A life learning language corner #2: The Ultimate Chimera 外来語と和製英語(foreign orginated words and made-in-Japan English)

Recently my Japanese class at the college has been talking about the recent increase of foreign loan words (gairaigo) and the possible positives and negatives it could have on the future of the Japanese language. To clear this up here are a few examples: camera in Japanese is カメラ pronounced kah-meh-rah; Recycle: リサイクル (risaikuru); and then there’s my name Charlie: チャーリー(chāree). All of these are written in a separate alphabet called Katakana, which makes them easier to distinct between Japanese words. For more information on this, check out the Wikipedia entry for gairaigo. It was actually before this class that I read an interesting article that is suitable background information for this topic for those who are interested "Japanese: A language in a state of flux" by Tomoko Otake¹. To summarize, the use of these words are seen rapidly increasing in government, sciences, entertainment, and everyday parts of Japanese life. Some of these words are not simple material objects and represents complex ideas in English making their definition in Japanese unclear. Confusion is being created from the use of these words when very few people understand what is trying to be said even though there are substitute words in Japanese with the same meaning.

In addition to these words some are taken and shortened for example air conditioner in Japanese becomes エアコン (eakon=aircon), personal computer パソコン (pasokon), and one that has apparently become popular recently is sexual harassment セクハラ (sekuhara). The purpose of making these words shorter is so they can easily be remembered. This trend of shortening words is also a part of young people slang and seems to be an attempt to make speech more efficient or to be cool. An example of slang would be the shortening of the saying 気持ちが悪い (kimochi ga warui) that means a bad feeling, changes to きもい (kimoi). There is one final thing to add and that is made-in-Japan English (和製英語). Aside from loan words, this type of English has completely new and invented meaning. For example American dog (アメリカンドッグ) actually means corn dog or sharp pencil (シャープペンシル) meaning mechanical pencil (which actually originates from the company Sharp).

The shear amount of English that has entered the Japanese lexicon is quite mind boggling and says a lot about the flexibility of the language. However, the use of most of this English has been assimilated into Japanese to the point that its English meaning is no longer present. The news article above uses the example of the word reduce which in Japanese, only serves as one of the 3 R’s of recycling: to reduce the amount of garbage. In this case the word is being used to serve a particular purpose rather then retaining its complete meaning. The use of English in Japanese and whether it is becoming a problem is the subject of a lot of discussion. The reasoning as to why it is becoming so frequent has a lot of possible answers.

One of these is Japanese culture itself, which has a very long history of adopting and assimilating other cultures, and shaping them to fit within Japanese culture. Examples can be seen everywhere from the use of Chinese characters, to the arrival of Buddhism from China, to the western influences in shaping Japan’s rapid Industrial revolution. Takeo Doi, author of the book The anatomy of dependence speaks about this tendancy in Japanese culture to assimilate with the foreign:
“…the Japanese tend to ignore the world of strangers, but even this is far from meaning a lack of interest. They ignore the outside world in so far as they judge this to be possible, but even when they appear to be indifferent they are in fact keeping a formidably watchful eye on their surroundings. And once they have realized that something cannot be ignored, they busily set about identifying with and adopting it.”²
Takeo’s theme of the book explains a common emotion of passive love/maternal love and how this emotion, which is strong in Japan, allows for the easy acceptance of that which is foreign. Rather then create conflict or a standoff the passive love mentality creates assimilation.

Takeo’s book explains how it is this maternal/passive love that allows for easy assimilation, wanted or unwanted. Takeo quotes a newspaper article on the basis of the Oriental civilization in relation to the west:
“At the basis of the ways of thinking and feeling of the Westerner there is the father. It is the mother that lies at the bottom of the Oriental nature. The mother enfolds everything in an unconditional love. There is no question of right or wrong. Everything is accepted without difficulties or questioning. Love in the West always contains a residue of power. Love in the East is all-embracing. It is open to all sides. One can enter from any direction.”³
With this perspective, assimilation is not only a choice but it can also occur unintentionally. If this is the case, the increase of loan words in Japanese is being influenced naturally by a continuous contact with English foreigners. With that continued contact creates a stronger assimilation with foreign cultures including language.

Another reasoning for the popularity of English in Japanese is the thought that Western culture in general is cool and that if one can introduce English sayings and words into Japanese they too can be considered cool. For this reason alone seems to be what is really detrimental to Japanese. The reasoning behind introducing new words is not for easy understanding or lack of a better term but just simply to sound knowledgeable.

