TV shows confront decline of Japanese language

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

Beginning this fall, four of the major commercial television networks began broadcasting variety programs aimed at rehabilitating Japanese television viewers’ inability to correctly utilize their native language. Why the sudden flood of kokugo (national language) programs?

Some observers trace the decline of the Japanese language to recent government education reforms. In 2002, the Japanese government revamped the school system. Its pet name for the project? “Relaxed education.” Ever since, many parents have been shocked to note that their offspring have difficulty in writing kanji at grade level. A number of these same moms and dads, increasingly reliant on Japanese word processing software, admit they are hard-pressed to handwrite the same kanji they expect their children to master.

Cries of alarm are also being raised about the state of the spoken language. Last February, an advisory panel to the Cultural Affairs Agency on kokugo reported that keigo (honorific, self-effacing, and polite language) is being widely misused by the Japanese populace. Sales of kokugo self-help books like Yasuo Kitahara’s million-seller “Mondai na Nihongo (Problematic Japanese)” are booming, and it was only a matter of time before the networks jumped on the kokugo rehabilitation bandwagon.

I took a look at four of these new offerings to see what sort of educational and/or entertainment value they might have for Japanese learners and, indeed, native speakers.

TBS managed to sign kokugo guru Kitahara himself to appear as a regular on its “Quiz! Nihongo-O!” (Thursdays, 6:55 p.m.), hosted by popular comedy duo Uchan-Nanchan, in which 30 celebrities compete for the title of “King of Japanese.” Kitahara expounds on answers to questions dealing with kanji compound words, kanji stroke order, place-name kanji, vocabulary, the meanings of frequently misused phrases, and so on. Based on the wide range of difficulty in the questions this program dishes up, Japanese learners at all levels, but particularly from the intermediate level up, could find it useful.

Another program Japanese learners at all levels may want to check out is TV Tokyo’s “O-Miyake-shiki (Miyake-style) Kokugo Drill” hosted by veteran emcee Yuji Miyake and his comic sidekick, Nigerian Bobby Orogon (Tuesdays, 8:00 p.m.). Most of the questions on this show deal with kanji, and the level (ranging from grade one of elementary school to kanji master) is provided for each. Five celebrity contestants play various games as they grapple with kanji compounds, pronunciations, homonyms, and kanji radicals.

“Anata Setsumei Dekimasu ka (Can You Explain It?)” on TBS (Wednesdays, 7:25 p.m.) asks hapless celebrity contestants to try to explain the difference between frequently confused words or phrases in Japanese. In one recent episode, for example, viewers learned the difference between sake (salmon, the fish itself) and shake (salmon after it has been prepared for human consumption). Long-term foreign residents may enjoy having those nagging questions about the differences in easily confused words answered by this show.

“Tamori no Japonica Rogosu” (Fuji TV, Tuesdays, 11 p.m.) gets my vote as the most entertaining of the lot. TV comic Tamori (he of the dark sunglasses) keeps his legendary cool humor on track while focusing on misused honorific language, vocabulary and grammar. Some weeks, he scours the nation to find actual examples of offending Japanese on signs, packaging and advertising, and four generally stumped celebrity contestants are required to figure out where the error is. At the end of the program, Tamori calls the person responsible for one of the misusages for a good-natured scolding. So far, none of the culprits has promised to correct their error, seemingly content to continue using “problematic Japanese.”

One thing these programs demonstrate is that “kokugo panic” may be well-founded. On one episode of “Quiz! Nihongo-O!” only 17 of 30 contestants could produce the kanji for nose, a character learned by third-grade elementary school students, and a mere four were able to write the second character in their national sport, sumo.

Come on, Japanese learners! With a little effort, even we can do better than that. Watching these new programs may actually be a fun way to get an edge on our native-speaking cohorts.