Trickle of loan words grows into torrent

A Chinese student once confided in me that he found the Japanese language difficult to learn.

How could it be, I thought, when Japanese is full of words made up of kanji (Chinese characters), many of which mean almost the same as in Chinese?

The problem, the student said, is that Japanese contains many words borrowed from Western languages, particularly English.

For instance, "toraburu" (from "trouble") is often used in place of perfectly good Japanese equivalents for the word.

Such "loan words" are instantly recognisable as they are written in katakana, the angular Japanese alphabet normally reserved for spelling foreign words.

Their abundant use bothers many Japanese too.

One 71-year-old man recently sued public broadcaster NHK for causing him mental distress through its excessive use of foreign words.

He took particular exception to the NHK's penchant for substituting foreign terms for perfectly good Japanese ones, such as "hando kea" (hand care) to describe the act of putting cream on one's hands.

The use of loan words has vexed the Japanese for decades.

"We are now seeing the overuse of foreign words in sports, department stores, on street corners… In every facet of our daily lives, we cannot do without foreign words," said the preface to a dictionary for loan words published in 1930.

In 1936, Japanese philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888-1941), who had spent nearly a decade in Europe, penned an essay about the spread of foreign words in Tokyo.

"No matter where I walk, I see signboards written in English, as if I was in colonies like Singapore or Colombo," he wrote, arguing the need to protect the "purity" of the Japanese language from the invasion of foreign words.

But Kuki's words fell on deaf ears.

The influx of loan words continues unabated, especially in new fields such as information technology.

Among the earliest foreign words from the West to enter Japan were terms like "pan" (bread in Spanish) and "tabako" (cigarette in Spanish and Portuguese) around the 17th century.

The full-fledged opening up of Japan in the 19th century saw a steady trickle of foreign words that gradually grew into a torrent.

At first, the Japanese patiently converted foreign words into Japanese and written in kanji, so words like "post" (yubin), "century" (seiki) and "philosophy" (tetsugaku) have all become part of the language.

But the influx of foreign words soon became too large to cope with and many ended up being used without conversion.

The use of katakana meant a minor transformation in pronunciation of the original foreign word, so sandwich became "sandouicchi" and delivery became "deribari". Since the English "th" sound has no equivalent in Japanese, "mouth" and "mouse" are both rendered as "mausu", while "think" and "sink" both come out as "shinku".

Surveys have shown that even when there is a good Japanese equivalent, the Japanese sometimes prefer the foreign import, as in the case of "baria furi" (barrier free) over "shoheki jokyo".

The converse is sometimes true too. More people say they prefer "goui" to "konsensasu" (consensus), and "kihon keikaku" to "masuta-puran" (masterplan).

Some words assumed by most Japanese to have been borrowed from abroad were in fact concocted by their countrymen, like "furonto garasu" (literally, front glass) for "windscreen" or "gadoman" (literally, guard man) for "security guard".

And there are loan words that do have a nice ring.

I am particularly fond of "sukinshippu" (literally, skinship), which is a compact and evocative term for the soothing, physical contact between a mother and child, or between close friends.

One account is that the word was invented by the Japanese, while another has it that "skinship" was used by an American at a 1953 World Health Organisation meeting and brought back by a Japanese participant.

Whichever the case, the foreign- sounding "sukinshippu" is understood only in Japan and in South Korea, which borrowed the word from the Japanese.

The recent complaint against the overuse of loan words by the NHK is similar to the periodic calls over the years for moderation in the use of such words in documents that need to be understood by all, such as government White Papers.

Many critics even claim the increasing use of loan words may lead to a decline of the Japanese language.

But so far there has been no official drive to discourage the use of foreign words.