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Over half of survey participants unfamiliar with katakana words used by government

40 Comments

The culture ministry has released the results of a study conducted in fiscal 2017 which was aimed at assessing the general population's level of understanding of foreign loan words written in katakana alongside their Japanese kanji counterparts. It was found that over half of the respondents stated they didn’t know what the katakana words meant.

The survey had six parts and each part contained two words — one in kanji, and one in katakana. Although the words in each pair were synonyms, those surveyed were asked on whether they thought the two words had the same meaning, and whether or not they could correctly use them.

Five of the words were taken from “Gairaigo Iikae Tebiki” (Handbook to Using Loan Words), published by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (2018). The sixth word インバウンド/inbound (referring to inbound tourists) was submitted by the culture ministry because it is often used by the government.

The study comes at a time where more and more katakana loan words are being used in everyday life. The results were varied. Two words, ガイドライン/guidelines and ワーキンググループ/working group, had an over 90% understanding rate, this higher level of awareness probably due to the words being often used by the government.

In another question where participants were asked whether it would be better to use the kanji or katakana for government-issued documents, a high number of participants opted for the kanji — 80% preferring the kanji for コンソーシアム/consortium and 70% preferring the kanji for inbound. The results of the survey show there are still many katakana words which people still don’t know the meaning of.

The ministry said it expects katakana words to continue to spread and will continue to observe what changes will follow.

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More and more fancy katakana loan words were used by business and government these days. After some time finally they start to wonder whether people understand those meaning or not.

Even there was someone who sued NHK for using too many loan ward and this happened for a reason

https://japantoday.com/category/national/court-rules-against-man-who-sued-nhk-for-using-too-many-loan-words

Nevertheless this is a sign that lot of new things just don't have kanji, the world is being moving in fast pace and kanji just couldn't keep up.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Presumably the kanji for "inbound" is 来日客. Using clever sounding words, including foreign ones, when simple ones are available should not be encouraged.

I can easily imagine that use of "inbound" has spread from the government because bureaucrats are more interested in appearing to be knowledgable and clever than in engaging ordinary people. In the case of "inbound" in Japan, the private sector has been far more capable in understanding their needs and providing services than the government. The increase in tourism to Japan is a private sector success story more than a government one.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Because half of the participants were over 70 years old?

6 ( +10 / -4 )

インバウンド is a good example of what I hate about loan words - they often change the function,in this case from an adjective to a noun. Later, they'll articulate the hell out of it to something like インバ so that nobody knows what's going on. Stick with kanji.

18 ( +18 / -0 )

Japanese is perfectly capable of deriving new and interesting meanings without loan words. By being afraid of history because of WWII this has had the effect of nothing being kept. Too bad. By the time the new Engrish education edicts are in place, the Japanese language afterwards will be nothing but a patois

2 ( +2 / -0 )

インバウンド is a good example of what I hate about loan words

True, even I don't understand the meaning at first, although I am fluent in English.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Perhaps this is part of the government's effort to make sure the electorate doesn't know what they're up to...

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Like Laguna says, インバウンド is a distortion in that in Japanese, it only means "foreign tourists", or "inbound tourists" if you insist on travel industry jargon. Japanese will not use it with anything else "inbound", like typhoons, or planes, or missiles, or world leaders. A Japanese learner of English seeing "inbound" next to "President Trump" on an Cambridge or TOEIC test could easily get the question wrong.

Loan words for new concepts, like "schadenfreude" or "deja vu", are great. Some of the katakana ones though are of the "nom de plume", fake French for "pen name", variety, i.e., they are unnecessary and not even correct. Teaching people the wrong thing makes them stupid.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

I hate it when they have katakana for non-English words. アルバイト? c’mon.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

I thought Katagana was originally only for words that do not have a Japanese name i.e. fork, spoon, golf jargon and so on. I think they should keep it that way. On the other hand the more the government confuses Japanese with these inappropriate uses of English words, I'll continue to be successful in my business.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I am always amused by words that people here have no idea whether they are English or Japanese.

It’s hilarious that a word like “trouble” can become トラボル, take on its own identity, and then people genuinely think its a Japanese word.

Hows it a Japanese word if it sounds foreign???

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Jist use Romanji!

There are a lot of instances where katakana is poinltess or serves to confuse.

I saw the new movie poster for It.

I big letter it says "IT" and next to it: イット. Do you really need that katakana!?! The alphabet is taught is taught in kindergarten and elementary school. If they can't read simple words like "it", katakana is not going to help. Just make things worse. They can read "Sony" and other famous romanji names why not simple words like "it"

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Katakana just completely mauls loan words both phonetically and in context. Japan really ought to move away from it as it just isolates Japan more and more from the world, as opposed to the perceived benefits of using katakana.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

ABC it's as simple as 1,2,3....

