Japan from the inside out

What’s the good word?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 14, 2008

THE PRESS IN THE UNITED STATES regularly prints stories about the efforts of the Académie Française to keep an ever-vigilant eye on the incursions of the English language into French and to coin new words that prevent the invader from sullying the native tongue as it is used in official and commercial contexts. Americans seem to enjoy reading those stories because they’ve always had an anything-goes linguistic spirit–when the original colonists crossed the Atlantic during the Elizabethan period, change was running amok in the English language—and because it conforms to Yankee preconceptions about French snobbishness and pretensions to cultural superiority


But officials in Japan are also struggling to keep abreast of changes in the way Japanese people use their language. Unlike the French, however, the focus of attention is not on speech, though some halfhearted efforts have been made in that direction. They’re halfhearted because officials probably realize it’s a losing battle; the Japanese can be just as wild and wooly as the Americans when hot-rodding their spoken language. In addition to adopting any foreign loan word that suits the national fancy, they make their own language jump through some surprising hoops. Here’s an example: some years ago, when the Matsumoto Kiyoshi chain of drug stores became popular, people (particularly young women) shortened the name to Matsukiyo. The abbreviation was then used in the same way as a compound verb: Matsukiyo suru? Are you going to the (Matsumoto Kiyoshi) drug store?

Instead, the Japanese are paying more attention to the written language, which already underwent one significant modification in the immediate postwar period, when the use of some kanji were eliminated and the form of many others was simplified.

Some proposals are floating around to rework the content of the Joyo Kanji, or the kanji in regular use. This list of 1,945 kanji was formulated in 1981 as a de facto standard for the print medium. It defines the readings and form of the kanji, which are used to write all laws and public documents. It is also the standard for language education in school, and newspapers and other media use it as their primary guideline.

The spread of computers and other information technology is causing problems, however. A total of 6,355 kanji are available for use in accordance with the Japanese Industrial Standards for PCs and cell phones. As this equipment is now omnipresent, people are regularly using kanji that are not part of the Joyo kanji list. The National Language Subcommittee in the Agency for Cultural Affairs has issued a report calling for a reevaluation of the Joyo Kanji.

One might think the use of information technology would improve the ability of Japanese to read their own language, but that isn’t the case. The National Institute for the Japanese Language wants to conduct a new study of the reading and writing ability of the Japanese people because they are concerned about international surveys showing declining linguistic proficiency among young people. This would be the first such government study of adult linguistic capabilities since 1955.

The problem as the Institute sees it is the increasing numbers of non-standard kanji being used for personal names. Also, younger people are selecting kanji for names based on their pronunciation and the number of strokes used to write them (certain numbers being auspicious) rather than the intrinsic meaning of the characters themselves.

Compounding the problem, according to the Institute’s director, is the resistance some people have to language surveys, and the difficulty accents, dialects, and honorific language present.

Bringing up the subject of honorific language opens up a different can of worms. The government is mulling the compilation of a manual on the use of honorific language because incorrect use of the forms is growing, despite surveys showing that 96% of the population thinks that proper use is important.

I wonder about the utility of a new manual, however; people have been complaining about the improper use of honorific language for as long as I’ve been in Japan (24 years this month), and I suspect they’ve been complaining about it for centuries. There are also plenty of well-written manuals for the general public easily available in bookstores explaining the principles (in joyo kanji) if people would only read them.

Some of these trends are irreversible, because no country can put the toothpaste back in the linguistic tube. The progress of democracy and the general spirit of egalitarianism in Japan have made it inevitable that honorific language skills would decline. There are fewer situations in daily life that require people to speak in accordance with rules that arose in the context of a vertically structured feudal society.

It might seem counter-intuitive that the increasing use of personal computers and cell phones, which have the capability for the use of a larger number of kanji, is leading to greater ignorance of the written language. But reports indicate that some adults have gotten so used to writing messages on the keyboard that they have forgotten how to write certain kanji by hand and have to ask their children for help.

Considering the use of symbols and abbreviations by the kids for text messages on their cell phones, I wonder if the parents get the answers they’re looking for!

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3 Responses to “What’s the good word?”

  1. Overthinker said

    “But reports indicate that some adults have gotten so used to writing messages on the keyboard that they have forgotten how to write certain kanji by hand”

    This is very true. I forget far too many these days. Frankly I’d change the “some” to “many”….

  2. Ken said

    “There are fewer situations in daily life in which people need to speak in accordance with rules that arose in the context of a vertically structured feudal society.”

    This is not my line but Japanese manner is rather originated from ancient peerage society.
    It is hard to be grasped by outsider like Kyoto rule but still regarded supreme by almost all of Japanese.
    For instance, most of Japanese are ashamed of own insufficient knowledge about authentic manner so that they would often have a book on official manner and write official letters according to ‘How to write letters’.
    As long as this mind continues, Japanese language would not change in the core because it is not international language fortunately (or unfortunately).

  3. Sato said

    I surprised that there are a lot of Japanese culture at your blog.

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