The case for Englishnization
Japan’s simple spoken language is chained to one of the world’s most complicated methods of writing. Is it time to ditch the thing?
Learning to speak Japanese is easy. There’s a limited set of syllables so pronunciation is straightforward. The grammar is pleasingly mathematical. Almost all the verb conjugations are regular, there are no noun genders, you don’t have to learn tables of pronouns, and even adjectival conjugations, which seem at first to make no sense at all, soon begin to have a certain logic.
Japanese is slangy and full of idioms — what language isn’t? — but it doesn’t take long to master speaking it at a level expected from foreigners, who are even allowed to get away with using the wrong level of honorific.
The thing that turns the spoken language into gloop unless you’re paying close attention is that restricted syllabary. With so many homonyms, it can be hard to figure out the meaning except in context.
I suspect this is why Japanese television persists in filling its screen with big, childish letters that spell out everything that’s spoken. And yet Japanese people have been talking to each other for centuries, and they seem to have no problem making themselves understood on the telephone.
This means that restricting written Japanese to a phonetic syllabary such as hiragana, which has about a hundred characters, ought to be comprehensible, too. So why do the Japanese stick with their crazy system: three separate symbol sets, all mashed together, with no spaces between words?
Like all living languages, Japanese began orally and eventually required some method of recording itself.
Luckily there was a literate culture just across the water, so Japan simply grafted the Chinese system of logographs (‘kanji’ in the Japanese tongue) onto itself, adding hiragana (essentially very much simplified kanji) for the grammatical parts of sentences that didn’t have them.
It didn’t matter that the Chinese pronounced the words differently. The character for ‘sun’ represented sun no matter how you spoke it.
Today Japanese kids begin writing hiragana in kindergarten and undertake the onerous task of learning kanji almost as soon as they start school. They’re expected to know about 2,000 symbols by the time they graduate. This will enable them to read most everyday texts in Japanese, including newspapers. University students add about a thousand more before their studies are ended.
Not only is kanji the biggest barrier to westerners learning the language, it takes up far too much time that Japanese kids could spend learning something more profitable. It’s the main reason they study to exhaustion in cram schools, and in my opinion why many seem to be burned out by the time they’re twenty.
Of course, there are deeply held emotional reasons why Japan won’t ditch kanji, including a fierce sense of nationalism that means Japanese people are defensive of their cultural legacy of (whisper it: Chinese) logographs.
But let’s talk objectively for a moment. Japanese is a fast-shrinking language. It’s hard to think of another tongue dwindling as fast. Romance languages like English, French and Portuguese are all still growing. Even German still has life in it.
But nobody speaks Japanese except the Japanese, and the indigenous population is set to plummet. From its historical height of about 130 million people during the 1980s bubble, the population is already in freefall.
Once we’ve gotten over the current demographic hump (a lot of old people with few new births to support them), Japan could be down to as little as 50 million inhabitants by the end of this century.
You might think the sensible thing to have done is phase out all but the simplest kanji at the time when Japan thought itself a major economic and cultural power in the world. This would have been an excellent way to facilitate trade and exploit foreign interest.
Now those days are over, Japan is trying to reinvent itself as a tourist-driven economy. ‘Cool’ Japan already floods the world with anime, manga and cosplay, but few of the foreign otaku want to spend years in evening school trying to learn kanji just to read their favorite comic in the original language.
Meanwhile, every Japanese kid also learns English at school, and can recite and write the Roman alphabet, which is called ‘romaji’ here. Romaji remains the standard method of typing the Japanese language on keyboards, which is achieved first phonetically on a standard QWERTY layout, and then by choosing from lists of appropriate kanji once each clause or sentence is complete.
But all that effort in English is also largely wasted. Competent, let alone fluent English speakers are rare in Japan. The six year olds who all chirp at me in English when I go to pick up my son from elementary school will have become tongue-tied stumblers by the time they’re adults.
One Japanese enterprise, Rakuten, has adopted English as its official language, a process its CEO Hiroshi Mikitani dubs ‘Englishnization.’ He says that when he declared the move fellow Japanese CEOs viewed him with horror. Rakuten is also all but unique among Japanese enterprises in that it’s growing fast globally, and let’s suggest there’s a link.
“The simple fact is that adopting the English language is vital to the long-term competitiveness of Japanese business,” Mikitani notes. Maybe so, but the other CEOs have their heads too deep in the (volcanic, black) sand to notice.
I’m not suggesting Japan needs to ditch its language wholesale. But there’s more than one way to undertake reform, and the Englishnization of Japanese has been underway pretty much since Commodore Perry’s black ships prized the country open in 1854.
Japan dealt with the outside world in a logical manner. Rather than trying to string logograms together to express new concepts, as Chinese is forced to do, it adopted the foreign word while adapting it to match the restricted Japanese syllabary.
The Japanese word for computer, for example, is ‘pasokon,’ which is a contraction of the English phrase “personal computer.” A kid’s buggy (‘pushchair’ in the UK) is called a ‘babiikaa.’
To slot these loan words into the written language, Japanese uses a third set of symbols: katakana, which are basically the same phonetic syllabary as hiragana but look quite different.
And here’s the thing. I don’t mind kanji. Cling to it if you must. But katakana is an abomination that needs to be wiped off the face of the language.
Since everyone knows romaji, why aren’t loan words written in romaji? Why convert them into this ugly syllabary which, among other things, encourages a mangled pronunciation?
Yes, I know the response to this argument. English, as much a magpie language as Japanese, encourages a mangled pronunciation of its own French loan words.
But English absorbs its foreign imports. Japanese does not. It gives them a little foreign enclave all their own, one that holds them at arm’s length from the pure language, and that’s called katakana.
The logical first step in revolutionizing Japanese is to romanize its loan words — to replace katakana with romaji. To replace hideously distorted Japlish approximations with the original foreign spelling and pronunciation.
The means to do it is already there. Just about every public sign is in both Japanese and English. Romaji exists and is understood.
Too often, romaji in Japan is used for decorative purposes. Just as western kids get mundane Chinese logographs tattooed on their skin, the Japanese think their products look cooler if there’s some English text on them, regardless of the meaning. Integrating romaji into the language will solve this, too.
As the original English replaces the mangled Japlish, it will begin to infiltrate existing words. Little by little, the language will reform itself. Little by little, a smaller Japan will open itself to the rest of the world as a means of survival. And it will wonder why it didn’t do it much, much earlier.
It will probably keep Japanese. Again, I’m not advocating ditching the language. But it will be a simpler-to-write Japanese for a population that has become truly bilingual and is fluent in both its own tongue and that of the wider world.