Language | BILINGUAL

How do I struggle with katakana? Let me count the ways

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

First in a two-part series.

When Toho Studios released its new sci-fi action film シン・ゴジラ (Shin Gojira, “Shin Godzilla”) in July, several writers were moved to comment on use of katakana in its title. “Shin” has dozens of possible kanji readings, and while readers’ natural tendency would be to assume this particular “shin” signified 新 (new), use of katakana had the effect of leaving the intended meaning open to other interpretations.

Might not the “shin,” some wondered, instead mean 真 (real)? Or 進 (evolved)? Or 信 (belief)? Or even 神 (god)?

Nuances aside, the use of katakana in the film’s title caught on with the public and was soon generating spin-offs. Since Yuriko Koike, the newly elected governor of Tokyo, immediately set to work shaking up the old order, some wags began referring to her, using the same katakana, as シン・♀都知事 (shin onna tochiji, “shin” female metropolitan governor), thereby humorously associating her with the fearsome but fortunately fictitious monster.

Saddled with having to memorize the 46 basic hiragana and several thousand kanji, I get the feeling that many learners of Japanese, given the choice, would probably be grateful if they didn’t have to learn katakana too. If you think “Engelbert Humperdinck” is awkward to pronounce, try getting your tongue around エングルバート・フンパーディンク (Engerubāto Funpādinku) and you’ll be soon singing “Please release me” (from katakana).

With their sharp, angular lines, katakana are less aesthetically pleasing than hiragana. They look, rather, like assorted clutter from the kanji junkyard (which is basically what they are). They are unloved, I suspect, even by most Japanese. After all, who has ever heard of katakana calligraphy contests?

Still, katakana have been in use for over 1,000 years. Like the gracefully curving hiragana, they are derived from kanji and some, their appearance notwithstanding, are based on the same kanji as hiragana. For instance, the hiragana く (ku) doesn’t resemble the katakana ク (ku) in the slightest, but both are based on 久 (ku or hisa), meaning “a long time.”

Katakana represent the wildcard attribute of the Japanese writing system, filling in for all kinds of tasks and functions, and, unfortunately, there’s no way around learning them. Over the next two columns, I’ll be discussing their various uses.

1. Articulating the foreign

First and almost certainly the most common is to transcribe words of foreign derivation. These imports took a sharp leap with the arrival of the first Europeans from the mid-15th century. Some words, like ビードロ (biidoro, glass, from the Portuguese vidoro) were later superseded by newer imports, in this case the English ガラス (garasu).

I used to find ライス (raisu, rice) a bit annoying. Why use an import when Japanese obviously has not one but many perfectly good native words for the same thing? The distinction, it would appear, is that unlike ご飯 (gohan), which is served in bowls and eaten with chopsticks, raisu is served on a plate and eaten with a fork or spoon.

Reference books containing tens of thousands of katakana terms, compiled in カタカナ語辞典 (katakana-go jiten, dictionaries of katakana words), are offered by Sanseido and several other publishers. They also include 和製英語 (wasei eigo, English terms created in Japan) such as シャッターチャンス (shattā chansu, shutter chance, i.e., a photo opportunity). There are also so-called カタカナ仕事 (katakana shigoto, “katakana jobs”), used to describe occupations like イベントプランナー (ibento purannā, event planner), which has no handy equivalent in Japanese.

2. Bringing out your brand

Katakana are abundant in brand names, product names, company logos, trademarks and names of medicines and pharmaceuticals. A good example would be イトーヨーカ堂 (Ito Yokado), whose original name for the store founded in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1920, was 羊華堂洋品店 (Yōkadō Yōhinten, literally, “Sheep Flower Emporium Western-style goods shop”). “Ito” came from the surname of its owner, and sheep refers to the astrological year of birth of the founder’s maternal uncle.

Or take Daihatsu Motors, which writes both its corporate name and logo in katakana as ダイハツ. Its name derives from 大阪発動機 (Ōsaka hatsudōki, Osaka engines), with the Ō in Ōsaka changed to the on reading of the kanji, dai.

3. Onomatopoeia

Glance at any manga and you’re likely to find a stream of emotive katakana words corresponding to “Pow!” “Wham!” “Ugh!” and “Crash!” They can also be combined with kanji: To kiss someone in a public place is referred to as 路上チュー (rojō chū) or 路チュー (ro-chū) for short, with a small ッ (tsu) commonly added after the chū to emphasize the smack produced when the lips break off contact.

4. Names, nicknames and aliases

In 1994, the career of a promising young baseball player named 鈴木一郎 (Suzuki Ichirō, Ichiro Suzuki) began taking off. His manager, aware that Suzuki is Japan’s second most common surname, suggested he might attract more notice by using only his first name, written out in katakana as イチロー (Ichirō). It certainly worked.

There’s no particular stigma against using katakana in people’s given names — you see it frequently in such names as Erika, Mari or Risa, for example. Katakana also works fine for nicknames — SMAP member 木村拓哉 (Kimura Takuya) is popularly referred to as キムタク (Kimutaku).

This series concludes next Tuesday.