Kyoto: A Gorgeous "Na" Melody

In Japan’s strange quasi-English, a “funky babe” buys a “waishatsu” at a “depaato”

SURPRISINGLY, AND RATHER heroically, many Japanese seem to feel it is their duty to speak English. On a train or in a restaurant, it is common for an American to be pulled aside and asked, “Excuse me, may I practice my English?” While by no means all Japanese speak English, most know a little, because it has been compulsory in the schools since the late nineteenth century (excepting World War II). Very few Americans, of course, know even a little Japanese, and the language is so difficult to read and write, even for natives, that a myth holding foreigners incapable of speaking it is widely—somewhat proudly—promulgated. When a foreigner can manage more than a basic question in Japanese, native speakers are often astonished. The Japanese preoccupation with English—both the language as a whole and the bits embedded in Japanese sentences, often without the slightest sense of irony or incongruity—is paradoxical. English, having infiltrated the vocabulary of every age group and profession, is more of a presence in Japan than in any European country I have visited. It has made far greater inroads into the Japanese culture than into that of France, where the purity of the native language is seen to be in critical condition. Why, then, does the Japanese grasp of the contours of English seem so slippery?

I came here, to Kyoto, nine months ago with my husband, who is doing research on the Japanese legal system. Since our arrival, I’ve kept a notebook recording the English to be encountered on the street, in the shops, and on television. There are the coffee-shop chains with their bewildering mottoes: “World Smell in Cup, Full,” or “Persistent Pursuit of Dainty.” There is the tomato juice advertised as the “Red Mix for City Actives.” There are the notebooks and plastic shopping bags plastered with maxims (“Make every day a special memorable day of joy by looking at the bright side of everything in high spirits”) or what might be called jokes—except that one couldn’t laugh with the joke-tellers: “FUNKY BABE. Let’s call a funky girl ‘Funky Babe.’ Girls, open-minded, know how to swing. Love to feel everything rather than think. They must all be nice girls.” A pornographic magazine offers advice on “How To SEX.” James Dean’s picture is often paired with this quasi-poem, printed on shopping bags of various designs: “Image of Solitude/ An Atmosphere of Young Beast/ A Dark, Shy, Faint Smile/ Injured Soul for Love/ Jimmy Forever.” A thirst-quenching drink is called Pocari Sweat; a powdered cream-substitute for coffee goes by the name of Creap. Attached to a pair of HALF brand jeans I bought, a tag read: “Someday you will know what is on your mind when you try HALF After Shower.” Somehow, I doubted it.

Perhaps because written Japanese is so difficult, many students instinctively shy away from English textbooks, and greatly prefer conversation to composition. This might account, in part, for those inscrutable ads. But one message is clear: native speakers of English are not being hired even to proofread the majority of English used commercially here. Soon after I came to Kyoto, I got a part-time job teaching English to engineers at a forklift factory. Proudly, the “student leader” offered me a glossy, full-color booklet in English about his company. The introduction began, “At the present period requirements, environmental integrity, restoration of humanity brought from public nuisance are become biggest problems in the civilized countries.” I read the entire booklet, in the hope of finding wholly right sentences, of which only a handful appeared. How was it that the directors of Nippon Yusoki Ltd., a company that boasted a major share of the batterypowered forklift market in Japan and a growing percentage in the United States, had not thought fit to check and double-check this booklet, when it paid me and my American colleagues nearly twenty dollars an hour to sit around and chat with the guys once a week?

When one asks a Japanese why he or she is studying English—after school, after work, during work—the answer is usually that English is an international language, and essential for communicating with foreigners. The major cities are bursting with new English-conversation schools, which accept all sorts of native speakers as teachers, and pay them handsomely. The nature of the schools themselves varies widely, from strictly run programs within major companies, on company time, to (a recent innovation in Tokyo) late-night “English-conversation bars” with topless instructors. Private students offer as much as fifty dollars an hour, and typically shower their teachers with expensive gifts: cakes, roast hams, bottles of whiskey. Japan’s economic miracle is tied inextricably to international—particularly English—communication, and yet, after a short period here, one begins to wonder if the English sought at such pains communicates at all.

