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

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