When does one’s native language stop being native?

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

A 71-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture made headlines recently when he attempted to initiate a lawsuit against broadcaster NHK. Through its excessive use of foreign derived words, the man claimed, NHK had caused him 精神的苦痛 (seishinteki kutsū, psychological pain). He demanded ¥1.41 million in 慰謝料 (isharyō, damages).

The local court refused to hear the case. But Nikkan Gendai newspaper (July 5) rose to the man’s defense, saying その気持ち、よく分かる (sono kimochi, yoku wakaru, that feeling is well understood), adding 政治もビジネスも、今やカタカナ語だらけ (seiji mo bijinesu mo ima ya katakana-go darake, now more than ever, politics and business are full of katakana loanwords).

だらけ(darake) is a useful descriptive suffix implying, negatively, that something is full of, or crawling with, whatever.

The term カタカナ語 (katakana-go) is used alternatively with 外来語 (gairaigo, words that come from outside, i.e., of foreign origin), but differentiates such words specifically as being written using the katakana syllabary, as opposed to borrowings from Chinese written in kanji.

Nikkan Gendai’s writer recalls that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first-term inaugural speech back in 2006, had used such awkward expressions as イノベーションの創造 (inobēshon no sōzō, creation of innovation) and テレワーク人口の倍増 (terewāku jinkō no baizō, doubling the number of teleworkers, i.e., telecommuters). These terms, said the writer, resulted in 多くの国民がチンプンカンプンだった (ōku no kokumin ga chinpun-kanpun datta, came across as gibberish to many citizens). チンプンカンプン (chinpun-kanpun, gibberish) is of indeterminate origin, although its close resemblance to the Mandarin Chinese phrase 聽不懂,看不懂 ting bu dong, kan bu dong, (literally “hear-not-understand, see-not-understand”) has not escaped notice.

While Abe appears to be making greater efforts to reduce use of katakana-go, plenty of other public figures continue to sprinkle their speech with unfamiliar word imports. The article singled out Keio University professor and economic pundit Heizo Takenaka as particularly notorious, citing such examples as 新たなフロンティアを作り出す (arata na furontia wo tsukuri dasu, to carve out new frontiers); 多様なリスクテイク (tayō na risuku teiku, diverse risk taking) and 営農者をスティミュレイトするのか (einōsha wo sutimyureito suru no ka, will this stimulate agribusiness operators?).

All three of the above, the article points out, have perfectly good ways to express the same thing using Japanese. Frontiers is 開拓地 (kaitakuchi); risk taking is 危険な受け入れ (kiken na ukeire); and stimulate is 刺激する (shigeki suru).

Kenji Uchida of the Hanashikata Kenkyujo (Way of Speaking Institute) advises when making business presentations, 先ずはできるだけ日本語に直して使うこと (Mazu wa dekirudake nihongo ni naoshite tsukau koto, the first thing is to revise it to use Japanese to the greatest extent possible). He added, カタカナ語を使ったら、<すなわち>や<つまり>で意味を説明するのもマナーです (Katakana-go wo tsukattara, “sunawachi” ya “tsumari” de imi wo setsumei suru no mo manā desu, If katakana-go are to be used, it is good manners to follow them with sunawachi or tsumari [both of which mean “in other words”] and explain their meaning).

To demonstrate how bad things have become, Nikkan Gendai points to such extreme cases as シルバーエイジの、アメニティーライフをサポートします (shirubā eiji no, amenitī raifu wo sapōto shimasu, to support an amenity-filled lifestyle for [people of] “silver age”).

Returning to the lawsuit, it occurred to me that the 71-year-old litigant, as a product of the postwar education system, would have been exposed to a huge number of foreign words during his lifetime. Take 1989, the year he turned 47, and also the year the Asahi Shimbun published a book titled カタカナ仕事 (katakana shigoto, katakana occupations) devoted entirely to occupations whose names were written in katakana. They included リフォーマー (reformer, a person who does clothing alterations); メーキャッパー (mēkyappā, make upper or makeup artist); ヒーブ (hību or HEIB, an acronym for home economist in business); フードスタイリスト (fūdo sutairisuto, food stylist); グリーンコーディネーター (gurīn kōdinētā, green coordinator or horticulturalist); イベントプランナー (ibento purannā, event planner); and PAミキサー (PA mikisā, a person who controls the audio for the public address system at concerts and other performances). With examples like the above, I wonder: why did he wait until now to sue someone for all those years of “suffering”?