I BEGAN TO REALIZE that the mystery could be solved only with a vast network of clues, some of them contradictory but hardly new—as old, in fact, as Japan itself. In about 400 A.D., having no writing system, Japan adopted Chinese as the official court language. Gradually, and with many necessary transformations, Japanese meanings and sounds began to be assigned to Chinese characters. Sir George Sansom, the noted historian of Japanese culture, says that by the eighth century, “the vocabulary of Japanese came to contain a great number of Chinese words, principally those for which there was no Japanese equivalent, but often adopted for reasons of pedantry or fashion rather than convenience. . . . The prestige of the language, the script, and the literature of China was overwhelming . . . . everyone who valued his standing must have a smattering.” The “smattering” of English now employed in Japan has two functions. One is the avowed purpose: enabling the Japanese to communicate with foreigners. But the second, I realized as I began studying the language and reading simple advertisements, is enabling the Japanese to communicate with each other.

“Japanese English,” by which is meant English words transliterated into a rough Japanese approximation, and then often abbreviated (apaato for apartment, danpa for dance party), manifests exactly the phenomenon Sansom described: the abandonment of native words to show that one “knows” foreign ones. An ancient script of some fifty phonetic symbols, called katakana, is used primarily to represent the burgeoning number of foreign words, and thus makes up an ever greater percentage of the written language. While the pronunciation of loan words in any language tends to be a corruption, katakana, by spelling out the mistakes, legitimizes them. (“Loan word” is itself a misnomer—for these words will never be returned, and most of us wouldn’t take them back in such battered condition.) I began to learn katakana so that I could read coffee-shop menus, which generally offer foreign foods. But recasting these Japanese letters back into phonetic English, I discovered, produced comic results: pain jiūsu (pineapple juice), karēraisu (curry with rice), and hamu tōsuto (toasted ham sandwich). Because there are a number of sounds in English that simply do not exist in Japanese (“th” and “1,” for example), the double and triple uses of katakana symbols inevitably cause confusion for an American. At the Kentucky Bruegrass (sic) Cafe, for instance, I puzzled over whether ranchi setto signified “ranch set” (i.e., Western-style food) or “lunch set.” It turned out to mean the latter—which any Japanese would have known. This “English” is not the international language one hears the praises of but queerly insular. The fact is rarely acknowledged, but this English is really just Japanese.

It is not only the inadequacy of katakana in representing English sounds that makes “Japanese English” so idiosyncratic. Admittedly, one may be embarrassed in a depaato (department store) to ask for a nekutai (necktie), moningu (morning coat), shuraksu (slacks), and shatsu (shirt), all of which are now the most commonly used terms for these items. But it’s when you have to ask for a waishatsu—or, rather, a pinku waishatsu—that it hurts. A “white shirt” used to indicate a dress shirt, but now that others are available, one must ask for a pink white shirt. Gathering prodigiously, and yet only here and there, the Japanese have pulled English up from its roots of meaning and context. (Japanese are sometimes surprised to learn that English vocabulary is not originally their own. “How do you say ‘rehabiritashion’ in English?” my hairdresser asked me.) Since the syllable na is often required in Japanese between an adjective and the noun it modifies, one can turn on the radio and hear a disc jockey embed in an orthodox Japanese sentence the information that he is about to play a “gōjiasu na merodi” (gorgeous na melody). Because the verb “to do” is often used in Japanese, one can turn on the television and see a line of happy blond Americans in ski suits, crying out in unison: “Do Ski!” Perhaps because the Japanese equivalent of “let’s” is widely used, the English expression gets a workout on sweatshirts: LET’S ACTIVE, or LET’S SEX; or—a double whammy -LET’S ALL DO SPORTS AND SWEAT.

Then there are the English-style words that are entirely Japanese inventions: sarariman (“salaryman”), for example. O Eru (“OL,” or “office lady”) is his female counterpart. (I am told that this expression replaced the “BG”, or “business girl,” of a generation ago.) It’s been difficult to explain to my students that real English words can form inapt combinations; that moningu sabisu, even if written as “morning service,” is more likely to connote church than breakfast. Similarly, manshion (“mansion”) never means “large apartment building” to us, as it now does to the Japanese. Even fluent speakers of English, understandably, are confused by these scores of false cognates. A Japanese friend recently told me in English that a mutual acquaintance was disappointed with her arranged marriage. “She never wanted to live in a house,” my friend said. “She’d rather live in a mansion.”

