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September 27, 2007

Stars & Stripes article about Japanese studies

Looking for some inspiration as you struggle with Japanese. Below is an article from the Stars & Stripes which proves that there is a practical payoff at the end of the road: 

Kevin Maher, the U.S. Consul General in Naha, Okinawa, starts his day by reading Japanese-language newspapers. 

He is known for conducting press conferences with the local media without an interpreter. Yet, despite his strong command of the language, he says he learns new words almost daily…..  


Speaking a second language can broaden your horizons and boost career opportunities.  

For Sheryl Kohatsu, the public affairs officer for the Navy’s Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa, being bilingual has opened many doors. Besides her day job, she is a popular Japanese radio personality. 

The child of an American sailor and Japanese mother, she grew up in a Japanese neighborhood on Okinawa while attending an American school. Speaking Japanese was second-nature, but reading and writing it was another story, she said. 

One day when she was about 9, she asked a friend to let her borrow a popular Japanese comic book. Her friend said, “But you cannot read Japanese.” 

It was then she swore to herself to read and write the language. 

To this day, whenever she comes across a word she doesn’t know, she can’t sleep without looking it up.  

Full article available here......


September 25, 2007

No need to "globalize" Japanese with the Latin alphabet 

Another article by the aforementioned Tomoko Otake suggests that Japanese may be on the way to becoming more “English-like” 

“Japanese may be on the way to adopting the English alphabet as its fourth set of characters along with hiragana, katakana and kanji. 

One futurist who is predicting such a scenario is Jun Yamada, editor of a paperback book series at major Japanese-language publisher Kobunsha. When he launched the series in 2001, Yamada broke new ground by presenting the copy in lines running left to right, top to bottom on the pages, and by starting the book at the front as in Western publications ---- unlike typical Japanese books that start at what Westerners think of as the back, and have copy running top to bottom, right to left.” 

Jun Yamada, the supposed “futurist” referenced in the above article, is actually more of a throwback. Schemes for replacing the Japanese writing system with the Latin alphabet are at least as old as the Meiji Era. During the immediate postwar years, this topic came up again. The idea has always been dropped for the simple reason that romaji makes Japanese less comprehensible. 

There has always been a core of Japanese intellectuals who fancy themselves as “globalists.” These are the folks who re-spin the old arguments about replacing Japanese script with romaji, etc. However, history proves that their ideas---far from being “futuristic”---are in fact timeworn and impractical.  

There is nothing wrong with Japanese absorbing certain universal technical acronyms (like DVD); but the wholesale use of romaji would add nothing to the language. The agenda here is knee-jerk imitation of the West----not the improvement of Japanese.  


September 23, 2007

Overdoing gairaigo

Here Japanese journalist Tomoko Otake makes a point that I have been harping on for years: excessive gairaigo (loanwords) = bad Japanese. 

However, for the past several decades, and especially since the end of World War II, Japanese have increasingly relied on gairaigo loanwords to absorb technologies and concepts from abroad. In the process, meanings have been lost to many people. Unlike kanji, which are ideograms whose combinations can convey intricate nuances of meaning, katakana characters are phonograms, meaning they convey only the sound of a word --- though their Japanized pronunciations often bear little resemblance to those of the English originals. It's also not unusual for imported words to take on different meanings in Japanese, such as ridusu (derived from "reduce"), which in Japanese refers only to "reducing" ---- in other words, cutting down --- the amount of garbage we create. 

But as the volume of katakana vocabulary continues to expand, so communication problems are growing, experts say.  (complete article here...)

All languages have loanwords, and that’s fine. But loanwords should generally be limited to concepts for which a reasonable equivalent does not exist in the native language. 

For example, we English speakers use the Japanese tsunami to describe a large tidal wave. And we all know karate, kamikaze, and bonsai. These words can all be paraphrased or redefined using “native” English words, but in each case, the Japanese word is especially on target. 

However, you have taken the use of loanword too far if you say, “This kayoubi I am going to the ginkou to open a savings account.” The Japanese loanwords in the above sentence don’t cover any range of meeting not already covered by the English “Tuesday” and “bank”----so why throw in the Japanese? 

Unless you just want to show off---which is in my opinion, the main reason some Japanese speakers and writers pepper their own language with excessive loanwords. Study after survey reveals that this practice doesn’t make for more sophisticated Japanese------it just makes for bad Japanese. 

By the way, the inept use of gairaigo sometimes goes in the opposite direction. This is especially true at Japanese transplant companies. During the mid-1990s I worked at a Japanese auto parts manufacturer in central Ohio. Every morning the company held a regular meeting, or 朝礼(ちょうれい) in Japanese. The first day I was on the job, my American boss informed me that “There is a chorry every morning at 9 a.m.”)