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Half of the population have no idea what the government are talking about that's pretty much what the government wants.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

“I big letter it says "IT" and next to it: イット. Do you really need that katakana!?! “

Especially as both letters were capitalized on the poster, I would say yes, you need the katakana to distinguish IT (it) from IT (information technology), pronounced as アイティ(ai T or eye tea).

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Katakana is the reason 90% of the Japanese population never succeed in learning English despite intensive study for six to ten years from junior high to university. This makes the 3 billion dollars (yes dollars) spent on English education a complete waste of money. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to believe half of the population don’t understand the ‘loan words’. I don’t understand many either because they are so bastardized they don’t make any sense. A great and very simple example is, combini. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was some kind of harvesting machinery.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

As a Japanese language student in my opinion Katakana is the worst invention ever. I do not want to learn broken English. For a Japanese person I don't understand how learning broken English and/or bad pronounciation helps them learn English either. Katakana is not a bridge. It is a crutch. Is it time to revamp Japanese language education?

9 ( +9 / -0 )

English speakers have only to wait, and the whole Japanese language will be turansufoumudo into Katakana, without us having to study a lick of Japanese. This is soooo good!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I am wondering how this is different from how English has adopted words from Latin, French German, etc. We even change the pronunciation of the words and often times folks don't know that they weren't originally English words. With Katakana it is difficult to get a hint as to what the word is.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese insistence on the expression "SNS" is from bureaucrats too. The rest of the world has moved on from "social networking services" to calling Facebook, Twitter and the like "social media", but not in Japan. I bet "SNS" is used in textbooks in schools.

I live in Nagano and my least favourite katakana word is モルゲンロート. It means a sunrise in the mountains. It comes from the Alps, and, as took me years to realize, is literally "morning red" in German. I think the expression has currency in the European Alps, or at least the German-speaking part, but 99% of Japanese have never been there, let alone at sunrise. Japan has always had mountains of course, and sunrises on them are traditionally called 朝焼け. If you look up モルゲンロート, it says 朝焼け (full stop). The rest of definition is just "this comes from German".

The French are notorious for keeping loanwords out of their language. I think there was even a fight to keep the expression "e mail" out. When I see the mess Japanese is becoming, I can see what the French are afraid of.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

haloerikaToday  08:51 am JST

I hate it when they have katakana for non-English words. アルバイト? c’mon.

Not all katakana gairaigo are from English. In fact パン is from Portugese and precedes the arrival of English in Japan. アルバイトis of course from German.

thepersoniamnowToday  09:06 am JST

I am always amused by words that people here have no idea whether they are English or Japanese.

It’s hilarious that a word like “trouble” can become トラボル, take on its own identity, and then people genuinely think its a Japanese word.

There is no トラボル used in Japanese. It's トラブル, as in トラブってる。

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I am wondering how this is different from how English has adopted words from Latin, French German, etc.

There is nothing wrong with loanwords that add a new idea or concept. The problem here is that people have been coming to Japan for years. There is no need to stop calling this 来日 (lit. "come Japan"), a word every Japanese will understand, and start calling it インバウンド, travel industry jargon that has to be explained.

Kanji are a huge pain in the butt to learn. They present a massive burden for all Japanese children. Once you learn them though, they are a lovely thing that are evocative and can be beautifully concise. Write (white) (blood) and (disease) in kanji and you have leukemia. Calling it ルキミア is not an improvement.

Japanese claim to be very protective of their traditions, but seem to have a blind spot when it comes to their language. The same can be said for traditional architecture.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Kanji are a huge pain in the butt to learn. They present a massive burden for all Japanese children. Once you learn them though, they are a lovely thing that are evocative and can be beautifully concise. Write (white) (blood) and (disease) in kanji and you have leukemia. Calling it ルキミア is not an improvement.

That’s one case but In many cases, the kanji used in the medical field is difficult for native speakers of Japanese to read.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I hate it when they use a loan word and the original meaning is lost when they abbreviate it. One example is DV for domestic violence.... now they have date DV, a term they apply for cohabitating couples. What part of "domestic" can they not understand?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

That’s one case but In many cases, the kanji used in the medical field is difficult for native speakers of Japanese to read.

That's true, but often English speakers won't know what a disease is when they read the name either. The difference is that with kanji, while the reader may not know the sickness, they will often be able to glean an idea about it from the kanji.

Although I guess that could be true for English as well. If you read gastro-something, 'gastro' indicates that it has something to do with your stomach or digestive tract.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Many English speakers will not know that leukemia is a disease of the white blood cells, hence that example. In more simpler terms, in English, you need to know a bit of Latin to know that a peninsula is hardly (paene, a peine in French) an island (insula). In Japanese it is a 半島, a "half island". The meaning is intuitive from the kanji.

Another example would be the word for corporation 法人, where the kanji accurately reflect what a corporation actually is, a legal (ly constructed) person. I think if you asked most English speakers, they would think a corporation is a "company" or "business". A corporation is an entity granted the same protections and responsibilities under the law as a person. It is not simply a "business".

