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Japan Tries to Defend Language Against English Invasion

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By Hiroshi Hiyama

Agence France Presse
August 18, 2002


Erecting protectionist barriers against imports is a time-honoured tradition in Japan, but this time the country is belatedly putting up a shield against invasion by a foreign linguistic superpower -- English.

Analysts say, though, the government is fighting a losing battle given the apparently inexorable tide of globalisation by setting up a panel of experts to meet twice a year to propose a list of Japanese substitutes to replace less familiar English terms.

"Concerns are being raised that the trend might erode the traditional beauty of the Japanese language," Atsuko Toyama, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, told reporters as she announced her plan to set up the panel earlier this summer.

Officials are concerned that casual and frequent use of English expressions such as 'raiba intenshibu' (labour intensive), by politicians and bureaucrats themselves, only causes confusion because many of the phrases are unfamiliar to ordinary Japanese ears. The problem is made all the worse by the phonetic distortions that are necessary because Japanese is based on syllables and lacks sounds such as the F in 'fish' or V, and famously recognises no distinction between L and R.

To be sure, foreign words have been incorporated into the Japanese lexicon for centuries, starting with Chinese, and Western influences began with Portuguese in the 16th century. The name for an archetypal Japanese cuisine, tempura -- deep fried seafood and vegetables -- comes from the Portuguese word 'tempero' meaning cooking, while bread has been known 'pan' since the Portuguese baked their 'pao' here.

In the past, names were devised for new objects or concepts by combining existing Chinese characters: for example 'telephone' (denwa), is rendered by the characters for 'electric' and 'speak'.

But the modern trend has been simply to take the foreign word -- usually English -- wholesale and pronounce it in a Japanese way. There is currently no Japanese alternative to the English words for such everyday items as 'aisu kuriimu' (ice cream), 'rajio' (radio) and 'conpyutaa' (computer).

While they are not trying to turn back the tide on these and other words long since regarded as part of Japanese such as 'kare raisu' (curry rice), 'supootsu' (sports), and 'sutoresu' (stress), linguistic purists are worried about less familiar ones taking root.

They include 'inobeeshon' (innovation), 'insentibu' (incentive) and 'akauntabiriti' (accountability), with which bureaucrats, politicians and journalists recently started peppering their speech in an apparent attempt to sound more modern and sophisticated.

This year's annual report from the Science and Technology Agency included the term "hyuman saiensu furontia puroguramu" (human science frontier programe), every element of which has its own perfectly good Japanese word. "In May, Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi was being briefed by officials, and words like 'bakku ofisu' (back office) and 'toreisabiriti' (traceability) came up," said Jiro Kondo from the National Institute of Japanese Language. "He became upset by the use of the terms that the public would not understand. He wanted to change that," said Kondo, who is also in charge of administration of the new 20-member panel, comprised of scholars, editors, translators and authors.

The trend of using unfamiliar foreign terms has become increasingly frequent in the last two to three years as people try to present themselves as well-versed in international affairs amid business and academic globalisation, said Mitsuru Ohki, a linguist at Kyoto University. "Even in ordinary memos that I receive from my colleagues, I see foreign words that I have never heard of," Ohki said.

Foreign phrases are useful when Japanese speakers want to put fresh and upbeat feel to what they say. In comparison, Japanese words often carry a lumbering, old-fashioned connotation, Ohki said. "For example, people use English term 'ekusukyuzu' (the noun excuse) instead of using the Japanese phrase with the same meaning when they want to lessen the impact of the word. It is a type of euphemism. It is less confrontational," Ohki said.

Several Japanese people randomly questioned by AFP said they had heard people use 'innovation, "incentive,' and 'accountability,' although few knew their definitions.

"Sometimes, it is more pleasant to hear certain words said in English than Japanese," said Naomi Uchida, 29, an "oh eru" (OL or 'office lady'), at an auto parts manufacturer. "English phrases seem to bring a more casual tone. Like, I always say 'ranchi' (lunch), because it sounds more modern than 'hirugohan' (literally "midday food")."

The danger lies in bureaucrats using foreign terms new to Japan in an effort to sound intellectual while not saying anything new, Ohki the linguist added. That's the first battle ground for the government's panel, Kondo said.

"We will start with government reports," he said. "Many agencies often use vague English terms when filing budget requests. They are trying to create the impression that they plan to do something new and fresh when they might be really saying nothing new.

"The panel will make suggestions that (government agencies) use terms that people actually understand," Kondo said. Even Ohki conceded the effectiveness of the government panel was questionable, however. "My first thought (about the panel) was it would just be a waste of time. People will continue to use English and foreign terms regardless of what the government panel says," he said.

"You just cannot tell people to stop using the phrases that they like to use," he said. "You cannot stop the social trend."


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