Evil Katakana

In "The Japanese Language Meets the Internet" (May 2000), Bill Hall may have unwittingly touched upon a phenomenon I have observed, to wit, a disproportionate percentage of the new foreign terms coming into Japanese, like sekuhara (sexual harassment), rehabiri (rehabilitation), risku (risk), risutora (restructuring) etc., tend to have mildly or even strongly negative connotations.

Others from the past decade that come to mind would include new half (transvestites), homuresu (homeless), pei ofu (as in bribe), biggu ban (deregulation), and taimu rimitto (in this case meaning one's biological clock), to name a few.

This first came to my attention when the government announced the imminent introduction of the then-3% consumption tax, erecting posters to inform the public of the "nyuu takkusu," definitely an unpopular new development and, considering Japanese has perfectly good words for both "new" and "tax," totally unnecessary. I fail to understand how such a monstrosity can even be justified.

Another frequent form of linguistic bias occurs when English novels are translated into Japanese. An acquaintance of mine did a review of several and pointed out a number of subtle and not-so-subtle means that Japanese utilize to emphasize their uniqueness (or whatever) through the selection of words. For instance, when a foreigner uses Japanese proper nouns such as "Tokyo" in the narrative, they tend to be rendered in katakana, whereas a Japanese speaker will have it properly written out in kanji. If this were done as a technique to suggest a strong accent it might be acceptable, but the English original made no distinction, whereas the Japanese translator (or editor) did.

Ironically, many Westerners prefer the shallow perception that adoption of foreign vocabulary is evidence of Japanese "receptivity" to foreign ideas. It appears a bit more complicated than that. I hope Mr. Hall would perhaps deign to enlighten us further in a future column.

Mark Schreiber