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Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002


Putting in a bad word for Japanese

Are loan words doing Japanese's dirty work?

The other night, the wife and I were watching NHK's evening news when the announcer began a segment on the topic of "domestic violence." The term he used was exactly that. Well okay, not exactly: what I heard was domesuchikku baiorensu.

News photo
This Japanese antidrugs awareness poster says: "Drugs: I don't do them." The poster's designers used the katakana word "do-ra-g-gu," as opposed to the Japanese word for drugs, "mayaku."

"This is the last straw," I said. "I'm gonna write something for the newspaper."

"Yes, I think you should," said the lady of the house, in a rare display of agreement.

That the Japanese language is awash in English and other European word borrowings -- known these days as katakana kotoba to distinguish them from earlier, Chinese borrowings written in kanji -- is not news. My reference book of choice on this subject, Sanseido's Concise Dictionary of Katakana Words (13th edition) contains 43,000 of them, plus another 7,000 acronyms.

Among the newer terms therein are "garden smoker," "gender gap," "shareware" and "senior tour."

Domestic violence happened to be in the limelight because last year the Diet enacted a law making it illegal. That statute's name is a real mouthful: Haigusha kara no boryoku no boshi oyobi higaisha no hogo ni kansuru horitsu -- literally, "the law to prevent physical abuse from spouses and to safeguard victims." In official parlance, this has been shortened to "DV Boshi-ho," with DV standing for domestic violence. The vernacular media typically applies this abbreviation when covering the issue.

Of late, this writer has increasingly come under the impression that a disproportionate number of English words adopted into Japanese seem to carry negative connotations. These adoptions don't necessarily involve criminal activities; there are plenty related to other types of unpleasantness.

In March 1989, I recall, the countdown had begun for the April 1 introduction of the 3 percent consumption tax (which has since risen to 5 percent, and is just as unpopular). Government posters sprouted everywhere, advising citizens to gird their loins in preparation for the start of the Nyuu Takkusu (new tax).

Now Japanese has perfectly good words for both "new" (atarashii) and "tax system" (zeisei). Had these terms been put on a poster, they would have been noticed and understood at least as well, if not better, than their English equivalent.

Likewise for risutora kaiko (layoff or dismissal due to corporate restructuring). Then there's sexual harassment or sekuhara. In official documents, the native term (seiteki iyagarase) is generally used; but in the mass media and common speech, the abbreviated English term has taken firm root.

Still, Japanese seem to favor English these days for new types of crimes, both sex-related and the everyday garden variety.

Take stalking. I doubt if even five out of 100 Japanese can come up with their native term for this, which is defined in the statute of May 24, 2000, which finally made it illegal, as tsukimatoi nado, meaning to follow in a persistent manner. (I would tend agree that, given such a mouthful, stalking was the more practical way to go.)

Another unpleasant term that finds increasingly frequent use is reipu (rape). "Picking," refers to burglars who break into homes or buildings using special tools. Then there's "hacking," by geeks who break into computers and wreak all kinds of havoc.

"Yeah, and don't forget esukareeto (escalate)," interjected my colleague Geoff while nursing his beer.

Our companion Fujimoto-san agreed that the word invariably indicates a worsening situation. Geoff added that doraggu (drugs) is rapidly supplanting the native word, mayaku.

Last August, Atsuko Toyama, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology, voiced concern that foreign word adoptions are threatening to "erode the traditional beauty of the Japanese language."

Negative terms like yakuza (gangster), sokaiya (corporate extortionists) and karoshi (death by overwork) aren't exactly beautiful, but they're definitely Japanese and they're distinctive enough to have gained admittance into the English lexicon in recent years.

If bureaucrats on the other side of the water haven't complained, it's probably because when such terms do appear, they're applied almost exclusively to Japan.

So when the N.Y. Times finally reports that growing numbers of American white-collar workers, er sorry, make that sarariman, are keeling over from karoshi, then we'll know the trade in unpleasant words has become truly reciprocal.

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