A 71-year-old man is suing Japan's public broadcaster NHK for the mental distress they have caused him through their excessive use of foreign words. He is literally lost in translation, in his very own country.
The elderly man is frustrated with the TV channel's use of loanwords which phonetically-mimic foreign expressions but are transcribed in the Japanese alphabet katakana. To him they are just a bunch of letters, which do not give contextual meaning in his native Japanese.
For example, in these phonetically described loanwords: “preview” is written “プレビュー” (pronounced purebyu), “draft” is written “ドラフト” (pronounced dorafuto). What made no sense to the old man was the use of words like “care” and “risk” in public broadcasts, which have equivalents in Japanese, he thinks the broadcaster is violating his right to access information, and his right to pursue happiness.
The use of foreign words is not a problem limited to old men, but also to the larger public. Japan's Agency of Cultural Affairs noted [ja] that the increasing use of foreign words is impairing the beauty of traditional Japanese, and hindering communication between the young and old. In a government survey on loanwords in 2007, understanding of katakana words such as “empowerment” and “literacy” was less than 10 % [ja] but overall understanding of loanwords was increasing. Given the excessive use of foreign words in daily communication, Kentaro Takahashi published a book [ja] in September 2012 to explain what commonly used katakana really means in plain Japanese.
Journalist Toshinao Sasaki who wrote a book about curation in the social media age, was in a dilemma about using katakana in describing the very concept his book was about [ja]:
I couldn't find the right translation of “curation” in Japanese, so I left it as it is. Language is difficult.Translating foreign concepts into native Japanese can be strange sometimes.
Anthropologist Ichiro Numazaki gave his thoughts on foreign words on Twitter:
@Ichy_Numa サッカーを蹴球と言えと言う人が今時いるか？ サポーターじゃなくて応援団か？ ワールドカップは分かりにくいから世界杯と言うべきか？ カタカナ語批判は、実はカタカナが嫌なんじゃなくて、そのカタカナ語の示す新しい概念が嫌いなんだよ。それをカタカナのせいにしてるだけ。
Who would say shukyu[old word for kicking ball] to describe soccer today? Is it better to stop saying “supporters” [in katakana] and refer to them as “応援団”[traditional word for cheering comrade]? I don't think so. Critics of foreign words in katakana, hate the use of a new words when it describes new concepts. Not that they hate katakana itself.
There was a time when foreign words introduced in Japan were literally translated, and allocated existing kanji (Chinese script) and hiragana (Japanese script) words to match their actual meanings. Words like “freedom” and “democracy” which were imported in the late 19th century, were translated into Japanese using kanji and became “自由“[ja] and “民主主義“[ja]. Even though these words were new back then, it still made sense to many Japanese people because each kanji represents its own meaning and comes together to form a word that makes sense.
A poet, Kiyoe Kawazu felt that the use of foreign words in katakana was ebbing at the world of the words that he knew:
It makes me scared how self-evident things are driven by the use of loanwords such as Western words described in katakana or Chinese conceptual words drawn in Japanese kanji. Back in Meiji era [1868-1912], they used to translate the meaning into kanji, but now they just use katakana. Gradually the vague meanings penetrate the public, making obvious things ambiguous.
Ichiro Numazaki looks at the positive side of loanwords:
Loanwords introduced foreign ideas such as “sexual harrassment” and “DV” or domestic violence. Loanwords gained public attention because katakana and its letters were effective in providing new ideas. People have to understand the issue to comprehend the katakana or the alphabet.
Another Twitter user @sumiyoshi_49 commented that foreign words are alienating non-experts on everyday issues:
I think we need to take a serious consideration in using terms like “normalization” and “hate speech” [both described phonetically in katakana as loanwords], for these katakana are isolating ordinary Japanese, and keeping them from getting interested in the issues these words represent. Japanese people who are not good at English won't grasp these ideas in katakana.