The Great Wall of Japan

Traveling to Japan involves surprising hazards. Among them language hazards. Rather than a lack of English being the problem, just the opposite is the case. Japan produces English, lots of it. Not the English that you might have learned in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada or New Zealand. This is home-grown Japanese English.

The whole country is awash in Japanese English. It leaps out from fashionable homes and offices, from shops and motor cars, from package goods and street signs. English, you see, more than communicating in Japan, carries a certain cachet. This Japanese English is legendary among long-time residents for an inscrutability that often baffles newly-arrived native English speakers.

“Orai, Orai”, calls the watchful wife as her husband backs the family car into a tight space. “Naisu!” drone uniformed high school girls endlessly as they drill on the tennis court. “Taimu saabisu!” barks the announcer to shoppers at the supermarket. “Don mai” one friend reassures another.

Japanese regard these widespread phrases as pure English, mainly because they’re foreign-sounding. They have conjured stylish Japanese sayings out of English proper. But could you recognize their meanings? Orai is All right. Naisu is Nice! Taimu saabisu is Time service. Don main is Don’t mind.

The real problem for English-speaking visitors begins as they become intoxicated with the Japan exoticism surrounding them. The overwhelmed mind will start responding to the slightest hint of the home language. English words to jump out from printed Japanese texts. Vague snatches of English catch the ear. Often foreigners fixate their attentions on minor points in conversation or text, merely because these suggest English.

Suffering most are the visitors determined to speak the bits of Japanese they’ve painfully memorized. Many well-intentioned Japanese reward their efforts with mystifying Japanese English. It’s hard to blame the Japanese people, though. To them such expressions are as surely English as anything from a Hollywood movie or a Parliamentary debate. The person who looks or sounds Western is presumed to know them.

The Japanese, you see, often do with English what they have done so successfully in other areas: re-engineer it’s components into useful Japanese constructs.

Some lay the blame for famous Japanese incomprehensibility on difficulty pronouncing English. It is true that while English has over 40 recognized phonemes, Japanese possesses scarcely more than 20. So, many of the sounds in English simply don’t exist in Japanese. This forces people in the Land of the Rising Sun to twist many foreign words into utterances that foreign speakers find hard to comprehend.

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And understanding spoken Japanese is challenging, to say the least. The scant number of spoken sounds means each has to do multiple duties. For example, say “kami” in Japan and you can mean “hair”. Or “god”. Or “paper”. Japanese however will be quick to point out the significance that each is written differently. But in conversation, of course, people only hear what’s said.

And that, too, is hard for the Japanese to keep in mind. The complexity of their written language requires them to spend much, if not most, of their school years memorizing the written forms of their language. Eventually it becomes second nature for many Japanese to visualize written forms as they hear the words. In fact, you can often see fingers stroking out a word in the air or on their palm to clarify a point in conversation.

And that brings us to katakana script, the phonetic alphabet where so many English words get kindly beaten to a pulp.

Writing in Japanese requires working not in a single alphabet or script like English, but in four different ones.

Katakana is the one reserved largely for foreign words. Another, the most elaborate, includes complex ideograms borrowed from China. Another still, is the set used for distinctly Japanese words. And the last is the same Latin alphabet used by English speakers.

In fact the Japanese name of this last illustrates the problem. In Japan it’s called “romaji”, a word which is itself a mixed mashed-potatoes-and-peas combination of English for “roman” (roma) and Japanese for “character” (ji). When the Japanese write foreign words in katakana they’ll often mix and mash them in just this way to fit the limited vocalizations their mouths and ears are accustomed to.

Some old Japan hands point to a bigger divide than these writing and speaking issues. That is, the special purpose that communication serves in this island nation.

Japanese tradition makes communication primarily a means of maintaining harmony and preserving long-established relationships. The Western tradition on the other hand, and particularly that in America, values communication mainly as a vehicle for exchanging information and ideas.

Where the native English-speakers seek direct and concise conversation, Japanese tend toward nuance and oblique suggestions so as not to disturb what are seen as cherry-blossom-delicate relationships.

Is there any hope for avoiding the perils of Japanese English?

Ataturk changed the writing of Turkey from Arabic to Roman letters. Maybe the clever Japanese could engineer a new writing system. It’s nice to think so, anyway.

This would open foreign words to public scrutiny. English would benefit from better pronunciation. Communication would flourish.

Of course, the country that deliberately laid out maze-like streets with neither names nor sequential house numbers – to confound invaders – is unlikely to take kindly to this proposal anytime soon. So meanwhile, here’s some advice for the Japan-bound English-speaker.

1. Don’t take at face value any English you read or hear. Just smile while you let it roam around in your brain until it finds a likely misinterpretation.

2. Accept the fact that “yes” almost never means “yes”. More likely it means, “I see”, or “I’m listening”, or “I’ll have to think about that”, or “I have no idea what you’re saying but I don’t want to make a problem”, or several dozen other things.

3. Learn one crucial word of Japanese for the many times when communication breaks down completely. The most useful is sumimasen (as in “Sue me. Ma, send”). Say it often. In a whole country with fewer lawyers than Washington, DC, you’re safe from liability. Japanese will respect and appreciate you for saying this. Some will even marvel at how skillfully you communicate in their language.

Finally here’s a brief cautionary tale of the young American translator fluent in the language, but not the culture. I met him in a conservative southern prefecture as we each waited for the results of our second attempts to pass the Japanese driving license test. He told me he had explained to the examiner that his very non-Japanese style of driving during the test was “the way I drive back home”. This was a surprising statement from someone with a university degree in the Japanese language, employed as translator at a local Japanese city office.

How would the “I-did-it-my-way” translator fare? As it turned out, he failed. On the other hand, I – with my pathetic broken Japanese skills – passed, partly as a result of out-Japanese-ing my Japanese examiner. But that’s another story.

More from Joseph JK . . .