  • Frank Thornton

    Being bicultural myself, I grew up speaking and still do speak a mix of Japanese and English when amongst my bicultural friends. Some things are just easier said in one language than the other. Some things just don’t translate into the other language. But, like I said. That’s only when I’m with other bilingual friends.
    What I don’t really like is when people, especially politicians and business people that are supposedly high up on the totem pole use katakana-go. My definition of katakana-go is a word/group of words that make no sense in English or used in the wrong text. A word/group of words in katakana that is used strickly by Japanese people for Japanese people to understand. I guess it’s supposed to be attractive and cool. Sort of like a Westerner wearing a kanji t-shirt but no having any idea of what it says….
    As long as there is katakana-go in Japan, many people will suffer when it comes to studying English.

  • I am reminded of a conversation some years ago with an Japanese acquaintance who worked at Mitsubishi Motors regarding a list of “Japanese” words and expressions the Education Ministry had promulgated as acceptable replacements for katakana words that were felt to be dificult for the elderly to understand. On the list was a ‘replacement” for the then-new(ish) expression アイドリングストップ (aidoringu sutoppu, “idling stop”, to turn off one’s engine when stopped and waiting at a traffic light or curbside). The “replacement” was the horribly unwieldy 一時停車エンジン停止 (ichiji teisha enjin teishi, stopping the engine of a temporarily stopped car). My acquaintance quickly jumped on the word “engine”, wondering why they left that in when they could have used the perfectly acceptable 100% Japanese word 発動機 (hatsudouki, engine or motor), pointing out how arbitrary the whole idea was. Why was it assumed by the Education Ministry that the elderly would be able to understand the katakana word for “engine” but not the expression “idling stop”? Even the most favorable interpretation smacked of ageism: the notion that “engine” had been in common usage for years and therefore even the elderly would have been familiar with it since they were younger, whereas “idling stop” was new and the elderly were no longer capable of processing new ideas and had to have things spelled out for them in awkward, unnatural, “proper” Japanese – albeit “Japanese” with a properly-aged katakana loanword in it.

    • Frank Thornton

      “idling stop”. That’s a good one too. Sounds like it should have been geared towards the boys that mugged a guy in Tokyo so they could go watch AKB48.. “Idoling stop” OK. Bad joke…
      No, but truthfully, if someone would have just reversed the words, “idling stop” to “stop idling”, it would have gone down as “English” in my book rather than “katakana-go”. Sort of like “Say Yes”. You could tell someone to “stop idling” or use it as a catchphrase, a “Stop Idling” campaign. That would’ve worked well in Japan.

    • Mark Makino

      It may seem arbitrary, but it is absolutely true that loanwords can be considered a part of the native lexicon to a greater or lesser degree based on how long they’ve been used, among other things. Almost everything about human language is objectively arbitrary, and only gains the semblance of form and standards by common agreement. Hence the inclusion of “エンジン” and exclusion of “アイドリングストップ” is arbitrary but only as arbitrary as anything else people do with words.

  • Mwani

    I remember reading an article some years ago on another site, where a Japanese man, presumably an older one, blamed Japan’s high rate of malaise and even suicide on too much adoption of English loan words and such into Japanese language. He may have also meant the culture too but I don’t remember. Anyway, the gist of his letter was that it was what was wrong with Nippon. He cited the example of the Tokyo “Sky Tree” being named with English words. I think he didn’t like it. What do you guys think about it?

  • frankly, this says much about the loss of innovative power in Japanese language. Back hundred years ago when Meiji Restoration started, the Japanese created so many new words from Western intellectual ideas that today’s Chinese and Korean are full of 和製漢語 at high intellectual discourse. Its rather interesting to note that this innovative process completely died in Japan so much so that even a more basic concept like “nationalism” is now ナショナリズム rather than 国家主義 or 国民主義

  • Ryan Deleuze

    “When does one’s native language stop being native?”

    ones, not one’s.

    • vpprof

      Errrr… why? Can’t you tell the difference:
      1. One should always mind one’s business.
      2. Decorate the room with blue flowers instead of the red ones.

