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Japanese is affecting the English lexicon in new ways

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Special To The Japan Times

The earliest Japanese loanword to appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, kuge (court noble), came in 1577. By 2014, a study by Kinjo Gakuin University researcher Schun Doi had found 584 loan words.

Since Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships forced Japan open to trade in the 19th century, such loanwords have repaid the favor by contributing to the English language. The internet and increased travel now allow people to increasingly catapult their linguistic heritages — and attendant values — into each others’ lives.

The term “emoji” is a good example. It first appeared in the OED in a 1997 citation from the Nikkei Weekly, but didn’t make the dictionary until 2013. The year before last, it was dubbed Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for reflecting “the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015.” Oxford says the use of emoji more than tripled compared to 2014, allowing it to beat out words such as “refugee” and “lumbersexual.” OED President Casper Grathwohl cited Hillary Clinton’s request for people to send emojis in response to a campaign question, and the debate over emoji skin tones as signs of how the word moved from teen jargon into the main lexicon. He added that emoji pictograms suit our “obsessively immediate” times perfectly, an example of how Japan’s preference for visual communication has hit a nerve overseas.


Indra Levy, associate professor of Japanese literature at California’s Stanford University, notes that whereas precedents often named a specifically Japanese object (“geisha” or “anime”), the latest loanwords represent a new level of interplay between Japan and the world. She says these words show, “the broadening and deepening of Japan’s international influence on ‘high popular culture,’ by which I mean the vocabulary of daily life — eating, emailing or texting, and consuming — shared by countries around the world that enjoy large middle-class populations.”

So how exactly do loanwords “become” English? There’s no absolute litmus test. In the formal world of dictionaries, lexicographers pore over traditional media, literature and an expanding myriad of web-based forms. Experts at Merriam-Webster decide a word merits inclusion when usage benchmarks are reached: “A word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time … and have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency and meaning.”

Out in the real world, Doi loosely identifies three phases in the process of migration from Japanese to English.

“In the initial stage, words are paraphrased by easily recognizable words or phrases to guarantee that the foreign words employed are understood,” he says. “Then, attributive usages appear as a transitional phase. To finish the naturalization process, the loanwords acquire greater productivity and in due course achieve the fully incorporated status.”

For example, “origami” first appeard in the OED in a citation from Samuel Randlett’s 1961 book “The Art of Origami,” where it is described as an art of “individually unique, folded paper.” In 1972, it was attributed in Celia Fremlin’s novel “Appointment with Yesterday” as “origami cut-outs.” In 1996, it is printed in The Australian requiring no explanation: “Proteins also need to be folded into shape and this biological origami is not always flawless.”

It’s hard not to notice the rapid penetration of Japanese cultural signifiers into daily discourse. As terms such as “emoji,” “umami” and “KonMari” show, Japanese concepts — rather than simple objects (sushi), people (samurai) or practices (karate) — are resonating with the way we live our lives.

Vectors for the migration of loanwords include: food, where highly specific terms such as “dashi” (Japanese soup stock) are employed by knowing chefs and “umami” represents a recently discovered fifth flavor; technology, where photographers use the word “bokeh” to describe the soft-focus look provided by expensive lenses; and increasingly in the realms of media, art, lifestyle and fashion.

Japanese words are often deployed to demonstrate one’s area of expertise. W. David Marx, the author of “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style,” says he was, “surprised to see that jeans fans used the words ‘tate-ochi‘ for that specific fading style of vertical lines.”

Stanford’s Levy believes the embrace of loanwords such as “emoji” and “KonMari” represents a sea change in relations between Japan and the world, in the sense that these words acknowledge a Japanese expression for phenomena considered to be universal, but that were as yet unnamed in other languages.

The rapid naturalization of “KonMari” shows the amped speeds at which the process can now occur. The word began simply as the name of the author of a series of books on decluttering by Marie Kondo that took off in the West with the 2014 best-seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

By 2016, in a New York Times magazine feature, a writer was quoting a woman saying she had “KonMaried” her boyfriend.

“Having tidied everything in her home and finding she still distinctly lacked happiness,” the author writes, “she held her boyfriend in her hands, realized he no longer sparked joy and got rid of him.”

Levy says the popularization of “KonMari” is down to the genius of Cathy Hirano’s translation and the marketing strategy of Ten Speed Press. Noting that Kondo’s success “represents a popular version of anti-consumerism that can directly speak to any advanced consumerist culture,” she also cautions that when it comes to perceptions of Japan, the more things change the more they stay the same.

“The fact that the English translation of her work became a best-seller has to do with its unique combination of a lifestyle issue shared across the Pacific,” she says, “and the exoticizing subtitle ‘The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.’ ”

Levy says without the stress on “Japanese art,” the book would likely not have become a New York Times best-seller.

“In that sense,” she concludes, “despite the deepening of Japan’s international influence, exoticism continues to be an important part of how Japan sustains its relevance to the Western world, for better or worse.”