Katakana-happy Japan must again look to China


During times of friendly relations with Western nations, the Japanese have laid out a linguistic welcome mat to foreign vocabulary items, particularly English.

They generally import a word and then pummel it into a shape that fits Japanese pronunciation patterns. (English also takes this approach, as witnessed by sa-key and karry-oh-key, the none-too-accurate western pronunciations of sake and karaoke). In Japanese, loanwords are called gairaigo (“words coming from outside”) and written in katakana phonetic characters.

What might have been described a decade ago as a “flood” of gairaigo has now turned into a tsunami. Gairaigo opponents protest that overuse has already rendered a sizable chunk of Japanese incomprehensible to the average native speaker. Some confused citizens, including my Japanese mother-in-law, complain they can no longer understand publications from the local government, much less computer manuals, where gairaigo like gurafikaru-yuza-intafesu (graphic user interface) overwhelm the pre-e-mail generation.

Gairaigo hold an exotic, intellectual or otherwise dynamic appeal for many Japanese and are being increasingly used as substitutes for existing Japanese terms. My local sanfujinka (obstetrics/gynecology clinic) has recently metamorphosed into a Rediizu Kurinikku (Ladies’ Clinic). In December, the expression Uinta Gifuto (Winter Gifts) appeared in some advertisements for traditional New Year’s presents, o-seibo.

The National Japanese Language Research Institute has set up a hotline (03-3900-3320) for questions and information on gairaigo, and has also appointed a panel to craft 100 replacement words — all in kanji — every six months. A similar thing happened in the late 1800s, when scholars and bureaucrats, after two centuries of isolation, came up with kanji or compounds for Western concepts like “bank” (ginko) and “company” (kaisha). Some made-in-Japan kanji compounds such as keizai (economy) made their way to China, where they are still used.

In contrast to Japan, with its reliance on English-based loanwords, China continues to create new words for foreign concepts by combining kanji with appropriate meanings. For example, the Chinese word for “computer” uses the characters meaning “electric” and “brain.” “Electric brain” is easily understood by the average Chinese as it is similar to “electric ladder” (elevator), “electric vision machine” (television), and “electric speech” (telephone). [Of these four terms, only the one for “telephone” (pronounced denwa) is used in Japan; the other three are gairaigo].

The Chinese are thus spared the potential frustration of stumbling over unfamiliar pronunciations or divining the meanings of words that have been created for the foreign concepts now pouring into their country. Even computer terms are a snap: Take “keyboard,” which uses the kanji for — you guessed it — “key” and “board.” Japan uses its own kanji for this word (kenban) to refer to the keyboard of a piano, but opts for kii-bodo when it comes to computers. In Chinese, “Internet” is “reciprocal-connection-net” and CD-ROM is “shining disk” — which is easily distinguished from “soft disk” (floppy disk). “Mouse” uses a compound that includes the same character as the one for the rodent.

China’s meaning-based system for coining words runs into a problem with foreign names and places, however, because the underlying English “meaning” of, say, “Harry Potter,” is obscure — or nonexistent. When a purely phonetic representation is required, the usual solution is to use kanji exclusively for sound value. Thus, the young wizard’s name is often rendered as “laugh-profit wave-special” and pronounced Ha-li Bo-te. The kanji used for foreign names may vary by region or dialect: U.S. President “Bush” can be written “cloth-gentleman” or “cloth-hope” (Bu-shi). “Italy” is “think-big-profit” (Yi-da-li). In some happy cases, a kanji combo is hit upon where both sound and meaning are appropriate, as in “laser,” written “thunder-shoot” and pronounced lei-she.

For the core of their writing system, kanji, the Japanese looked to China 1,500 years ago. Perhaps Chinese may once again serve as a linguistic model for Japan as it attempts to hold back the tsunami of katakana-ized English loanwords.