Japanese is one of those languages that is seen as mysterious and exotic to many Westerners. It may seem that way, but if you’ve read Part 1 and Part 2 of my “Borrower Language” series, or if you are familiar with Japanese, you’ll know that Japanese has become overwhelmed with English vocabulary, especially in the years following WWII.
Now, when I say “overwhelmed” with English words, I don’t just mean there are a lot of them. I mean they are everywhere in Japan- staring you down and mocking you every way you turn. You can’t hide. They’re watching you.
At first, this fact was easy for me to just accept, even if it wasn’t what I expected Japanese to be (Free English words? score!), and it’s not especially apparent to residents of Japan who are surrounded by it everyday.
But, have you ever wondered why there are so many English words lurking about in Japan like a bunch of drunk party crashers?I mean, who invited them there anyway when Japan has a perfectly good language of its own? I’ll tell you why. The motivation for absorbing so many words from other languages can be broken down into four categories: compensation, upgrading, obscuring, and humor.
Compensation and Modernization
“Compensation” is probably the most obvious reason for stealing (I mean borrowing) words from foreign languages. In terms of linguistics, compensation has to do with absorption of foreign loanwords into the areas of a language where vocabulary is not yet developed or does not yet already exist. Since languages start off with an abundance of vocabulary in some fields, and a lack of vocabulary in others (see Part 1), it’s only natural that with language contact and the introduction of new cultural concepts, things get traded.
After Japan’s isolation period ended in 1868 and the doors to trade with the West were finally (forced) open, Japan had a lot of “catching-up” to do. With the trading of new goods from aboard, a whole heap of Western and technical terminology breached the floodgates. Then, with the American occupation during the years following WWII, Japan was heavily influenced by the ‘Murican forces – Japan was going to learn the word for cheeseburger whether they liked it or not! Of course, this introduced a whole slew of other words and ideas to the language that had never been present before. One of them was probably type 2 diabetes.
Okay, so it’s pretty obvious that English loanwords have often compensated for gaps in the Japanese vocabulary (spoon, fork, knife) and vice versa (sushi, tsunami, rickshaw). But, what about the cases in which a foreign word is adopted where a perfectly good native Japanese word already exists? This is where things get interesting – and complicated.
As you may have noticed, the rate at which Japanese has absorbed loanwords has resulted in a number of synonyms in the language, making it all the more frustrating for learners. I realize English is even worse, but seriously, does there have to be 6 words in the dictionary for everyone one I look up (Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by his toe?). Yes, it does seem ridiculous, but there are reasons for everything.
Let me Upgrade You
Just as Kango, or words of Chinese origin, can have a classical, academic effect in the Japanese language (see Part 1), Western-based terms, especially from English, have effects of their own. One of these effects is social upgrading.
Due to a mess of political and cultural influences over the years, the English language is often regarded with a sense of elitism and prestige in Japan (though, sometimes it’s the opposite). Therefore, upgrading in this case refers to the social benefits received by using English loanwords in Japanese. In other words, using English vocabulary is a way of building one’s social image and making others say “Oh you fancy, huh?”
I got street cred, yo.
One example of this is using technical English terminology to sound as if you know something special and high-level. It’s sort of the same thing old Victorian era men did when they threw in random French words as if everyone knew French. I suppose since everyone is graded on their English skills in school, it’s almost like being really good at a subject like math in the US… sort of.
If it’s true that English carries an air of prestige, then it’s only natural that advertising companies would eat this stuff up (they have to sell you stuff so you can be cool, of course). Countless companies in Japan have created English advertising campaigns in an attempt to make their products look high-class, or “swag” as you kids say. And since commercials have such an influential force over the very flexible minds of young whippersnappers, English has become the coolest of the cool (it’s just so ironic).
Consequently, more and more English words have flooded the Japanese pop culture scene in recent years. However, because English is obviously not the native language of Japan, this has resulted in some pretty hilarious and downright confusing situations.
Although social upgrading is not the primary motivation for adopting English loanwords, it is especially associated with communication between youth and in the commercial realm.
Obscuring the Facts
English loanwords are not absorbed solely for fashion purposes. When I asked my Japanese friend Yuri how she felt when hearing English loanwords, she said:
“English words make everything sound blurry and vague.”
It happens in every language; foreign words are used to cover-up unpleasant or taboo ideas. Using a foreign word in place of a native one has the effect of obscuring the meaning, therefore blunting the force of said word. So, just as I can yell “scheiße!” in an American grocery store surrounded by elderly women without turning too many heads, people in Japan could potentially get away with advertising a big ‘ol F-bomb on their knickers.