      Honestly, not being able to tell the difference between a possessive form and the plural doesn’t put you in a good position to lecture others. (NOT other’s)

  • nouveau_ukiyo

    Kanji comes from China and many 漢語 (kango) words are of Chinese origin. Maybe these Japanese language purist should take their initiative further and eliminate all foreign influence on their language by purging kanji and kango? I believe North Korea has tried to do this to a certain degree by discouraging the use of some Chinese-derived Korean words in favor of “native” Korean words. The government of Quebec does something similar too; they make up French words to replace English loan words. The same process does not happen as much in France, so in a way the French in Quebec is more French than French in France. There are many more examples of this; Japan is not unique regarding the large amount of English loanwords creeping into their language. Language are like living organisms and will continue to evolve and change. I find it funny how there are so many people around the world who won’t accept this fact and believe that their native languages came into existence in isolation and have remained unchanged since the beginning of time.

    • Jean-Michel Levy

      Sorry, that’s not a very useful comment. When kanji together with a lot of chinese words were first imported, japanese wasn’t a written langage. So these are really part of classical japanese. And the chinese langage itself fed back on many japanese inventions, both kokuji and kango over the centuries. Nothing to do with present day katakanago snobism. Langages do exchange, but there is rythm not to overtake, least a langage becomes unclear and loses its communicating power together with its beauty. In that respect, web and sms and many modern ‘communication’ channels are a plague. Overuse of english originating katakanago is but another symptom of a serious pandemia.

  • Sik

    Honestly I also think suing like that is overkill, but yeah those examples are still ridiculous. I mean, one thing is new stuff that probably doesn’t have proper terminology yet (especially technical things, which I actually deal with a lot) but those examples definitely are *not* that.

  • Brian Ryskind

    To be honest I find it quite sloppy how a lot of articles have 漢字 (kanji, Chinese characters), ローマ字 (rōmaji, English letters) and the 英訳 (eiyaku, translation). It really 流れに割り込む (nagare ni moshikomu, interrupts the flow) and makes the articles 不要に時間を増やす (fuyō ni jikan wo fuyasu, take a longer time without purpose). I can understand the idea of reading newspapers as practice for reading another language, but chances are if they can read the kanji they don’t need the romaji or the translation, and if they need the romaji the kanji is too high level. Maybe I’m only thinking from the perspective of someone with JLPT1 on a computer over someone with a paper copy, but could probably do with kanji/trans or romaji/trans over kanji/romaji/trans. It sounds good in theory but in practice it’s innefficient, just like many Japanese business practices (whoops, did I just say that out loud?)

    To be clear: I’m not complaining because things are typed in 2 languages, I’m merely commenting on how writing the same word 3 times in the middle of a sentence makes the flow … well, not flow. Sorry that this turned into a rant.

    • Hanten

      Brian, I am sure you’ve noticed that not all articles in The Japan Times have inserted a kanji word or phrase, the romaji and then the translation two or three times a paragraph. The reason this article did is that its the Bilingual column written to provide real meaningful news or cultural information along with some Japanese language learning opportunities.
      As you say, your level may not the one they’re targeting. Having the romaji helps us lower level Japanese students look up the kanji compounds to learn its parts. I would actually like the furigana for the kanji to be included in there, as well because I need practice reading that. That’d interrupt your reading flow even more!

  • Devil Dude

    I am surprised that I am the first to comment on the delicious irony contained in the quote by Kenji Uchida:

    He says to “use Japanese first”, then chooses to use the katakana word 「マナー」 instead of the perfectly acceptable & understandable Japanese word 「礼儀」 to tell us that using Japanese at first is the polite thing to do.

    So does this apparent “Do as I say, not as I do…” attitude make him a 「偽善者」, or a 「ヒパクリット」?

  • tommy92

    Loan words are a normal part of any language and can add to its richness, but I do agree that sometimes the Japanese over do it. Especially for things that are concepts or descriptions of some sort. Using the katakana English word for nationalism, for example, has no real meaning in Japanese. In English the word provides the listener with a basis for understanding. It communicates a meaning even if the word is not completely understood, It aids communication or understanding. Too much katakana English confuses understanding, communication becomes less efficient.

    When I was first learning Japanese and practised reading while shopping, I was surprised to read one day that “hand soap” in Japanese is katakana “hando sopo”. Completely meaningless in Japanese, but a description in English. If an English person first sees a product called “hand soap”, “ear soap”, etc., they understand what it is. A meaning is given to the reader/listener. In Japanese you need to be told what it means the first time you hear it or read it.

  • C321

    There is a vast amount of Chinese in the Japanese language you don’t hear people complaining about that! It is the sign of a strong language when it can confidently adopt new words from other languages. Look how fragile French is for example, it needs it own government regulator to help protect it!