abuse and misuse of gairaigo —
conventionally written in katakana characters — has been raising eyebrows
for decades. Basically, that's because of kanji, or loanwords' lack of it to
Japan started importing kanji (Chinese characters) as early as before the
Asuka Period (592-710), and now uses them in modified forms as the integral
core of the Japanese language. As Japan opened itself to the West at the
dawn of the Meiji Era in 1868 after 250 years of isolation, a veritable
tsunami of new concepts and new things arrived here. But as the words used
to describe these innovations were generally written in kanji, all Japanese
people were able to comprehend and digest these harbingers of rapid change.
"The Japanese people have, for more than 1,000 years, used the Chinese
language they had also imported to increase, refine and digest their
vocabulary," the noted linguist Susumu Ono wrote in his 2002 book titled
"Nihongo no Kyoshitsu (The Class of Japanese)."
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"If we had lived in a world without kanji, we would have never been able to
absorb European influences as quickly as we did," he said.
However, for the past several decades, and especially since the end of World
War II, Japanese have increasingly relied on gairaigo loanwords to absorb
technologies and concepts from abroad. In the process, meanings have been
lost to many people. Unlike kanji, which are ideograms whose combinations
can convey intricate nuances of meaning, katakana characters are phonograms,
meaning they convey only the sound of a word — though their Japanized
pronunciations often bear little resemblance to those of the English
originals. It's also not unusual for imported words to take on different
meanings in Japanese, such as *ridusu* (derived from "reduce"), which in
Japanese refers only to "reducing" — in other words, cutting down — the
amount of garbage we create.
But as the volume of katakana vocabulary continues to expand, so
communication problems are growing, experts say.
Yuichiro Yamada, professor of language policy at Hiroshima Shudo University,
and author of a 2005 book titled "Gairaigo no Shakai-gaku: Ingo-ka Suru
Komyunikeshon (The Sociology of Gairaigo: Communication Increasingly
Controlled by Jargon)," singles out intellectuals and professionals for
particular blame in the import of English terms and the massive ensuing
confusion surrounding katakana words. The katakana deluge, Yamada contends,
is also occurring in part because of Japanese people's long-standing sense
of inferiority regarding all things Western. All of this has led people to
spend their time exchanging messages with no information — making words
simply a tool for sending "signals" and "feelings."
"In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), people who imported new concepts and ideas
also played the role of educators," Yamada recently told The Japan Times. He
also observed that as more and more gairaigo today are related to abstract
concepts and ideas — rather than words to describe concrete objects, such as
*terebi* (television) — it is becoming even harder for ordinary people to
"We are seeing more and more small groups of *otaku* (obsessive) people who
pompously use 'jargon' just so they can show off their knowledge," Yamada
said. "If the loanword they start using becomes popular, they almost take it
as an accomplishment."
Curious as to the kind of jargon to which he refers? In June 2006, the
National Institute for Japanese Language published a book with a list of
gairaigo people deemed incomprehensible. The report was partly based on
surveys of up to 3,000 Japanese between 2002 and 2004, in which the
institute asked them their level of recognition, understanding and usage of
450 katakana words. The least understood gairaigo, the survey found, was *rodo
puraishingu* (derived from "road pricing," this refers to the act of
charging drivers to use certain roads and parking areas in order to reduce
congestion or minimize environmental impact).
Only 6.1 percent of the respondents had heard of the term, a mere 3 percent
understood it and just 0.5 percent used it. Among those aged 60 and older,
only 2 percent had heard of the term, and not a single respondent had used
Next on the list of the least familiar words was *paburikku
involvement), which is government jargon for "citizen participation in
policy-planning." Only 3 percent of the respondents understood what the term
meant — rather begging the question of how many people would become involved
in whatever government initiative was on offer.
The national institute's survey also found that more than half of the
respondents said they hoped katakana jargon would be replaced by Japanese
words, especially in fields such as politics, the economy, medicine and
welfare. In areas such as fashion, sports, cooking and music, meanwhile,
fewer than 10 percent of respondents hoped for substitutes.
With such public opinions in mind, the institute's book lists Japanese
(meaning kanji) substitutes for existing katakana loanwords, urging national
and municipal government agencies, as well as newspapers, to refrain from
But Yamada says such lists will do little to help the situation. "There is
no way the institute can catch up with the speed of new gairaigo coming in,"
Instead, Yamada says people will need to combat the onslaught of katakana
words by themselves. But for that to happen, individualism — which he says
should not be confused with egoism — will need to take root in Japan.
"If you are visiting a government office and officials there start using
gairaigo you don't understand, you must press them to explain in a language
you can understand," he said.
Perhaps the next prime minister of Japan can demonstrate linguistic, as well
as political, leadership. Whoever that person is, he would have to do better
than his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who, despite his nationalist policies and
his "Beautiful Japan" slogan, often sprinkled his speeches with katakana
"To create a 'beautiful Japan,' we need to remind ourselves once again how
great and wonderful our nation is," Abe told the Diet in his policy speech
in January. "We will start a new, future-oriented *purojekuto* (project)
aimed at strategically sending, both within Japan and abroad, the new
Japanese *kauntori aidentiti* (country identity) . . ."
The Japan Times: Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007
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