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.

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 translation.

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 be precise.

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).”

“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 understand gairaigo.

“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 it.

Next on the list of the least familiar words was paburikku inborubument (public 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 using katakana.

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,” he said.

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 jargon.

“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) . . .”