My second agenda in this post is to introduce you to one of my child hood passions, video games and how they relate to this topic. It’s not surprising that since video games have surpassed the sale of movie tickets it is slowly becoming mainstream entertainment⁴. It has also proven its ability as a medium to tell engaging stories as well. The game titled Mother 3 (the series is known as Earthbound in the states where only one of the three games was ever released) is the third in a trilogy written and created by one of my idols Shigesato Itoi. The overarching theme of the three games is centered on the power of maternal love. One of the themes that comes up in this story has to do with the mixing and borrowing from other cultures that is a part of Japan’s culture. The Antagonists in the game come from outer space and are called the pig army. If you look at the character design they are an obvious homage to storm troopers from the Star Wars movies as they wear full body suits similar to their Star Wars counterparts.

The pig army crash-lands on the island and begins to wreak havoc on the land burning down forests and transforming the creatures. It is when the main characters father is in pursuit of this enemy that he finds a note from the retreating army. The game is in Japanese so here is a translation of that note:
“None of the animals in this area will do. We have to make them cooler. The themes are: Stronger! Badder! And more Violent! Take this and that and put them together to make something completely new. If we were to name it, it will be called the Charming Chimera Plan. We’ll work hard at reconstruction.”⁵
The idea of combining creatures is parallel with this idea of assimilating and mixing cultures and words. The chimeras themselves represent the assimilation of culture or English as I have been talking about. The idea of “making them cooler” seems very familiar to wanting to be cool by using and making your own English words. The pig army, although supposedly coming from space, is not foreign in that they have very human like qualities. Arrogant and childish, they seem to embody the mischievous side of humanity.

As the game progresses you run into more and more creatures that have been fused with machinery or some kind of combination of random animal parts. Some of the chimeras themselves have names that are a combination of English and Japanese words. For example トビマウス (tobimausu) has two parts, tobi, the noun form of the verb tobu, which in Japanese means ‘to fly’ and the gairaigo mausu (mouse); flying mouse. The name is also a pun since tobimasu (tobimausu) in Japanese is the polite verb form for ‘to fly’.

Eventually you end up at the research facility where these creatures are being made and you begin to hear rumors of a creature that people are referring to as the Ultimate Chimera, has escaped and is destroying the facilities and the people inside it.

This is the Ultimate Chimera.

This comical Frankenstein of a creation seems to represent the fear of complete assimilation. Where language and culture are so completely mixed as to destroy the original cultures, consuming identity and logic in the process. It is essentially the worst-case scenario and the metaphorical shape of the negative points about foreign loan words and cultural assimilation.

The creature cannot be defeated and is finally trapped with the help of a monkey. The fact that a lower creature that cannot speak ultimately saves everyone from this creature suggests that the answer to the problem of assimilation or foreign loan words is simple or primitive. It may be that if people where not so obsessed with keeping up with the rest of the world or being cool and instead, living a life that's easy to understand. If we could only return back to a simpler time maybe this problem would not exist.

The scene ends with everyone leaving the room and the creature escaping once more, never to be seen again. Obviously this is suggesting that this problem of assimilation and the mixing of English and Japanese has yet to be answered and whether there will be happy or difficult ending is unsure.

¹ Otake, Tomoko. “Japanese: A language in a state of flux” The Japan Times Online 23 September 2007
² Doi, Takeo The anatomy of dependence Trans. John Bester. Kodansha America, 1971: pp47
³ Suzuki, D. “Toyo Bunmei no Kontei ni aru Mono” Asahi Shimbun, December 22, 1958
⁴ Holson, Laura M. “’King Kong’ Blurs Line Between Films and Games” The New York Times October 24, 2005
⁵ Itoi, Shigesato Mother 3 Nintendo, HAL Laboratory, Brownie Brown 2006


Back to Toyooka aka 鼻から牛乳第2回 (Milk coming out the nose part two)

9/24/07 the host family (bottom left) and friends

About a year ago I made my first trip to Japan to a little town called Toyooka. There I stayed with a host family for about three weeks taking in the scenery, visiting sights and city officials, and teaching English on the side. It was probably one of the most memorable moments to date and definitely the first time experiencing a foreign country where communication barriers and cultural barriers where so acutely visible. Everything about that trip was better then I could of asked for. I remember the last thing my host father said to me, please come to Japan again. It was a kind thing to say and easy to understand for a discombobulated foreigner. However, I don't think I realized how seriously I would end up taking that sentence.

