A Word on Loan Words



In June of this year a 71-year old man in Gifu Prefecture filed a complaint to broadcast station NHK for the use of “too many foreign derived words”. He asked for  ¥1.41 million to compensate for the great emotional distress words like システム (“shisutemu” system),トラブル (“toraburu” trouble) and コミュニティーデザイン (“komyunitii dezain” community design) caused him. The complainer has started his own club, 日本語を大切にする会, or “the group that attaches importance to the Japanese language”. The file was refused in the local court, but his action evoked some reactions among Japanese people and foreign students of Japanese. I collected some comments on the articles of the Japan Times (1) and (2):

Some people support the complaint and state that foreign derived words are unnecessary, confusing and annoying.

My definition of katakana-go is a word/group of words that make no sense in English or that are used in the wrong text. A word/group of words in katakana that is used strictly by Japanese people for Japanese people to understand.(…) As long as there is katakana-go in Japan, many people will suffer when it comes to studying English. Frank Thornton

Languages do exchange, but there is rhythm not to overtake, least a language becomes unclear and loses its communicating power together with its beauty. In that respect, web and sms and many modern ‘communication’ channels are a plague. Overuse of English originating katakanago is but another symptom of a serious pandemia. Jean-Michel Levy

I am an advanced level Japanese speaker, and I find katakana the most difficult to read and write. I am constantly stumbling with my computer or keitai to figure our how long loan words are written and never get them right. I also think that the huge use of katakana words destroys Japanese people’s ability to learn English. Eija Niskanen

 If he were complaining because it’s pathetic, annoying and meaningless, then you’d have a point. My guess is that he doesn’t even think about how horrible katakana is in the broader context of language use in Japan and how it’s actually an impediment (particularly because so much of it is phonetically incorrect) to learning or at least recognizing English. Jeffrey



Some people would like to object to that view.

It may seem arbitrary, but it is absolutely true that loanwords can be considered a part of the native lexicon to a greater or lesser degree based on how long they’ve been used, among other things. Mark Makino

Kanji comes from China and many 漢語 (kango) words are of Chinese origin. Maybe these Japanese language purists should take their initiative further and eliminate all foreign influence on their language by purging kanji and kango? nouveau_ukiyo

The people arguing in favor of the old man have no idea how trivial and stupid this is. If an American tried to sue NBC because he wanted them to call it “raw fish on top of rice” instead of “sushi”, or because the coverage of Egypt called it a “coup d’état” instead of “sudden deposition of government”, they’d be laughed at as either an idiot or racist. Brian Ryskind

They are clearly Japanese words. They have absorbed and adapted into Japanese to work within the language, well at least the ones referred to in the article. They have been borrowed from English but are now used in Japanese. (…) But what do you think the “Japanese language” actually is? It is a well-known fact that it consists of native vocabulary (和語), Chinese-origin vocabulary (漢語) and foreign vocabulary (外来語). John Baker



Sometimes, katakana words are experienced as both positive and negative.

Loan words are a normal part of any language and can add to its richness, but I do agree that sometimes the Japanese overdo it. Too much katakana English confuses understanding, communication becomes less efficient. tommy92

I do think a lot of it is adopted for the “cool” factor – it seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the media to adopt, or rather create something new for the “wow” or “kakkoii” factor. For older Japanese it is probably very puzzling, especially in the mainstream. Glen Douglas Brügge

frankly, this says much about the loss of innovative power in Japanese language.  Xiaochen Su

Where the loan words come from - www.jica.go.jp

Where the loan words come from – http://www.jica.go.jp

Personally, I’m more of the belief that a language evolves, changes and renews itself everyday. It is only natural in a globalized environment that words from other languages are absorbed very easily. However, these newly derived words are not just introduced rashly, but are subject to cultural adaptation.

Firstly, the words can be given another meaning, or can be matched together to form a whole different concept. The Japanese are by far as I know the most creative in doing so.

Secondly, the fact that there exist a lot of synonyms for many words, gives the speaker the chance to match his or her choice of words with the situation or context. If you want to express yourself as modern and “kakkoii“, you can do so by choosing katakana-go カタカナ語. If you give a scholarly explanation, you rather use kango 漢語. Speech you use in daily conversations, consists mostly of wago 和語.

I have to admit, though, that katakana is difficult to read, and when used constantly, it can become tiring. But at the same time, it makes sentences easier to read because you can separate the words before and after it.

On the other hand, I can imagine that  “politicians who pepper their speeches with katakana English to show off their erudition” get on your nerves. And cause great emotional stress, apparently.

Facts for Fun

– Tofugu on English but not so English loan words

– Tofugu again on Japanese as the borrower language

– Wikipedia list of Japanese words of Dutch origin. My personal top three is 1. ontemba 2. doronken 3. skoppu


– “VOX POPULI: ‘Katakana’ Words of Foreign Origin Are Overused.” AJW by The Asahi Shimbun, n.d. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/vox/AJ201306280049.
– Osaki, Tomohiro. “Gifu Man, 71, Sues NHK for Distress over Its Excess Use of Foreign Words.” The Japan Times Online, June 27, 2013.
– Schreiber, Mark. “When Does One’s Native Language Stop Being Native?” The Japan Times Online, August 25, 2013.
– “外来語乱用でnhk提訴.” ハフィントンポスト, n.d. http://www.huffingtonpost.jp/2013/06/25/adopted_words_n_3498850.html.

3 thoughts on “A Word on Loan Words

  1. Pingback: Palavras estrangeiras na Língua Japonesa | Curiosidades do Japão

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