YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Hold the Mayora, Please

Critics in Japan say a flood of foreign words makes the language incomprehensible at times and is threatening the nation's identity.

November 30, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — They slide under doors, through windows and past airport immigration unnoticed. The Internet is a veritable breeding ground, as are locker rooms and fashion runways. Seemingly harmless in small doses, their wholesale import now threatens Japan's very identity, say critics.

A new computer virus? An insidious North Korean spy plot or some new breed of walking catfish? For many Japanese, the biggest invasion fear is the flood of foreign words infecting their vocabulary, with English heading the charge.

"It's becoming incomprehensible," says Yoko Fujimura, a 60-year-old Tokyo restaurant worker. "Sometimes I feel like I need a translator to understand my own language."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently chided his ministers for overusing "loan words." A government-funded institute has a hotline to interpret and document bad usage. Echoing France, there's even a committee to find replacement words for the foreign gate-crashers.

Countries around the globe are wringing their hands over the rapid spread of American English, with Coca-Cola among the most recognized terms on Earth. However, Japan's unique writing system arguably makes the problem here worse.

In most countries, foreign words are assimilated relatively quickly -- making it difficult, for example, to remember that "smorgasbord," "maitre d' " and "hamburger" came to America from abroad. Japan, however, writes all imported utterances other than those from Chinese in a different script called katakana, the only country to maintain such a distinction.

Thus, terms such as "word processor," "managed health care" and "baby-sitter" remain "foreign," presumably for centuries, creating a linguistic moat between intruders and more blue blood Japanese terms.

Katakana also takes far more space to write than kanji, the core pictograph characters that the Japanese borrowed from China 1,500 years ago. And it stands out, given its other function as a way to emphasize meaning, akin to using italics or exclamation points. Readers complain that sentences packed with foreign words start to resemble extended strings of strobe lights.

As if that weren't enough, katakana terms tend to morph at border crossings, like complex names at Ellis Island. "Digital camera" debuted as degitaru kamera, then became the more ear-pleasing digi kamey. But kamey is also the Japanese word for "turtle."

"It's very frustrating not knowing what young people are talking about," says Minoru Shiratori, a 53-year-old municipal employee. "Sometimes I can't tell if they're discussing cameras or turtles."

Similarly, the loan word for "dot-com" also means "suddenly crowded," which inspired the winning entry in a recent haiku-like poetry contest:

'Dotsuto comu'

What's so crowded?

My boss asks.

Japan's fast-paced word blender, more often than not deftly operated by teenagers, also can leave foreigners reeling. Many Japanese believe they're speaking English when they describe mayonnaise as mayora; lovers of the Chanel brand as shannera; a convenience store as a combeeni and the high-five gesture of a sports hero as a gattsu posu, or gutsy pose.

"I support efforts to limit katakana words because too many of them damage the beauty and dignity of our language," says retired financier Yukio Komatsuzaki, 60. "If you want to learn English, that's great. Or speak proper Japanese. But keep them separate."

Even more daunting are foreign words left in the Western alphabet, or romanji. Toshiko Uno, a 63-year-old housewife, found herself in desperate straits recently looking for a toilet in a Tokyo train station before noticing a door marked "powder room."

"Powder room?" she says. "Why put on such airs?"

Foreign-based katakana terms account for 10% of some dictionaries. "The spread has been just phenomenal," says Yasuko Hio, a social linguist with Shikoku Gakuin University.

A survey by national broadcaster NHK found half of all respondents unhappy with the foreign flood, with people in their 60s most concerned and those in their 20s largely unfazed.

In a bid to temper the torrent of katakana -- a system developed by 9th century Buddhist monks to remember Chinese pronunciation, then the only foreign language invading Japan -- the government has tapped a Foreign Words Committee to find suitable Japanese replacements.

The committee is quick to distance itself from French-style language police, given that Japanese history makes the hint of force, even against words, potentially controversial. A largely ineffective law in France bars advertising in English.

Rather, committee members and traditionalists here hope a sustained campaign of persuasion, gentle reproach and leadership by example can turn the tide. Intelligibility, not purity, is their goal, they say.

"There's less feeling the government should control it," says Minoru Shibata, who monitors linguistic change at NHK's research institute.

Los Angeles Times Articles