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By Emily Kuo Kubo

Invasion of the gairaigo

Japan should embrace the influx of English words and phrases. In the end, it has no choice.

As every foreigner who lives here knows, Tokyoites are constantly bombarded with written English on signs and advertisements. One chic-looking holistic spa in my neighborhood advertises that its services will enhance “Human Beauty”—this is to clarify that they do not have treatments for, say, pooches. Websites like www.engrish.com are devoted entirely to real-life examples of funny “Japlish,” which are unfailing sources of amusement for me when I have a bad day.

But as more loan words enter the everyday lexicon, a serious discussion has been brewing about the danger of Japanese being taking over by foreign—that is, English—words and phrases. Such anxiety echoes from the highest level of society. In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi called for a reduction in the use of loan words in official documents. A panel called The National Institute for Japanese Language was given the job of replacing difficult loans with native Japanese counterparts.

This year, 33 terms made the list. Some that were determined to be too difficult for the average Japanese include akauntabiriti (accountability), domesutiku baiorensu (domestic violence), and sutereotaipu (stereotype). But the committee was unable to find appropriate replacements for some of these, backing off proposals to change onrain, deitabeisu, and dotocomu—which highlights the fact that advances in technology create entirely new concepts that cannot be captured with older Japanese.

While there is a compelling case to be made for writing difficult government documents in a way that the general public can understand, some people see the government’s efforts to “simplify” as an excuse to “purify.” After all, the term that describes loan words in Japanese, gairaigo, literally means “language that comes from the outside.” And don’t forget that Japanese is the only language that uses a separate writing system for foreign words. The widespread use of katakana terms is often seen as an invasion of Western culture and touted as a disease of the younger generation.

Ricardo Gimenes

But in fact, the process has its roots firmly in history. China was once the main source of Japan’s borrowings, and its effects are still felt. When one raises a glass to toast, for example, Japanese say “Kanpai,” while the Chinese pronounce it “Ganbei.” The Japanese kanji system is made up almost entirely of Chinese characters, while hiragana is also said to be derived, however roughly, from (Chinese) kanji and Sanskrit. But the decline of cultural prestige of China, coupled with the rise of Europe and America, has resulted in a shift towards borrowing from English.

While loan words were, in the past, used almost exclusively to name new objects that did not exist in the Japanese lexicon, recently there has been a tendency to employ them alongside perfectly usable Japanese. For example, when some young people want to do something together, many prefer to make a puran instead of a keikaku—which was a perfectly respectable Japanese way of putting it. When I asked a Japanese friend about this, she said that the English word gives it a much more kakkoi (cool) feeling. Image, it turns out, is what young Japanese are after.
Many countries have experienced similar concerns, and responded with even greater resistance. France, perhaps most notorious for its efforts to keep its language pure, has its own language police called L’Academie francaise. In 1994, the French government enacted a law banning all advertising in English. It has even forbidden the use of the word “email” in all its government publications, ministries, and websites. Instead, the word was replaced with courriel, short for courier electronique, or “electronic mail.”

The fact is, all languages have borrow from one another. French is basically a descendent of Latin, as are Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. English is part of the Germanic language family, which includes German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. Within the Germanic languages, Norwegian is so closely related to Swedish and Danish that proficient speakers of these languages can understand the others.

In Japan, the phenomenon of Japanese English will continue as long as English retains its status of prestige. Words, much like fashion, come and go, and eventually some fade out while others find a permanent place in modern Japanese. There will inevitably be a portion in the population, most likely the older generation, that finds these changes threatening—especially when the katakana words refer to new technology, new concepts, and new institutions. In that sense, it is not so much the language that they find intimidating, but the change itself. Gairaigo, then, is just a part of that fear for things unfamiliar.

Language is a living, changing thing. It will never stand still. Just think—at one time, Shakespearean English was actually how people spoke (minus the iambic pentameter). But how many of you native English speakers felt that it was a foreign language when you first read Hamlet in high school?

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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