Personal thoughts on loanword frequency in Japanese

By | February 9, 2015

As a follow up to my previous article as to why Japanese has so many loanwords (where I quoted a Japanese person’s opinion on this topic) I’d like to present my own thoughts here.

First of all, there is the question of whether Japanese really has that many loanwords. While it is clear there is an increasing amount of loanwords in Japanese (one of the answers from this post refers to a ~25% increase in the ratio of loan words in Japanese between 1956 and 1994), I am not that convinced that this is necessarily any more than other languages.

For example, take English, which has a history of bringing words from many world languages. In fact, this website cites English loanwords which came from over 140 different languages. My feeling is that most words in English (except the ones that have been introduced in modern times, such as “selfie”) have probably come from some other language in some form or another.

Japanese is unique in that loanwords are written in a completely different alphabet (katakana), and that makes them more visible than other languages. Except for rare cases where a word is written in italics, most of the time in English it isn’t clear when a word is a loanword or not.

Thinking back about when I used to study Spanish, I remember there were many words in Spanish that sounded very similar to English (and most of them were likely in Spanish first). The Spanish words which appeared to have no connection to English surely felt ‘foreign’, but classic Japanese words written in Kanji (ex: 図書館) feel even more foreign because they are a different script.

But having said all that, let’s for a moment assume that the frequency of loan words in Japanese is higher than average. Why might that be?

First, is the point made by Oshiete Goo user ‘phj’ which I translated in my last post, which is that Japanese and the Japanese language itself readily accept new ideas and ideologies, and actively work to import new words so these things can be efficiently studied. I completely agree with this and think it is a major factor.

Also, I think it’s interesting that for quite some time Japan’s policy of isolation (鎖国) kept external influence from entering their country to a certain extent. This ended some time around the 17th century, though clearly there was some interaction with other countries before that point. In any case, when Japan’s gates were finally opened to the world, you could say that they had a lot of things to catch up on. After all, many other countries at that point (for example in Europe) were communicating and exchanging ideas for quite some time.

After World War 2 ended in 1945, the US government had a large degree of influence on Japan, which included revising their constitution as well as economic assistance. Whether a direct objective of the occupation of Japan or not, I believe that loanwords from English increased even more after this time. Doing a bit of searching, I found this paper which indicates there was a major jump in loanwords right after WWII  (see the graph on page 7).

A final point is the influence if advertising and mass media in general, something that was brought to my attention after reading this post. Loanwords give both content creators and those in advertising new ways of being “unique”, “different”, or “cool”. As a result many magazine titles and names of popular TV shows use loanwords directly, for example the show “アンビリバボー”, which comes from English “unbelievable”. The fact that the use of loanwords (some for the first time) can help make content seem “interesting” plus the extremely efficient country-wide distribution of radio, TV, other media means that it’s only natural for the number of loanwords to increase at such a rapid rate. However, since many people utilizing these words may not be very familiar with the originating language, there is a higher chance of twisting the original term’s meaning – though this is a natural consequence of loanword formation regardless of the languages involved.

To be honest, when I first started learning Japanese I was frustrated by the (seemingly) large number of loanwords deriving from English. I would think to myself “Give me a break, why don’t they just use their own words?” But the more I become familiar with Japanese, the more I learn to appreciate the value of loanwords, both in terms of how it benefits the Japanese people, as well as how it increases linguistic expressiveness.

To truly master Japanese, one must be intimately familiar both with more classical terms as well as a large set of loanwords, which are constantly increasing. Quite a task indeed!



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