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The problem of loanwords in Japan, and returning them

by Amy Chavez

Most people agree that the borrowing of English words into the Japanese language has gone too far. The Japanese complain that they can’t understand the constant barrage of new katakana words that enter the lexicon, and foreigners complain they can’t understand the “English” meanings once they’ve been twisted from the original. Even the government has been known to step in and suggest compatible Japanese words to replace the foreign English ones. There are reportedly over 45,000 loanwords in the Japanese language, 90 percent of which have come from English.

I’d like to offer some solutions.

1. Return the English loanwords to the English language. With interest.

After all, these are borrowed words. If the Japanese are going to borrow them to enrich their own language, that’s fine. Everyone knows that slang and colorful expressions can enhance a language. But the words should be returned to the English language at some point. It might be a good idea to start writing up contracts and signing them to avoid further pilfering of words.

2. Continue to allow Japanese to borrow the words at a variable 3 percent interest rate.

The more interest Japan has to pay, the less likely it will keep words for extended periods. Should Japan continue to use words past their expiration date, the interest rate goes up. In the case of some words, such as “salaryman,” that appear to have real staying power, the government should then take the difference between the original interest rate and the new slightly higher rate, and distribute the difference among those most responsible for making the English language hip and cool: the native speakers residing in this country. Native English speakers should be able to line up at their respective embassies and receive monthly royalty checks on the use of our language.

3. Offer a reciprocal language agreement.

To offset the costs of borrowing tens of thousands of words, Japan could offer some Japanese words in exchange for English ones. For example, under a reciprocal language agreement English could receive the Japanese words shibui, samishii and natsukashii, all of which are concepts not represented by a word in the English language. Not that we don’t already have some Japanese words imported into English, but they are often of a morbid sort, such as kamikaze (a word captured during WWII), harakiri, and tsunami. Only karaoke is kind of nice, in a very “kind of” sort of way. Some of us still prefer to call karaoke by the traditional English, “singing along with the radio.”

I suggest the Japanese government take these actions into consideration soon because I fear an English language uprising. You see, a quiet dissatisfaction with the Japanese language has been quietly brewing for years among native English speakers here.

For example, take the loanword sekuhara, formulated from two English words “sexual” and “harassment.” Unflattering concepts such as “sexual harassment” are often expressed in English, ostensibly to distance them from Japanese culture. Sexual harassment is alive and well in Japan, however, and has nothing to do with the English language nor the people who speak it. There are many other words like this, including eizu (AIDS), ecchi (the English “H” but refers to eroticism, i.e.: pornography) and tero (terrorism) all of which give English a bad image. There is a linguistic libel suit brewing here.

Such blights on the English language and culture get the ire of those of us who speak English as a native language in Japan. After all, the Japanese language could make up its own word for “terrorism.” It strikes me as politically incorrect to associate such concepts solely with English, a minority language in Japan. Us minority language speakers could even claim compensation. Start lining up at your respective embassies to collect another monthly government check!

In addition, with Japan running huge deficits within itself, it is no surprise that a further language deficit of R’s and L’s is contributing to the decline of major economies around the world. Think of all the Japanese people who end up in Rondon, Brazil instead of London, England, or in Laos instead of Losu (Los Angeles). I’m sorry but this just reeks of identity theft!

Only after Japan has addressed these problems can the English language then compensate the French, German, Spanish and other languages it has pillaged for foreign words we still use today in English.