As Japan struggles with the mushrooming of English loanwords in its midst, there are signs that the Japanese language might be exploring another new relationship with English — by absorbing the English alphabet and even some grammar directly.
This emerging trend is not to do with the superficial profusion of English lettering in advertising copy and the names of buildings. In fact it is potentially far more profound, and suggests Japanese may be on the way to adopting the English alphabet as its fourth set of characters along with hiragana, katakana and kanji.
One futurist who is predicting such a scenario is Jun Yamada, editor of a paperback book series at major Japanese-language publisher Kobunsha. When he launched the series in 2001, Yamada broke new ground by presenting the copy in lines running left to right, top to bottom on the pages, and by starting the book at the front as in Western publications — unlike typical Japanese books that start at what Westerners think of as the back, and have copy running top to bottom, right to left.
The paperback series, which Yamada targets at “successful businesspeople with experience of living overseas,” is printed on recycled paper and volumes are about the same size as normal Western paperbacks (which are usually bigger than those in Japan).
But the most controversial decision Yamada made was to insert English words and phrases throughout the copy — not yet as substitutes for Japanese (because few Japanese could understand stand-alone English words), but by sprinkling English translations for key phrases throughout the text.
“The era of globalization means the era of English,” said the outspoken editor, adding his conviction that “Japanese is a very flexible language. It can absorb the English alphabet with no problem.”
However, Yamada did admit that even now, more than five years after the series’ launch, he is still inundated with phone calls from angry readers. Undeterred, though, he said that, while seven out of 10 callers complain, he has no plans to quit the part-English policy. “I tell those people, ‘You are angry because you can’t read English. You don’t belong to our target audience, so don’t even bother to buy our books,’ ” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve run into fights like that.”
As outlandish as Yamada’s argument might be, there are bubbling signs that the Japanese language might indeed be Anglicizing, and already most school textbooks, government and business reports and e-mails are presented in lines running left to right from top to bottom.
Masamitsu Ito, a linguist at the department of Japanese Language Information and Resources at the National Institute for Japanese Language, has monitored the volume of English phrases in J-pop lyrics and found that mixing in English words — rather than katakana words — has become far more common since the 1980s.
“The English alphabet seems to be preferred because katakana phrases are ubiquitous and so they no longer sound fresh,” Ito said. “When you consider the size of English-language school chains, and the fact that so many Japanese are studying English, few people find it odd to find English around them any more.”
As a result, some movie titles and newspaper headlines today include “the” and “in” between Japanese words, although the grammatical concept of articles and prepositions has never existed in Japanese, Ito said. “It is quite a big deal (if everybody starts using those words), because it means Japanese grammar is changing as well.”