Students always show great interest whenever I introduce the issue of how loanwords have recently inundated the Japanese language. Undoubtedly, students recognize their own relationship and familiarity with the related themes of today’s youth, poor language usage, and English.
There has always been fierce debate surrounding the introduction of a large number of loanwords (katakana loanwords) into the Japanese language from European languages, mainly English. The Agency for Cultural Affairs recently released the 2013 Opinion Poll on the Japanese Language (http://www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/yoronchousa/). This survey raises an example using the loanword puraioritī (priority). Survey results show that despite being frequently encountered in daily Japanese language usage, nearly half of Japanese people do not understand the term. The survey also indicates that many people do not recognize the need to consciously use loanwords such as konsensasu (consensus) or mastā puran (master plan). As illustrated by these examples, there are many loanwords which may cause confusion in native Japanese speakers. Furthermore, it seems that such loanwords are troublesome vocabulary to people learning Japanese as a foreign language. While it is a fact that numerous loanwords have been assimilated into the Japanese language, there is criticism that such loanwords play a leading role in corruption of the Japanese language. On a related note, some people are wary of English linguistic imperialism.
Disputes regarding loanwords reflect the participants’ personal feelings towards the Japanese language. As a result, such disputes cannot be easily resolved. Personally, I feel that such discussion is healthy because it reflects the extent of people’s interest in language. In this article, I will introduce material from two historical perspectives, with the intention of adding both breadth and depth to the discussion. The first perspective is the history of loanword acceptance in the Japanese language. The second is the history of loanword acceptance in the English language, which is the main source of katakana loanwords in Japanese.
One deep-rooted opinion is that we should protect the pure Japanese language by avoiding the inflow of loanwords as much as possible. However, in the first place, the Japanese vocabulary is formed by a large number of loanwords. The kanji (Chinese characters) and kango (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) which are essential to daily Japanese usage are full-fledged loanwords. The majority of kango came to Japan in the 6th century together with the introduction of Buddhism. This inflow started with Buddhist-related vocabulary such as incense burner, candle, and memorial service, and then expanded to a huge amount of general kango. Japanese people showed wide acceptance for characters and vocabulary from the Chinese language, which was a prestigious international language at that time. Japan succeeded in molding such aspects of Chinese language into the native Japanese language. This resulted in kana (the Japanese syllabary), the Japanese official system of writing, Japanese language readings of Chinese characters, and Japanese-created kango. Most Japanese people don’t know that the majority of kango is Japanese-created kango—this includes everyday Japanese language vocabulary such as reference, number, policy, monetary amount, and characteristics. Either directly or indirectly, Japanese language vocabulary is filled with Chinese loanwords.