A little less then a year later I wound up in Kobe Japan, a completely different experience altogether. Big city, support for international students, crosswalks a quarter of a mile wide and half a mile long,things I had never experienced. I knew I would eventually make it back to that little town but the question was when. After a couple letters and emails to my host family it wasn't until the end of the summer that I made a phone call and got a hold of Masae the mother of the household. After a good talk I was invited over again and we planed on a week long stay. I took the Hamakaze train north to Toyooka with freshly bought gifts for the family. I get there late at night and Ryushin, the priest and father wearing his casual clothes, and the two kids, Yurika, who has just joined the basketball team as it's shortest member and Yoshihide a continuing soccer team member (also the shortest), are waiting for me at the station. We get back to the house up on the mountain where Ryushin proceeds to show me the beer keg and tap he has rented. We quickly get to drinking and start talking about the past and whats happened in the last year.

To be honest it wasn't a sight seeing and event filled trip but instead an extremely relaxing, for the most part, low key stay. I felt more like a part of the family and less like an intruder or a helpless foreigner. I helped with chores, learned about the family and their past, played with the kids, and even helped clean the temple. For those who don't know Ryushin is a Buddhist priest for the Shingon sect. He's nothing like what you would expect a Buddhist priest to be. Try and picture a man who drives a BMW mini, smokes, drinks, and enjoys red meat and see if that matches up with what you thought a Buddhist priest was.

I met up with the Japanese teacher, Hashimoto Sensei, who gave her time to the 5 of us who came last year, to talk about the city and how its changed in the past year. The city of Toyooka is famous for its oriental white storks and the effort being made to save them from extinction and return them back to the wild. For several years they've been trying to get them to breed with no success. Last year there was a ceremony for the release of one of the storks that was attended by Japanese Royalty. Not long after the research facility had successfully mated the storks and the news went national. This little town was all of a sudden on national news. As time went on it became a destination for new housing. With a newly build hospital and new shops sprouting up here and there thinks were changing in Toyooka. Hashimoto Sensei has been keeping busy teaching Korean and working at the local radio station, FM-Jungle, as DJ Hershey. There is one other teacher Yoshi, who I regrettably didn't get a chance to see, who has his has own radio show. Ryushin, my host father as well has his own talk show on topics about Buddhism. Everyone's a radio personality in Toyooka!

Hashimoto Sensei! She does interpreter work too

Yurika, (bottom center) Shin chans wife (top center) and Friends (sorry I was briefly introduced to the other two...)

On the last night Ryushin hosted a big party in which through out the week he was constantly calling up friends and literally running into people he knew and asking them to come. It was way more then I was expecting and I think a lot of the people who came thought the same. It was a very warm group of people, friends, and the host family. I felt very welcome and at home. I was even given a gift by Shin chan and his wife, a friend to my host father and the other Buddhist priest who is a part of the radio show.

Shin chan's gift a Japanese fan (扇子、sensu)

Later in the night the group began to dwindle and then swell again as we moved to a karaoke bar. People sang, danced on tables, and had a good time. For some reason Hashimoto Sensei kept saying that Shin chan the priest, was a Yakuza mobster , jokingly but repeating it enough to the point I thought she was serious. Then Ryushin, began singing the song. This song's title is チャラリー鼻から牛乳 meaning milk coming out the nose. For some reason or another it became an inside joke with me and my host father the last time I was there and the absurdity and strangeness of this karaoke tune was again brought out again. It actually says a lot about his personality I think, wild, out of the norm, and hilarious. It will probably be one of the few karaoke experiences I would say was great in every possible way (which says a lot because I wouldn't be caught dead doing karaoke in the states.... again).

On the last day I packed my things and found another giant bag of fruits, snacks, and other assorted food stuffs from Masae, a truly amazing women and host mother. She kept asking me to come back for the winter break which I willingly said yes. We drove to the train station and they waved me off as I tried to stumble out my appreciation for them and how I can't thank them enough (always seems hard when you have so much to say and so little time and then there's the language barrier..). A couple final waves and the train pulled out of the station to take me back to the busy life of Kobe.

The familiar sites of Toyooka and the slower pace to life were all welcoming sights, especially unlike last year I wasn't completely trained from teaching and going to classes. I think what I'll treasure most about this trip was the ability to converse with my host family that wasn't possible a year ago. That and just being able to see them all again. They are truly genuine people who can take the negative energies out of anyone (well at least me). It makes you think about all the stereotypes about Japanese culture and people, the comparative studies and cultural research and just blows a giant hole in those thoughts and all you see is a family and friends. I've learned so much from the Amao family and they have done nothing but give and give again. All I can say is: Thank You, and if possible I would be happy to babysit for the kids again.


