The long Japanese love affair with foreign words, from sake to sōpurando

by Roger Pulvers

First Of Two Parts

I wouldn’t blame some readers for assuming that an article about foreign borrowings in these times of economic crisis would delve into the subprimal world of international finance. But I write this week and next not about leverage but linguistics.

While the overwhelming majority of Japanese words that have their origin in gairaigo (外来語, words imported from other languages) are English ones, this was not always the case. Languages other than English made early and heavy inroads into Japanese, and it is these that I focus on here (please note that words from Chinese, great in number, are beyond the scope of this piece.)

Among the earliest foreign imports into the Japanese language were no doubt words from Ainu and Sanskrit. The Ainu gave the Japanese sake (鮭, salmon; not 酒, rice wine, which they presumably concocted themselves) and rakko (ラッコ, otter). As for Sanskrit, many Buddhist terms in Japanese originate in that language, such as daruma (ダルマ), for “dharma.”

Then it was the nanbansen (南蛮船, galleons primarily from Europe’s Iberian Peninsula as well as those of Dutch traders) that brought a slew of new words and expressions to Japan hundreds of years before Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships from the United States “opened” Japan to the West in the middle of the 19th century. Even things as “Japanese” as the kappa (合羽, raincoat) and tabako (タバコ, cigarettes), are originally Portuguese, both introduced in the first decade of the 17th century.

Some words brought to Japan by the old sailing ships had non-European origins. Kiseru (キセル, pipes for smoking with long stems and tiny bowls) that were all the rage in the Edo Period (1603-1867) derive their name from a word that originated as khsier in Cambodia. In fact, the very name of that country gave Japanese the word kabocha (かぼちゃ, pumpkin).

As for Dutch, without that Germanic language, Japanese may well have had no konpasu (コンパス, compass), gomu (ゴム, rubber) or bīru (ビール, beer). This might have left the Japanese up the proverbial creek, unable to have safe sex or get drunk.

The French gave the Japanese, and the world, the metric system of weights and measures and some common words for articles of clothing, hence mētoru (メートル, meter) and zubon (ズボン, pants). A more mundane borrowing is pīman (ピーマン, bell pepper).

Perhaps the most commonly used Japanese word borrowed from German, particularly in the current economic climate, is the one for part-time job. Arbeit, the German word for work, spawned arubaito (アルバイト), which is even abbreviated to the casual baito (バイト). Also, if you are hospitalized, you will be given a karute (カルテ, a large card with your medical records on it). Please don’t ask for karuta (カルタ, Japanese playing cards), a term originally from Dutch, not German. Leave it to the hospital to gamble with your fate.

Many Japanese medical terms are from German, though there are also other creative contributions, such as meruhen (メルヘン, fairy tales) and metoronōmu (メトロノーム, metronome), the latter having entered the language in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Getting back to gambling, Italian gave Japanese the kajino (カジノ, casino); they also lent pasuta (パスタ, pasta), so I guess the influence evens out.

Certain people in every country decry the use of foreign borrowings in their language, but to my mind, they represent an openness to the outside world that symbolizes liberal thought and tolerance. When Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world for approximately two and a half centuries from the beginning of the 17th century, the number of borrowed words decreased to a trickle. When the country reopened to trade and travel, a flood of foreign words rushed in, aiding the modernization of society and commerce.

The Japanese have adapted many of these words to their own needs, sometimes “re-creating” expressions. English may have been the starting point for some words, but native English speakers who have little or no contact with Japan would be hard-pressed to recognize ōbādokutā (オーバードクター, “overdoctor”), sōpurando (ソープランド, “soapland”) and paipukatto (パイプカット, “pipecut”). If you happen to be an overqualified academic visiting a red-light district and are in need of a vasectomy, you had better commit these handy terms to memory.