Man sues Japanese broadcaster NHK for using too many foreign words… but can you stop language from evolving?

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I was amused to see a recent news story about a 71-year-old Japanese man, Hoji Takahashi, who has sued Japan’s public television broadcaster, NHK. His reason for filing suit? He’s suffering “mental distress” because of what he considers NHK’s excessive use of foreign words.

He’s no elderly gadfly with a silly gripe. He’s a member of an organization that is dedicated to preserving the Japanese language, so this is an organized effort to try and stop the influx of foreign words. What foreign words, you ask? Here are a few cited by news reports including from the BBC:

If you tune into NHK’s news or entertainment shows, you can easily make out words such as “toraburu” for “trouble,” “risuku” for “risk” and “shisutemu” for “system.” I’ve been at my mom’s house when she has NHK satellite programming on and I’ve heard “toppu hoh-ty” for “Top 40” in a story about pop music, and many other words that I can make out as English, albeit somewhat mangled in pronunciation.

My mom isn’t a member of any group fighting this trend, but she’s griped to me plenty about the same issue.

For those of you who don’t read Japanese, there are three scripts you need to know to read and write: The complex Chinese kanji characters that most people will recognize even if they don’t understand them (there are over 4,000 of them) and two simplified sets of characters called hiragana and katakana. They both represent the same set of sounds, starting with “”ah,” “ee,” “oo,” “eh,” ”oh ,” “ka,” “kee,” “koo,” “keh,” “koh,” “sah,” “see” … well, you get the idea.

The reason there are two versions, hiragana (which is rounded) and katakana (which has similar shapes but more angular) is that katakana is used for foreign words. Words like “Gil” would be written out phonetically in katakana as “Gi-Roo.” “Asakawa” could be written out in kanji for “shallow river.”

OK, end of language lesson.

The point is, that my mom has been despairing for years now that the Japanese magazines she reads are increasingly filled with “katakana words” – that is, foreign words written out phonetically in Japanese And like Mr. Takahashi in Japan, my mom often has no idea what the heck they mean. They’re rampant not only in Japanese newspapers and magazines – you can tell just by scanning a page and seeing how many words are written out in angular “katakana” script.

There’s logic to the evolution of language embracing foreign words if some new technology or concept comes along that didn’t previously exist in your language. But Japan has been absorbing foreign stuff for 150 years and has come up with its own words for things like car or railroad train. But it does seem like in the past several decades, the Japanese have stopped making up new Japanese words and simply adopted foreign words more and more.

Sometimes, the Japanese will add their own twist. There are lots of combinations of words to create new ones in Japanese, for instance. Take “karaoke,” a word that’s now very familiar to westerners, even if most can’t pronounce it correctly. It’s a splicing of a Japanese word (“karappo” – “empty”) with a western word (“okestorah” – “orchestra”).

This mashup practice can become mind-boggling: “Personal computer” in Japan isn’t referred to by our common abbreviation, the “PC.” Nope, in Japan they call those things “pasocon” — short for “pasonaru computah.”
I’m no linguist, but I suspect the Japanese language evolves faster than many. Japanese American may find it bewildering to find that some of the words we use often and take for granted are no longer used in Japan.

If you say “benjo” for bathroom – a word that every Japanese American I’ve ever known uses all the time — in Japan you’ll get some shocked looks, as if you’re an Asian Rip Van Winkle who just woke up after a 50-year snooze. Today in Japan, you say “o-te aria” (“washroom”) or better yet, “toireh” (a Japanese pronunciation for “toilet” – one of those katakana words my mom hates).

So this wordplay and the explosion of foreign words has been going on for more than a generation, and it’s not likely to stop, even if some angry Japanese want to sue to make it stop.

This post was originally written for the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of JACL.

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