A life learning language corner #1: Me, Myself and I

This is a new part of the blog that you'll be seeing more of in the coming weeks and months. Its about time I started talking about language and what effect it has on my reality. The hardships, the successes, and the continuous confusion will be analyzed and the everyday experiences will be explored. Some of the comments I make are from personal experiences and others from excessive studying. However, I also state my opinions and realize that I’m not going to get things right on the first try essentially. This I can say is the beginning of a gathering of ideas and thoughts I have been holding onto for some time.

I can remember back to the first days of language class where I learned my first words in Japanese. Words like ‘book’, ‘sun’, ‘Japan’, ‘library’ and ‘I’. I remember very vividly my first Japanese Sensei in high school telling all the boys in the class they’d be referring to themselves as ぼく (boku) and the girls as わたし (watashi). Immediately I begin to believe there’s a male and female form for addressing oneself. “Not to worry”, my Sensei said, “When you grow up (or if you want to sound like an adult) then you can use watashi”. This was how we began to structure some of are first sentence like ‘I like Japan’ and ‘Today I am going to the Library’ thinking we had it right saying boku and watashi with every sentence. Well there are a lot of things they don’t teach you in textbooks. It turns out that addressing yourself and others with English speakers call pronouns is quite a different thing all together in Japanese. First off you don’t need to say “I” and “you” especially when its implied or context sensitive. If you’re talking about yourself, family, etc. it is implied after the onset of the conversation, which is why missing the beginning of a conversation can lead to huge confusion. One of the things I come across the most when correcting English paper from native Japanese speakers is leaving the subject out of the sentence when grammatically it is impossible to finish the sentence without one. The subject is not important if it’s already known what is being talked about. However, English is subject crazy. I can remember back to the elementary school days when the teachers would ask you to find a way to write a paper without starting every sentence with “the” or “I”. It got to the point where I was to believe that you weren’t suppose to refer to yourself at all in Japanese or as little as possible, which also lead to confusion and people wondering if I was talking about myself or someone else. So obviously there is a middle ground for how these words should be used.

So another problem I’ve had is how to refer to others. There are various ways to say you but unlike the word you they imply a relationship with who you’re speaking with. I remember really early on in my stay here talking to a friend of mine using the word あなた (anata) and being told to stop. The reasoning was is that the word is rarely used and can have the connotation of addressing one’s lover. It was kind of a surprise because when I learned this word that was never explained. At this point I’ve given up on using these types of words and just sticking with people’s names. There is another form 君 (kimi) that is an informal way to refer to "you" and is also used as a title following the name (kun) usually for males, and boys (12/8/07 thanks for the correction Justin). Maybe the most confusing form is the he/she form referring to someone 彼、彼女 (kare, kanojo) which can refer to a formal way to refer to someone at the same time it also has the meaning of boyfriend or girlfriend. This right here is enough to stop me from referring to others with out creating confusion about the relationship of the person I’m talking about.

When using these words something interesting happens. Instead of just saying “I”, “me”, “you” one has to think about the relationship he/she has with the listener. There is the very informal male form of “I” 俺 (ore) which can be offensive to some people (I've actually heard that some women don't like guys who to refer to themselves this way) and the very formal non-gender form わたくし (watakushi) that’s purpose is to place you below the listener. To be straight, none of these words translate and are really quite numerous if you count some of the more archaic forms and honorific forms (more on honorifics another time).

Some of these pro-noun like words have contextual meaning that paints an image to the listener whether to show the speakers affection or pique towards another. One of these words has changed quite a bit in the recent past. お宅 (otaku) once a very formal form of you is now used to describe someone who is obsessive or nerdy. The form is not only a reference to another person but can also mean that person’s residence. Another mystery to me is the use of the word うち (uchi) usually used by women referring to themselves, their possessions, or family members kind of like the word "my" in english. The mystery is is this the same uchi that refers to house or home? One source says yes and another says no. If the answer is yes then a sense of self and a sense of family or household could be one and the same. Another thing I’ve noticed is a tendency for some women to refer to themselves in the third person. This makes me question what is the sense of self that these people hold and how is it different from how other people think.

I do think that studying Japanese makes one rethink how they think about themselves and others, or at least how to rephrase sentences without the pro-nouns. It leads me to think a lot about English and so much of it seems to be about “us” and “them”, “you” and “me”, “mine” and “yours”. I’m reminded of the various seminars at Evergreen where giving an opinion seemed to be so confrontational. The delicate way of phrasing how you have an opinion differing from someone else’s will seemingly come down to a my opinion vs. someone else’s. Those tension thick discussions I have yet to witness in any of the seminar classes I’ve had while being in Japan. I can’t say that it has to do with how people phrase their sentences but its definitely a different attitude.