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Horizontally written letters

‘Horizontally written letters’: Japanese debates on loanwords

The use of foreign loanwords can be a contentious issue. The public attitude towards loanwords not only reveals their view on foreign influences but also demonstrates how the national language or culture is perceived in a given society. The case of contemporary Japan constitutes an interesting case study in this regard.

Three layers of the Japanese Vocabulary

The Japanese vocabulary is generally classified into three layers, wago 和語 (native Japanese vocabulary), kango 漢語 (Sino-Japanese loans), and gairaigo 外来語 (other loanwords). As the Japanese orthography is based on the Chinese writing (Chinese logographic characters, kanji 漢字, as well as two set of phonetic syllabaries made by simplifying the characters), Sino-Japanese loans have a long-established status in Japanese since the introduction of the Chinese characters in Japan in the fifth to sixth century. The knowledge of the Chinese language (Sino-Japanese loans, together with Chinese characters and Japanese rendition of Chinese texts, kanbun 漢文) remained for a long period an essential part of elite education in pre-modern Japan, comparable to Latin in Medieval Europe. Today, Sino-Japanese loans account for nearly half of the Japanese lexicon. On the other hand, gairaigo, which literally means ‘words that come from outside’, account for at least 10% of the Japanese lexicon, and it mainly refers to Western loanwords and the majority today come from English. The use of gairaigo is rapidly increasing, not only in specific fields that are traditionally associated with loanwords such as information technology, fashion, and pop culture, but also in more general fields such as health, politics, and administration.

For or against?

Fierce debates on the use of gairaigo are often conducted in Japanese media, especially in newspapers. On the one hand, some argue that gairaigo is corrupting the ‘beautiful language’ and preventing those who do not understand difficult gairaigo terms from accessing information. On the other hand, proponents argue that gairaigo is a symbol of the versatility of the Japanese culture that wisely absorbs external influence in a time of internationalization. While such debates are not unique to Japan, looking at synonyms for gairaigo reveals the ways in which loanwords are perceived in Japan.

Vertical or horizontal?

Firstly, loanwords are often referred to as katakanago カタカナ語 which literally means ‘words that are written in katakana’. This is based on the fact that loanwords are visually distinctive in Japanese script, as they are written with a separate set of syllabaries called katakana カタカナ. This makes Western loanwords stand out in comparison to the rest of Japanese writing (including Sino-Japanese loans) that consists of kanji as well as hiragana ひらがな, another set of syllabaries. Therefore one often sees newspaper articles suggesting that katakanago is an unnecessary adjunct to ‘the Japanese language’, despite supposedly constituting of the three layers of the Japanese lexicon.

Secondly and more interestingly, loanwords are also referred to as yokomoji 横文字 which literally means ‘horizontally written letters’, or yokogaki 横書き(horizontal writing). This is based on the fact that Japanese is traditionally a language written vertically, whereas Western languages are written horizontally. Japanese, like Chinese, was originally only written from top to bottom and from right to left. Thus, the expressions yokomoji and yokogaki were introduced to refer to Western languages or Western loanwords as opposed to Eastern languages and vocabulary. In other words, the expressions symbolize the difference between Western and Eastern languages.

However, these expressions are no longer accurate since Japanese texts nowadays are also often written horizontally. Horizontal writing was introduced in Japan in pre-modern times mainly during the Edo Period (1603-1868) through contact with the Dutch and became increasingly dominant with the modernization of the country. Initially, horizontal writing was done from right to left based on the idea that it is still vertical writing but with each line consisting of one letter. Horizontal writing from left to right as practised in Western languages became more common after the Second World War. Today, horizontal writing from left to right is dominant in various fields such as emails, online contents, magazines, and school textbooks for subjects other than Japanese, while vertical writing is still common in other fields, such as newspapers, literature, and textbooks for Japanese classes.

Loanwords remain ‘horizontal’

A Japanese text can thus be written either horizontally or vertically regardless of whether or not it includes Western loanwords. However, the terms yokogaki and yokomoji are still frequently used as synonyms to gairaigo. Is there still an ‘Eastern and Western’ demarcation in the mind of the Japanese?

The difference between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ languages now seems like an antiquated idea, as the rapid advancement of information technology has been blurring the national and linguistic boundaries. However, the terms yokogaki and yokomoji demonstrate an endurance of the perceptual distinction rooted in the beginning of the modern period when everything ‘occidental’ was seen as novel and different. These expressions can thus be considered a symbol of Japanese ‘Eastern identity’.

At the same time, however, these terms also denotes the risk of the Japanese falling into a ‘self-orientalization’ of their own language. The rejection, or even acceptance, of loanwords under the name of ‘horizontal writing’ can cause mental blockages towards European loanwords. Indeed, one often hears such expressions as ‘I am not good with horizontal writing’, meaning ‘I am not good at understanding Western loanwords’. Those who use such expressions do not necessarily criticize all the Western vocabulary used in Japanese. Indeed, they do use well-assimilated Western loanwords such as terebi テレビ (television) and rajio ラジオ (radio). Thus, what they are really referring to through these expressions are words that were recently introduced in Japan, the meaning of which is not fully understood by all. Those new words tend to refer to an idea or a concept that is unfamiliar in Japan, such as aidentitî アイデンティティー (identity) and konpuraiansu コンプライアンス (compliance). However, the terms yokogaki and yokomoji in public discussion on loanwords may result in the general estrangement of Western values from the Japanese society, albeit unconsciously. Whether or not such self-orientalization is already happening is open to interpretation. However, the fact that words such as yokogaki and yokomoji are being used interchangeably for gairaigo alone can suggest one of the reasons why the use of Western loanwords is so controversial in contemporary Japan.

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