VOX POPULI: 'Katakana' words of foreign origin are overused

June 28, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

In the novel "Botchan" by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the eponymous protagonist assigns nicknames to his colleagues and superiors at the provincial junior high school where he teaches.

The vice principal, "Akashatsu" (red shirt), is a smarmy pseudo-intellectual who sometimes brings to school a copy of Teikoku Bungaku, a high-brow literary magazine published by an association of the faculty, alumni and students of prestigious Tokyo Imperial University (present-day University of Tokyo). Akashatsu reads this magazine in everyone's view to show off, and that irks Botchan to no end.

"I understand this magazine is the source of all the 'katakana' words of foreign origin Akashatsu uses," Botchan grouses. "Teikoku Bungaku is a sinful magazine." Akashatsu loves to rattle off the names of the foreign people he reads about.

A story that ran recently in newspapers, including the Nagoya edition of The Asahi Shimbun, made me imagine how surprised Botchan would be by the sheer proliferation of katakana expressions in present-day Japan.

On June 25, a 71-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture sued Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) for the public broadcaster's alleged excessive use of non-Japanese expressions in its television programs. The plaintiff is demanding 1.41 million yen ($14,300) in damages for mental distress he claims to have suffered for not being able to understand what the expressions mean. Citing examples such as "kontentsu" (contents) and "komyunitii dezain" (community design), he questioned NHK's alleged marginalization of the Japanese language.

I am sure many people can fully relate to his complaint, even if they do not necessarily agree with the litigation itself.

Not only NHK, but Japan's commercial broadcasters, newspapers, magazines, corporations and even government offices are overusing katakana expressions today. And to confess, I myself sometimes receive letters of complaints from readers of this column. In the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan's intellectuals struggled with a massive influx of foreign words that had to be rendered into Japanese quickly. They include "tetsugaku" (philosophy), "kojin" (individual), "risei" (reason), "kigeki" (comedy), "higeki" (tragedy), "shakai" (society) and "ishiki" (consciousness), every one of which has enriched the Japanese language.

I recall Shigehiko Toyama, a scholar of English literature, admonishing the mass media, "It is laziness to overuse loaned words in katakana." To use them just to impress people, as Akashatsu did, would be out of the question. The integrity of the Japanese language needs to be protected from erosion by loaned words of foreign origin, and upon self-reflection, I often admonish myself.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 28

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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Shigehiko Toyama (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Shigehiko Toyama (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Shigehiko Toyama (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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