When Japanese borrows the words from another language, but not their meanings

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Foreign loanwords in katakana, known in Japanese as 外来語 (gairaigo), are a huge part of the lexicon, including both common words and niche jargon alike.

Many of these come from English and will be in your first Japanese lessons, like ビル (biru, building) and スーパー (sūpā, supermarket) on the ordinary end. Others are more niche but no less useful, such as アーカイブ (ākaibu, archive) or アウトソーシング (autosōshing, outsourcing). Other words come from French, like アンケート (ankēto, survey); German, アルバイト (arubaito, part-time job); and Dutch, ゴム (gomu, rubber band).

Some are simply trendy or news-related, including the words ポチる (pochiru, to purchase from an online site) or パタハラ (pata-hara, when a man suffers harassment at work for taking paternity leave).

As essential as 外来語 are in Japanese, they have come under attack from all sides — often, for good reason. Per Margaret Pine Otake at Tokyo Seitoku University, 外来語 has been labeled a “bastardization” of English by native English speakers, and the ruin of the Japanese language by native Japanese speakers. Research has shown that 外来語 can make learning English harder for Japanese speakers. And while there’s not enough data out there to show whether or not 外来語 helps or harms English-speaking Japanese learners, 外来語 are far less intuitive than they seem.

Words that sound like common English words can be confusing when they differ from the expected meaning. The classic example of this is スタイル (sutairu), which sounds like “style” in English, but actually means “figure.” Unfortunately, these unexpected differences in meaning are far more common than you would expect. 外来語の使用で何を注意するべきか、見てみましょう (Gairaigo no shiyō de nani o chūi suru beki ka, mite-mimashō, Let’s take a look at what we need to be careful about when using foreign loanwords).

外来語 have a long and storied history in Japan. The first set of “modern” loanwords came from the Portuguese and then, later on, the Dutch. New foods such as じゃがいも (jagaimo, potato) and とうもろこし (tōmorokoshi, corn) and products like タバコ (tabako, tobacco) became a part of the Japanese vocabulary. Then, when Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its borders in 1853, the next big round of foreign loanword importation began, this time with English slowly but surely rising to the top. According to Otake, while in 1889 a Japanese dictionary listed 85 Dutch 外来語 and 72 English 外来語, by the mid-Taisho Era (1912-26), 51% were from English, and today, 80-90% are from English.

Importing these English loanwords came along with new patterns in Japan’s economic, political and cultural development. Just like early loanwords came from Portuguese food, you can see the same trends at work with the housing that sprung up throughout Japanese cities following World War II, which became known as アパート (apāto, apartment). These were shoddy, cheap dwellings, so soon the more luxurious-sounding マンション (manshon) was adopted to refer to apartments instead. This same shift in language explains why so many modern apartment buildings in Japan have borrowed fancy terms from foreign languages like ハイツ (haitsu, heights) or ハイム (haimu, heim) from the German word for “home.”

With 外来語, especially 英語の外来語 (Eigo no gairaigo, English foreign loanwords), so prevalent in modern Japanese, they have a wide variety of uses. In advertising and media, 外来語 are often to evoke a sense of クール (kūru, cool). In research and academia, specific abstruse concepts become loanwords, like ダダ (dada, as in Dadaism). And like the aforementioned ポチる and パタハラ, loanwords often emerge as trendy slang used to describe highly specific situations.

Despite the outcry of some Japanese about the overuse of loanwords, a 2004 analysis by Kimie Oshima at Bunkyo Gakuin University showed that the prevalence of these terms in newspapers barely increased between 1952 and 1997. There is a lack of similar data out there about trends over the past 20 years. Still, a standard hallmark of “good” public writing and speaking in Japanese that has stayed consistent is the mandate to minimize 外来語. Interviews with newspaper editors reveal that the main reason for this is that loanwords are often very specific and can be difficult to understand. Even as a foreign learner, it’s hard to wrap my head around whether クール is referring to かっこいい (kakkoii, cool/attractive) or お洒落 (oshare, stylish), both of which would be easier to understand compared to the vague but catchy クール.

If you look at an average contemporary newspaper article or listen to a political campaign speech, you’ll see that most professional writers and speakers limit their use of 外来語. New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech to the Diet on Oct. 8, thousands of Japanese characters long and over four pages in length, had just a few dozen 外来語. Most of these referred to specific economic and scientific concepts: コロナ (korona, coronavirus), ワクチン (wakuchin, vaccine), サプライチェーン (sapurai chēn, supply chain), セーフティネット (sēfuti netto, safety net), デフレ (defure, deflation) and so on. His only 外来語 outside of this category were ビジョン (bijon, vision), ニーズ (nīzu, [material] needs), ピンチ (pinchi, pinch/challenge) and チャンス (chansu, opportunity). These last two came together in an attempt at something like wordplay: 「ピンチをチャンスに変え … わくわくするような未来社会を創ろうではありませんか。」 (Pinchi o chansu ni kae … waku-waku suru yōna mirai shakai o tsukurō de wa arimasen ka, Why don’t we turn obstacles into opportunities and create a future we can be excited about?)

Newspaper articles continue to minimize the number of 外来語 they use as well. For foreign listeners, these words can be a boon and a curse since, as was previously mentioned, some loanwords take on slightly different meanings in Japanese.

スマート (Sumāto) doesn’t mean smart, but slender. サービス (Sābisu) doesn’t always mean service, but something discounted or free. ツナ (Tsuna) refers to the canned version of the fish only and バイク (baiku) refers to motorbikes but not bicycles. サイン (Sain) can sometimes refer to signs on the street, which are typically 合図 (aizu) or 看板 (kanban), but mostly means signature. バイキング (Baikingu) can refer to both Vikings and a buffet.

The chaos hardly ends there. Even “up” is different in Japanese: アップ (appu) is used as a verb with する to mean “increase,” as in 学力アップ (gakuryoku appu, to increase one’s ability at school). If you want to talk about an app on your phone, use アプリ (apuri).

As you can imagine, using these words from an English speakers’ perspective can lead to problems. Saying that you want ツナ at a sushi restaurant may produce confused looks, and calling someone スマート in the wrong context could make a situation very awkward.

外来語 can be a trap for English learners because they’re so easy to use. To speak fluent Japanese, don’t “katakana-ify” English words in the hopes that the word is understandable. Put English loanwords in the same boat as any other piece of Japanese vocabulary. It only makes sense given how often these words have a twist compared to their originals.

You can convey a lot with 外来語, but it may not always be what you want. 分かりやすい、プリティな日本語をスピークするには、たくさんイングリッシュローンワードのユースをストップ! (Wakariyasui, puriteina Nihongo o supīku suru ni wa, takusan ingurishu rōn wādo no yūsu o sutoppu!) Oops, I mean 分かりやすい、綺麗な日本語を話すには、たくさん英語の外来語を使うことをやめましょう! (Wakariyasui, kireina Nihongo o hanasu ni wa, takusan Eigo no gairaigo o tsukau koto o yamemashō, to speak pretty, easily-understandable Japanese, let’s stop using English loanwords).

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