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During her March 25 news conference, which was held to address a sudden increase in COVID-19 cases in the capital, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike used visual aids and a script filled with foreign loan words to convince residents that they should stay at home so as to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Koike’s use of English words such as “lockdown” was completely in character. A former TV newsreader fluent in English, the governor often uses so-called loan words in public.

Defense Minister Taro Kono, also fluent in English, tweeted concern several days earlier that too much of the discussion of the coronavirus emergency included these foreign words that meant nothing to most Japanese, insisting that public officials use appropriate Japanese terms instead.

In an essay that appeared in the March 26 issue of Newsweek Japan, writer Akihiko Reizei, who lives in the United States, analyzed the possible reasons for this expanded use of katakana terms in relation to the current crisis.

Although he agreed with Kono that using the English words “cluster,” “overshoot” and “lockdown” instead of their respective Japanese equivalents, “shūdan kansen,” “kansen bakuhatsu” and “toshi heisa,” might sow confusion, he saw the method behind Koike’s reasoning and found it “sound.”

By using foreign words, Reizei theorized, Koike was able to convey a “sense of crisis.” Because Japanese has such a “rich vocabulary,” consisting of native words, words of Chinese origin and terms from other languages, there are many synonyms that offer a wide range of nuance for a single concept.

“Shūdan kansen” is already associated with seasonal flu, so using the same term to describe clusters of new coronavirus cases could send the wrong message — that the new virus is not as virulent as it really is. So in order to convey the seriousness of the situation, Koike uses the English word “cluster.”

However, Koike’s use of “cluster” is not precisely in line with the definition of the English word as used by experts.

The same goes for “overshoot,” which Koike, appropriating the usage from Dr. Shigeru Omi, one of the government’s experts on the coronavirus, used to describe a sudden exponential jump in infections. But that isn’t what the word means when it’s used by epidemiologists. Of course, people who are unfamiliar with any of those English words will take them as they are meant to be taken and, for sure, there are already many common katakana terms whose meaning is very different from that of their source word (for example, “mansion,” or “manshon”).

The problem is that public officials don’t always provide the proper context when they rely on carefully selected vocabulary to put across a desired message.

Koike may have wanted to stress the seriousness of the coronavirus emergency, but, due to the fact that no one really knew what constituted a “lockdown” in Tokyo, she had to be careful with her vocabulary.

The kind of context needed for the public to understand this message should be provided by the media, which isn’t always up to the task, but whether that’s due to linguistic inadequacy or editorial policy — too much context-providing can kill a news report dead in its tracks — is not clear.

Contrary to Reizei’s thesis, the Tokyo Shimbun on March 27 said Koike’s use of loan words did not, in fact, properly convey her intentions. A Tokyo Shimbun reporter went to Shibuya to ask young people on the street how well they understood the message.

One male high school student seemed to think “lockdown” was another word for the virus.

A 24-year-old woman said she’d only become aware of the word through TV and online news, but seemed unable to grasp its meaning.

A 19-year-old part-timer understood the implication but felt it had no connection to his life. He had to work to survive, so if the government didn’t compensate him, he wasn’t going to stay home.

According to J-Cast News, during a committee meeting on foreign affairs and defense in the Upper House, Taro Kono was asked to elaborate on his feelings about loan words, and he said he had requested that the health ministry use “understandable” Japanese terms when talking about the coronavirus.

When he was the regulatory reform minister in 2015-16, he attended a government conference about information technology and found that many participants were baffled by all the foreign words and acronyms being thrown about.

Ever since then he’s been urging government organs to stick to equivalent Japanese terms so that the public will understand what’s going on, regardless of the field.

One element that seems to be missing from the debate is whether equivalent Japanese terms adequately convey the intended meaning — or, for that matter, what meaning they are meant to convey in the first place.

Governments and those in positions of power are notorious for controlling dialogue through euphemism and indirection (“comfort women,” “collateral damage”), which means it’s up to the media to explain situations honestly and plainly.

After the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the government devised terms to describe surrounding areas that had been contaminated with radiation.

The terms were so carefully constructed that it was sometimes hard to tell what they were supposed to represent. “Keikakuteki hinan kuiki” means an “area for planned evacuation” but, in principle, no one was allowed to remain in these areas overnight.

The most tortuously devised term was probably “hinan shiji kaijo junbi kuiki,” or, “an area that is preparing for an evacuation order to be lifted,” which conveys a sense of hope but doesn’t actually tell you anything useful.

Interestingly, the areas with the highest radiation levels were designated as “kikan konnan kuiki,” which literally means “an area that is difficult to return to.”

The foreign press simply called them “forbidden zones,” because, in Japanese at least, “difficult” almost always means “no way.”

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