Is there such a thing as 'Japanese English'?

Posted by on March 08, 2010

© Image SourceJim Breen, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Clayton School of IT, Monash University, Australia, has sent us this guest post on ‘Japanese English’.

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The question of whether there is a ‘Japanese English’, that is a form of English spoken in Japan by the locals, is an occasional topic of discussion in the English-language press in Japan. I recall one such in the Daily Yomiuri in 2001. The usual conclusion is that there is no such thing. Unlike countries such as India and Singapore, where English is actually spoken regularly by locals in certain contexts, e.g. when speaking or writing across ethnic or linguistic boundaries, this does not occur in Japan.

The major use of English inside Japan is within the expatriate community, and there the language is the usual North-American/British/Australian/NZ/etc. according to the backgrounds of the individual. Sure when one speaks English in Japan one inevitably sprinkles it with Japanese words, but this does not in any way create another ‘English’. Saying onsen for a (Japanese) hot-spring, or shinkansen for a (Japanese) high-speed train is merely being precise.

The reasons English is not a language of discourse in Japan among Japanese
people are several:

(a) comparatively few actually speak English to the level where it can be used in a meaningful discourse. Although it is a compulsory subject at high school, it is usually badly taught. Conversation skills are not encouraged, with much of the focus being on word lists and strict grammar rules (taught in Japanese). As the late Edwin Reischauer noted with irony in 1977:

[the] chief problem is the more than 50,000 teachers of English at
present in Japanese schools, most of whom are not able to speak English themselves

(b) Japan is primarily a uni-ethnic, one-language country. The relatively small non-Japanese communities at most totals about 3% of the population, they are mostly non-English speaking (Korean, Chinese, Brazilian), and they are expected to learn Japanese to function in the society (most are born in Japan anyway).

There are of course many Japanese English speakers. It is a necessary skill in a number of areas, but the English they speak is not a ‘Japanese English’; it is the usual international lingua franca English one finds all over the globe.

A common misconception is that the ready uptake of foreign (usually English) words into the Japanese language is in some way creating a Japanese English. This is quite wrong, just as one cannot accurately characterize English as a version of French simply because of the words arriving after the Norman Conquest. Japanese has always been absorbing loanwords, but they quickly become naturalized and often adopt meanings and nuances well removed from their original senses. In Japanese a daietto (from the English diet) can mean weight-loss for any reason, and an abekku (from the French avec) means a pair of lovers. Japanese also has a wonderful custom of joining up whole or fragmented loanwords to create lexemes quite unknown outside Japan, a practice known as waseieigo (Japanese-made English). A privately-owned vehicle is a maikar (my-car) and pe-pa-doraiba (paper-driver) is someone who has a driver’s licence but does not drive. Despite this ready expansion of the lexicon, much to the chagrin of language purists, the fact remains that the language written and spoken remains Japanese.

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Comments (5)
  • Interesting post, Jim. Of course one question faced by dictionary folk all over the world is how quickly and to what extent these “loanwords” should be absorbed into the core lexicon, i.e. properly listed and defined in dictionaries. Some languages are more open and acquisitive than others: French resides towards the conservative end of this spectrum, while British and (even moreso) American English lies somewhere towards the other, which may in part explain the power and pervasiveness of the language. I wonder where Japanese lies on that spectrum? Are Japanese dictionaries embracing these kinds of loanwords?

    I also wonder if there are cases where the loanword is sufficiently richer in meaning than its originator that it ends up being loaned back (with interest!) to the international lingua franca. I can’t think of any examples right now (I’m sure others will!), but given how voracious the English language can be, it seems inevitable.

    Posted by Ian on 8th March, 2010
  • Japanese adopts and uses loanwords like no other language I know. Estimates of the number of loan words in use range up to 100,000. There is little official effort to keep them out. Major dictionaries list many loanwords, and special dictionaries of loanwords are issued by most of the major publishers. The publishers, of course, try and make sure that the loanwords have a reasonably extended currency before listing them.

    I can’t think of a full loanword coming back into English from Japanese. The word “karaoke” is a semi-loanword; it means “empty orchestra” in Japanese, and the “oke” is a fragment of the full loanword “okesutora”.

    Posted by Jim Breen on 9th March, 2010
  • There’s salaryman, which never really existed in English as one word until it came back from Japan, where it’s a rather derogatory term for a corporate office worker.

    Posted by Stephen on 9th March, 2010
  • A couple of very recent Japanese additions to English are umami and the rather more unpleasant wakaresaseya. Neither of these are likely to be given back on loan any time soon.

    Posted by Kati Sule on 9th March, 2010
  • I find it amusing that the column on the right asking what english you speak doesn’t list England, ie. Queen’s English.

    Posted by Craig Ferguson on 27th August, 2010
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