That’s one classy granny. Now, an older woman in a “fart” shirt might seem innocent enough – just another helpless victim of marketing – but there are times when loanwords are used for less reputable purposes.
Angsty teenagers and rebels everywhere have their own way of sticking it the man, and language is usually a part of that. Japanese people who fit into this “rebellious” category often try to put themselves out of the mainstream by using language opaque to outsiders, and what better way to do that then to confuse everyone with English?
Using English as a rebellious language works in two ways: 1) instead of using it in a positive context, English words are usually selected to refer to negative ideas, and 2) the English language is sometimes mangled and warped to fit a particular group, separating it completely from standard usage.
For example, トラブる or トラブする means to make trouble, ペーパー (paper) means counterfeit money, and アド (address) refers to a hidden location. Graffiti written in romanized characters can also be found spewed all over the cities, giving the same effect of obscurity. Much of this has to do with creating in-groups and keeping social distance from the “majority.” Like man, if you don’t know yo street language, you be dissin’ yo homies. Word.
My English subtitles are so street, man.
Don’t Feel Guilty
Another effect English loanwords have is the diminishing of guilt associated with taboo subjects by creating euphemisms or codes. An interesting example is DCブランド. The original meaning of this phrase is “discount on name brand goods,” but it’s come to refer to students whose grades are primarily low Cs and Ds. Oh, the scandal! Money lending companies also like to take advantage of the vagueness of English words. “Money loan? Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad.”
Another example of this would be the words “hug” and “kiss” in Japanese. Have you ever wondered why English loanwords are used in these situations when obviously hugs and kisses weren’t imported from the UK or America (or were they)? Of course, these words do exist in Japanese, but over time their English counterparts have replaced them as common use words. According to my friend Yuri:
“If someone says せっぷん (kiss) or ほうよう (hug) in Japanese, I think everyone would be like, ‘Huh?! What happened?!'”
So, the Japanese words for hug and kiss sound very heavy and serious, while their English counterparts sound less like a dramatic scene in a K-drama and more like a good pat on the back. Good to know. If you think about English, “taboo” words are disguised all the time, too – especially by widely giggling junior high students. Giggity!
Obscuring the truth is not always a bad thing. I mean, do you really have to tell your girlfriend that in fact, yes, her butt does look ginormous in those pants? In Japanese, using the English counterparts to native terms can sometimes be polite. For example, if you want to say copulate in Japanese, using “エッチ (ecchi, or H)” is a nicer way to do so, and saying “トイレ (toire)” instead of “便所 (benjo)” is always a good choice if you want to save your poor grandmother’s ears from your blasphemous mouth.
My granddaughter says what on Facebook now?
My friend Yuri gave a great example of this concept, too:
“When I don’t like something I can just say: ‘この部品はスタンダード (standard) から外れているかな’ (kono buhin wa sutandaado kara hazureteiru kana, “I wonder if this part is lacking something…“)
“Standard,” huh? Sounds pretty vague to me. During the interview she went on to describe how even her sociology textbook is filled with indirect English terms, used to avoid being overly harsh on touchy subjects. One of the chapter titles in her sociology textbook was: ネガティブなまなざしを感じ取るースティグマ化 (negatibu na manazashi wo kanjitoru – sutigumaka, Looking at negative perceptions – a changing stigma). If you’ll notice, the words “negative,” and “stigma” are both in English. If you try looking over some Japanese material, you might notice this trend.
Have Some Humor
The last use of English loanwords in Japanese I will touch briefly on is humor. Although it can be difficult to understand humor in other cultures, making fun of other languages is always a classic. However, since English is studied by all students in Japan, it’s a special case. Comedians love to twist the language and make it sound even stupider. For example, one comedian gets laughs by attaching the Japanese honorific “o” to plain loanwords like “juice.” Apparently the ridiculousness of the whole thing is a real gut-buster (I don’t get it).
The use of loanwords in Japanese is very complicated, and this is no way an exhaustive list of uses. However, getting a feel for the flavor English loanwords have in the language is a great way to better understand Japanese, especially when it comes to all those synonyms (and maybe even some Japanese humor). Although this “Westernization” of the Japanese language has been strongly criticized in recent years, all societies have their own ways of expressing social issues through language, and I happen to find the case of English loanwords in Japanese especially mind blowing. Have any thoughts on the subject? Hit me up in the comments section below.
Read All the Posts in This Series:
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 1: Where the Japanese Language Came From
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 2: Twisting Words
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 3: Why They Do It