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Foreign Words Invade Traditional Japanese

A 71-year-old man is suing Japan's public broadcaster NHK for the mental distress they have caused him through their excessive use of foreign words. He is literally lost in translation, in his very own country.

Image of katakana by flickr user mroach. (CC BY SA.2.0)

Image of katakana by flickr user mroach.(CC BY SA.2.0)

The elderly man is frustrated with the TV channel's use of loanwords which phonetically-mimic foreign expressions but are transcribed in the Japanese alphabet katakanaTo him they are just a bunch of letters, which do not give contextual meaning in his native Japanese.

For example, in these phonetically described loanwords: “preview” is written “プレビュー” (pronounced purebyu), “draft” is written “ドラフト” (pronounced dorafuto). What made no sense to the old man was the use of words like “care” and “risk” in public broadcasts, which have equivalents in Japanese, he thinks the broadcaster is violating his right to access information, and his right to pursue happiness.

The use of foreign words is not a problem limited to old men, but also to the larger public. Japan's Agency of Cultural Affairs noted [ja] that the increasing use of foreign words is impairing the beauty of traditional Japanese, and hindering communication between the young and old. In a government survey on loanwords in 2007, understanding of katakana words such as “empowerment” and “literacy” was less than 10 % [ja] but overall understanding of loanwords was increasing. Given the excessive use of foreign words in daily communication, Kentaro Takahashi published a book [ja] in September 2012 to explain what commonly used katakana really means in plain Japanese.

image of katakana

Katakana to describe foreign words in Japanese. Image by flickr user WordRidden (CC BY 2.0)

Journalist Toshinao Sasaki who wrote a book about curation in the social media age, was in a dilemma about using katakana in describing the very concept his book was about [ja]:

@sasakitoshinao キュレーションとかも美しい日本語にはできなかったので、カタカナのままだった。変に大和言葉にすると、たとえば「ホホエミスト」とかなんか気持ち悪い感じになっちゃったりするし。ことばは本当難しい。

I couldn't find the right translation of “curation” in Japanese, so I left it as it is. Language is difficult.Translating foreign concepts into native Japanese can be strange sometimes.

Anthropologist Ichiro Numazaki gave his thoughts on foreign words on Twitter:

@Ichy_Numa サッカーを蹴球と言えと言う人が今時いるか? サポーターじゃなくて応援団か? ワールドカップは分かりにくいから世界杯と言うべきか? カタカナ語批判は、実はカタカナが嫌なんじゃなくて、そのカタカナ語の示す新しい概念が嫌いなんだよ。それをカタカナのせいにしてるだけ。

Who would say shukyu[old word for kicking ball] to describe soccer today? Is it better to stop saying “supporters” [in katakana] and refer to them as “応援団”[traditional word for cheering comrade]? I don't think so. Critics of foreign words in katakana, hate the use of a new words when it describes new concepts. Not that they hate katakana itself.

There was a time when foreign words introduced in Japan were literally translated, and allocated existing kanji (Chinese script) and hiragana (Japanese script) words to match their actual meanings. Words like “freedom” and “democracy” which were imported in the late 19th century, were translated into Japanese using kanji and became “自由“[ja] and “民主主義“[ja]. Even though these words were new back then, it still made sense to many Japanese people because each kanji represents its own meaning and comes together to form a word that makes sense.

A poet, Kiyoe Kawazu felt that the use of foreign words in katakana was ebbing at the world of the words that he knew:

@kiyoekawazu カタカナ表記された外来語、漢語による概念語を、未消化なまま発語されつづけていることによって生まれる、「自明性」は怖い。明治初期にはまだ意味にもとづく漢語表現が工夫されたが、現在ではただカタカナで流していく。そしてぼんやりと生まれる「自明」的な意味が、世の中を鈍く支配していく。

It makes me scared how self-evident things are driven by the use of loanwords such as Western words described in katakana or Chinese conceptual words drawn in Japanese kanji. Back in Meiji era [1868-1912], they used to translate the meaning into kanji, but now they just use katakana. Gradually the vague meanings penetrate the public, making obvious things ambiguous.

Ichiro Numazaki looks at the positive side of loanwords:

@Ichy_Numa セクハラやDVは、カタカナ語やアルファベットだけど、世間に注目されたし、意味が連想しにくいからこそ、新しい概念の記号として有効だったぞ。

Loanwords introduced foreign ideas such as “sexual harrassment” and “DV” or domestic violence. Loanwords gained public attention because katakana and its letters were effective in providing new ideas. People have to understand the issue to comprehend the katakana or the alphabet.

Another Twitter user @sumiyoshi_49 commented that foreign words are alienating non-experts on everyday issues:

@sumiyoshi_49 みんなネタにしているけど、「ノーマライゼーション」とか「ヘイトスピーチ」とかいう、普通の英語苦手日本人にはイメージのつかみにくいカタカナ語を使い続けることで、どれだけ一般の素人をこういう問題に対する興味・関心から遠ざけているのかについて、もう少し真面目に考えたほうがいいと思う。

I think we need to take a serious consideration in using terms like “normalization” and “hate speech” [both described phonetically in katakana as loanwords], for these katakana are isolating ordinary Japanese, and keeping them from getting interested in the issues these words represent. Japanese people who are not good at English won't grasp these ideas in katakana.

This post was translated with help of Takashi Ohta, and was edited by Sahar Habib Ghazi
  • 米蘭達

    it’s also hard for foreigners to learn Japanese even they know English well. People note words in katakana in a Japanese way, so foreigners should try really hard to guess those katakana which are not based on standard pronunciation. Older generation is not the only group bothered by this new trend of using katakana.

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