There are thousands of other words like this in Japanese, including inbound 来日 and consortium 共同, the words specifically addressed by the survey in this news story. These concepts are well understood by Japanese and already have widely known expressions. They do not need replacing with katakana versions of English.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I am wondering how this is different from how English has adopted words from Latin, French German, etc.

hooktrunk, I think it is different. English borrows words when native ones don't exist, such as champagne; sometimes they're Anglicized, such as chamber, but that's okay (it's our language). Other times, we invent them ourselves using bits and pieces from other languages, such as tele- whatever, and then we may contort them, such as when a small application becomes an "applet" (makes sense) and then just a "app." But there's a logic to it: "-et" means "small." I often teach suffixes as a way to understand language function. "Incoming," as a present participle, is clearly recognized as an adjective.

I studied Chinese for a bit. That language lacks the luxury to be so lazy as it's entirely based on kanji, and I was always most impressed with the innovative ways they could use basic concepts of kanji arranged in different orders to create new concepts. For example, エレベーター is 电梯 - "electric lift." Logical.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The one I could never get over was ユビキタス for ubiquitous! It's not even that common a word in English.....so it's easy to understand why many Japanese people have no idea what it means.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Once you learn them though, they are a lovely thing that are evocative and can be beautifully concise. Write (white) (blood) and (disease) in kanji and you have leukemia. Calling it ルキミア is not an improvement.

It most certainly is an improvement, as it is called "leukemia" or some variation, in most of the world, not "white blood disease". This is because most medical conditions are named using Latin. And, in a global society, it would probably be best to use similar nomenclature in medicine.

Katakana is pointless and redundant, as it merely mimics Hiragana sound for sound. (If it was created solely for foreign words, why not create it to mimic the sounds required to pronounce those words correctly, and not just mimic the phonetic alphabet already in use for JP words?) Is Japanese too pure and sacred that they didn't want to soil their existing alphabet by using it for inferior foreign words?

Plus, it makes it much harder for students, both Japanese and foreigners, to learn Japanese. As if learning Hiragana and Kanji isn't already hard enough!

And, it is the single biggest reason Japanese people do not learn to speak English correctly, as many have already pointed out here.

I just hate Katakana so much. (I'm not too crazy about Kanji either. But, that's a 馬 of a different 色.)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

And, it is the single biggest reason Japanese people do not learn to speak English correctly, as many have already pointed out here.

I’m not a language teacher and I’d accept being shot down here, but surely it goes much deeper than that. I don’t think the problem is really pronunciation or incorrect use of a word. I think most people can understand ‘I choice’ or ‘I image’ with no problem.

I get the sense it’s mindset above anything else.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's pretty simple 26 verse 2,000 odd. Most of which are useless. Day to day.

its not a competition just usefulness.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

インバウンド is a good example of what I hate about loan words - they often change the function,in this case from an adjective to a noun

Don't all foreign words enter Japanese as nouns?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

OssanAmerica

OK thanks for the tips man, I’m actually Japanese, I just pay no attention on how to write katakana and do not want to write it correctly either. It’s a flawed concept imo.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The results of the survey show there are still many katakana words which people still don’t know the meaning of.

No, government, the results show that you should be using words that can be understood by the people you govern, not that they should be learning whatever nonsensical neologisms you foist on them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Laguna

Thanks for the answer to my question I posed. Interesting thoughts.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Using all these katakana English words is part of a secret plan to convert Japanese into English!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

マイブーム (my current interest) still causes a crashing rage in my chest, as does insipid car advertising nonsense such as ライフステージ (life stage). That said, I'm a big fan of ワンパターン (repetitive). Still takes me about 5 minutes to read anything in katakana though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Some here say for the Japanese to just use the Roman (read: English) alphabet. I say they just use kanji to represent what the word really means. Kanjis can express anything. Icelandic resists loanwords and builds words from its existing vocab. For example, instead of using a Latin loanword, they use weather science (vedhurfraedhi) for meteorology. Japanese did this too. Having the kanji will help all with the meaning too.

Ps: apologies to icelanders, my keypad isn't set up for the letters edh or aesh.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

thepersoniamnowOct. 1  08:28 pm JST

OssanAmerica

OK thanks for the tips man, I’m actually Japanese, I just pay no attention on how to write katakana and do not want to write it correctly either. It’s a flawed concept imo.

I think you should pay attention because more and more are getting used every day. And I don't see that as stopping, ever. While there may be plenty of arguments against katakana, bear in mind that in the late 1800s the Japanese used "ateji", kanji characters which "sound" like the foreign word. I personally think katakana is a vast improvement over that. Ateji kanji are impossible to read without prior knowledge, just go to Hokkaido to see what I mean. At least in katakana, you can read out what it says, just like in English. Then ask someone what the hell it means. lol

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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