According to a survey from late last year, over 80 percent of the Japanese population has some difficulty reading katakana, the syllabary specially used for foreign terms.
Normally such a glitch would raise the hair on Japanese conservatives who love to grumble that younger generations are fumbling away the nation’s heritage. Yet, 80 percent is a fairly inclusive figure. It seems most of Japan is at last coming to see what foreigners here have known all along:
Katakana is a pain in the whoopee seat. Wouldn’t life be wonderful without it?
Since the end of World War II, foreign loan words have poured into the Japanese language like land-hungry sailors scrambling for shore leave. The Occupation gave a major boost to such terms, quickly followed by the Western one-two punch of entertainment and technology. Six years of compulsory English education haven’t slowed things either.
Nowadays, loan words season the entire language. People can hardly communicate without them.
Yet, for most language students, speaking and hearing are one thing, while writing and reading are something else. Katakana doesn’t receive the visual reinforcement of Chinese characters and the more common hiragana, meaning that for many foreign learners it is easily forgotten — an unwanted pothole in the winding road of Japanese life.
One common place to trip up is at a restaurant, since most menus crawl with katakana. Foreigners typically prefer ordering from photographs or plastic displays, both of which read easy. Katakana requires squinting and finger wiggling.
Husband (squinting): “This sort of looks like the kana in my name, only backwards.”
Wife (wiggling her finger): “Wait, I think this is a ‘yu!’ What foods start with ‘yu!?’ “
Katakana also throws a wrecking ball at loan-word pronunciation, mangling foreign sounds to fit the contortions of the Japanese tongue. Take names, for example. New arrivals in Japan have to choose one horn of a slippery dilemma. Do they want to katakana-ize their name like it sounds — in which case people will address them half-accurately, but write their name with a spelling out of hell? Or katakana-ize along orthographic lines — in which case Japanese may spell the name right, but invariably pronounce it wackily?
A problem much larger than names is the flood of borrowed terms. Katakana loan words do not lend grease to jerky communication. On the contrary, they often knock pronunciation out of all comprehensible kilter.
“Teacher, I forgot my tekisutobukku!”
“You forgot your what?”
“My TEKISUTOBUKKU! TEKISUTOBUKKU!”
At this point the student squints her face into a frown, wiggles katakana in the air with her finger and glares at the man, wondering what kind of English teacher doesn’t even know the word “textbook.”
Furthermore, many Japanese assume that if a word is katakana-ized, every foreigner should know it.
From a medical office:
A Japanese physician leans in at a sickly foreign patient and confidently pronounces his ailment — in a katakana word 38 syllables long.
The physician clears his throat, aware that all his nurses are listening. He growls the word again, upset that the foreigner does not know a simple English expression that he himself learned in a 700-level pathology course.
Unique Japanese meanings for borrowed terms only compound the problem. Go on. Ask a Japanese friend to set their hands on their “hips.” Then watch where they put them.
Or take, “Hit! Foot! Get!” the enigmatic motto of the Seibu Lions baseball team. This blast of borrowed English might sound inspiring to Seibu’s Japanese players, but may well be the reason why the team’s foreign imports struck out last year. How do you follow a motto you can’t understand? Especially when — supposedly — it’s in your own tongue?
Katakana takes as special victims learners from China. Seemingly at an advantage because they arrive with kanji software pre-installed, katakana-ed loan words lurk as bandits on the high road to fluency. For instead of one new lexicon, Chinese students find themselves having to study two: one straight Japanese and the other a Westernized web of katakana.
Of course, the main reason why 80 percent of Japanese are now butting heads with their foreign syllabary is the recent gush of borrowed computer terms. Throw in an aging population with no taste for such technology and the essence of the problem sifts clear. Katakana loan words are outstripping the learning pace of older generations.
My not-so-original answer to all this? Flush katakana altogether and Romanize foreign terms instead. The results being better loan word pronunciation, more accurate loan word comprehension and an overall clearer emphasis on what language is all about: communication.
I recently battered this drum with my wife — who teaches Japanese about town. Normally a never-say-die defender of her native language, I was surprised at how quickly she agreed with me.
“You like the idea?”
She nodded. “Very much. And I think we should drop katakana on the exact same day English reforms its crazy spelling rules. How’s that?”
I stared at her, the sour smell of “Touche!” pinching through the air. Then glumly pronounced:
“You know, you can be a pain in the whoopee seat too.”
She thought for a moment, then blinked out:
“Oh . . . I guess you mean my hips.”
And, uh, well, touche!