Of course, katakana English is not the sort I found in the Nippon Yusoki booklet, meant for a worldwide market. But it lurks in the background, as the sort of “English” its writers feel truly familiar with. Although change has come rapidly here, especially since World War II, it was only in 1854, after all, that Commodore Perry reopened Japan (after some 260 years of isolation) to contact with the West. Disregarding the outward signs of cosmopolitanism reflected in GNP, the Japanese remain a highly uncosmopolitan people—insatiably curious, and yet curiously innocent; easily astonished at the ways and even, it seems, the existence of other races. Dubbed reruns of Starsky and Hutch or Bewitched are shown on television every day; the public broadcasting system is running the BBC Shakespeare series twice, both dubbed and with subtitles. But a day rarely passes when a child, seeing us on the street, does not stop gape-mouthed, clinging to his mother with one hand and pointing with the other. “Gaijin!” (foreigners!) he cries. As long as the distinction matters so much, the fascination with foreign languages is likely to remain, in part, private and self-limiting.

Another factor, perhaps just as significant, in the dissemination of fractured English in Japan (as Jack Seward relates in his perceptive study Japanese in Action) is the concept of “face.” Once a Japanese has been labeled an “English expert,” any correction of his use of the language is apt to become extremely embarrassing, even if the international communiqués he is hired to write are indecipherable. Seward describes his frustration, as the ostensible English proofreader at a Japanese firm, at the way secretaries deliberately circumvented him and sent off faulty letters on the insistence of their superiors. The Japanese tradition of lifetime employment, which so intrigues American management students now, can lead us to assume that the experts Seward despaired of years ago are still doing their stuff. When I taught at an afterhours “foreign studies institute” in Kyoto, attended mainly by high school and college students, I learned that it is an unwritten rule that all students pass their tests and move on, no matter how miserably they have performed. This policy contrasted oddly with the infamous competition within the official school system, and yet was one more manifestation of the presumption that once you’re supposed to know English, you do.

Paradoxically, the Japanese pull away from knowledge, just as they—as eagerly as any people in the world — seek to grasp it. For the more one knows about matters not Japanese, the less one is like others. In a culture that prizes uniformity, a merely good command of English is apparently more valued than fluency. Millions of parents spend millions of yen every year to have their children learn English, and are, of course, pleased if the children learn. But the newspapers are filled with the laments of those parents who made the mistake of allowing a child to live abroad for a year or more, only to have that child return as a social misfit, ridiculed for special knowledge and hopelessly behind in the study of Japanese.

Two mothers of high school sophomores confided to me that they would like to send their children on a “homestay” with an American family for two or three weeks during summer vacation—an increasingly popular practice. But they feared that an absence of such length might jeopardize their children’s college-entrance examinations, yet years away. When I suggested that visiting the U.S. would make the English exam easier, they shared a knowing look and said that I simply didn’t understand Japan. In Japan, a boy or girl who requires a few years’ extra tutoring in Japanese (which the Japanese themselves consider so difficult that they call it “the devil’s language”) after a long period abroad, is considered “too late” to begin study at a university or employment at a company, even if fluency in English might have been an asset at work. For a woman the problem is especially acute: by the time she is twenty-five or thirty, many companies expect her to leave their service even if she is unmarried. And she had better be married, for at about the same time it becomes “too late” for her parents or other go-betweens to arrange a marriage.

“IF THERE IS ONE feature that time after time impresses a student of the cultural history of the Japanese,” wrote Sir George Sansom, “it is the malign influence of the linguistic handicap under which they have always suffered.” A severe judgment, and yet the mushrooming of Japanese English would seem another factor in confirming it.

The Japanese language is itself a more extreme corruption than most other languages one can think of, for the thousands of ancient Chinese characters grafted onto original Japanese sounds may have as many as ten readings apiece, accreted over time. These characters have been simplified or abandoned so many times that today’s college students cannot read even their parents’ pre-war notebooks with total comprehension. And yet the “simplified” language as it stands is daunting: three writing systems, two of them phonetic and one ideographic, with more than 1,800 characters required to read the daily newspaper. Clearly, Japanese students might expend their diligence on worthier ends. Borrowing from foreign languages and casting this vocabulary wholly into phonetics must seem comparatively painless. Especially as Japan’s concerns grow increasingly international, the debate over whether to convert the entire language to a phonetic system (thus making it immeasurably more accessible to foreigners) may help determine the country’s future.

And yet, having studied the ideograms a short while myself, I see their seductive quality. They are lovely; they preserve at a glance the roots of meaning; they take so long to learn that one clings to them like a trophy one never expected to win. Most important, perhaps, the conception of language they represent is not Western. In a country where gratuitous Westernization is often mistaken for modernization, it’s a shame, in a way, that so little that is truly unique is left except the written language. It probably cannot, and should not, survive in its present form, and yet the “gorgeous na melody” of quasi-English threatening to fill the vacuum is not—to this Westerner, at least—gorgeous at all.

—Mary Jo Salter