Too Much English!

This was an interesting article I found on the BBC recently. It talks about a lawsuit between an elderly Japanese man and the public TV station NHK because it uses too many English-derived words or wasei eigo (和製英語).

It might seem kind of frivolous or silly, but I kind of share his frustration. Ironically, I am a native English speaker, but the trend confuses me too. It’s not just NHK though, you can see English words (katakana or even just English) in advertisements, store names, music, etc. It’s really in-your-face sometimes.

In some cases, it makes sense to use English, not Japanese, because there is no Japanese word, or the English word somehow expresses things better. Personally, I even like the English “hooks” used in J-Pop and K-Pop songs too. It makes the song seem somehow more accessible even if I don’t understand all the words (especially K-Pop songs).

However, in other cases, it seems like the English word is just totally unnecessary. Somehow, the company, show or advertisement wants to seem more “modern” or “hip” and so using an English word instead of a Japanese word is one way to do this.

But there is one problem with this: elderly Japanese cannot always read English.

For example the word アジェンダ which is the same as English “agenda”. There’s already a Japanese word: 議題 (gidai) but sometimes アジェンダ is used even though it’s not necessary. Another example is トレードオフ (trade-off). There’s no Japanese equivalent to this word, but is it really necessary? Would most Japanese understand this though if they didn’t already know English?

Imagine an American advertisement that says: Try Coca-Cola! It’s really 美味しい!

What if you can’t read Japanese kanji? I know some readers cannot read this, and I did that on purpose. Many American cannot read of course, and they shouldn’t need to since they don’t use it in their daily lives. Similarly, most Japanese don’t use English in their daily lives, so why should they have to see it all the time?

Second, why do you even need it? That’s how it looks to elderly Japanese in Japan when they see words like this, and can’t read them, or understand their meaning. They feel left out and kind of frustrated, especially since NHK is a public broadcasting company (i.e. paid by Japanese for Japanese). So, I sympathize with them.

Third, it’s also grammatically awkward because the “is” in “it’s” is redundant. The adjective 美味しい (oishii “delicious”) doesn’t need it. In the same way, I often see English words in Japanese that are just grammatically awkward. As a native English speaker, it feels a little weird. I’m not offended, just confused. Here’s a container I found in 2005 at Harajuku in Tokyo, Japan:

Engrish Pringles Box

It should be “Have”, not “Go”. Also, the first “!” is unnecessary. It should say: “Have a party with Pringles!”

Also, although I am talking about Japan here, I’ve seen the same trend in Korea as well. I follow certain K-Pop people on Twitter and I noticed they like to use English words, even though in some cases a Korean word probably is enough. Korean advertisements have lots of English words too, and if I were an elderly Korean I’d probably be frustrated by the trend as well.1

Personally, I am not a purist. I think it’s quite reasonable to use foreign-imported words where appropriate. A friend of mine at work is Palestinian and is a native Arabic speaker. He was explaining to me one time that the Arabic word for Internet is a poetic-sounding phrase like “the Spider’s Web” or something. But younger Arabic speakers just say “Internet” because it’s easier. The native Arabic phrase is long and difficult to use, so people only use it for formal essays and such. That makes sense. Language is organic, it constantly changes and evolves. The problem is when that change is kind of “forced” by companies that want to seem more cool while being insensitive to parts of the population.2

What do you think?

P.S. One thing I do appreciate though: Bi-lingual signs in Japan (I think they’re in Korea too). I can read Japanese now OK, but when I first visited there, I couldn’t, so I would get lost without those signs. They really do help.

1 Also, Korean Hangeul doesn’t have anything like katakana to tell you it’s a foreign word. If you’re learning Korean, you just have to sound it out.

2 Speaking of insensitive: foreigners on Japanese TV commercials who speak no Japanese and have no good reason to be there. Then again, American commercials are just as insensitive. 😦


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Too Much English!”

    1. Hi caster,

      Interesting article, thank you for sharing. My Korean friends also told me that they stopped learning Hanja (Korean Kanji) in schools, and they don’t know very many. I agree with the article: without hanja, it is hard to recognize difficult words because many Korean words sound the same (just like Japanese words….both are from Chinese).

      However, for foreign words, you can still recognize them in Hangeul fairly easily. Foreign words often use letters that regular Korean does not: ㅋ ㅌ ㅊ ㅍ and 으. These are 激音.

      As a Westerner, when I read Hangeul I can still recognize the foreign words fairly easily. Sometimes I have to read aloud though. 😉


  1. it must be same. as you know , because 70 % of modern Chinese words were Japan made.
    many korean words were Japanese origin..

    in case of Japanese , There is pliability of Japanese which takes in a foreign language free. because of katakana.
    Since a foreign language is expressed by a Chinese character and katakana, from the ancient Japanese language written in hiragana, it looms and is visible.
    Therefore, even if it introduces many foreign languages, there is no fear of the originality of Japanese itself being lost.
    my parents do not understand today’s gal words either^^.
    I think more worse


    1. Hello,

      Yes, I know about the modern Chinese words. 🙂

      I am talking about older words. For example 気分, 準備, etc. Similar words exist in Korean: 기분, 춘비, etc. But they’re not from Japanese, they’re from old Chinese. Some are from old Buddhist sutras (お経). Both Japan and Korea learned from Chinese culture, so they both borrowed foreign Chinese words. Vietnam did too. 60% of Vietnamese words are from old Chinese.

      I agree that katakana helps express foreign words more easily. In Chinese, you have to use 漢字 for foreign sounds, but it’s awkward.

      Reading foreign words in katakana is easier than hangeul, I agree. However, as a foreigner, hangeul words sound closer than katakana words.

      Both systems have good points and bad, I think. 🙂


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