Language and National Identity in Contemporary Japan:
‘Otherness Within’ Expressed in the Discourse on Foreign Loanwords
This study is concerned with the relation between language and national identity in contemporary Japan, in particular the manner in which visions of ‘Japaneseness’ are expressed and reproduced through the display of public attitudes towards foreignisms in contemporary Japan. The proposed hypothesis is that certain foreign loanwords known as gairaigo are excluded from the perceptual framework of the Japanese language (nihongo), thereby playing a contrapuntal role in conceptualising national language as a source of national identity. I thus suggest that the recent debates on the use of loanwords can be understood as a particular manifestation of the ongoing (re)negotiation of national identity. To attest this hypothesis, contemporary discussion on the use of gairaigo will be scrutinised, using letters to the editors of two major newspapers in Japan. It will be concluded that debates on the use of loanwords are highly reliant upon notions of national consciousness and that loanwords represent a foreignness, or otherness, felt within a society that constructs an ‘internal Other’ to a Japanese ‘Self’, the identity of which is neither autonomous nor clearly delineated.
Language is often held not only as a means to enable communication but also as an essential element in building a strong national community. Therefore, debates regarding the use of national language tend to come to the fore when national sentiment is threatened in any way. Such debates sometimes take the form of linguistic purism, questioning the concept of the ‘purity’ of language. Thomas (1991) argues that the fundamental structure of the puristic attitude is a dualistic view between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’, ‘desirable’ and ‘non-desirable’ language, where the notion of linguistic purity is taken for granted despite lacking an agreed definition. The dualistic perspective underlying linguistic purism can be compared to the central premise of nationalism that divides what is ‘domestic’ from what is ‘foreign’ with its tendency to similarly entertain notions of ‘national purity’. Thus, the notions of linguistic purity and national purity are often profoundly intertwined when national language is discussed. In this context, I argue that attitudes towards loanwords are reflective of public perceptions of the ideal form of the national language by reference to what is seen as foreign. Cohen (1985:115) explains the importance of otherness in the symbolic construction of community, because ‘self-conscious’ cultures and communities “define themselves by reference to a ‘significant other’”. I argue that in the linguistic debates examined herein, the notion of loanwords plays the role of the ‘significant other’.
It is also important to point out that such loanwords are internal elements to a given language, thereby constituting ‘Otherness Within’. While this is on the surface counterintuitive, the notion of otherness has in fact been commonly associated with insiders. For example, referring back to the idea of the ‘barbarian’ in Greek city-states as the origin of otherness, Kristeva (1991:52) points out that the term ‘barbarian’ was used not only for non-Greeks who spoke an ‘incomprehensible language’, but sometimes also to refer to internal members of the community in order to ensure the internal homogeneity of the community. The exclusion of internal members within a given society thus can be understood as a collective effort to strengthen internal solidarity while creating a myth of homogeneity. Similarly, Gottlieb (2006) analyses discriminatory discourse about minority populations in contemporary Japan and describes them as ‘outsiders within’. She describes the process of constructing identity as “assigning to ourselves and to others labels which shape our concepts of who and what we or they are” because “by defining others as what we are not, we emphasise what it is that we think”, and in order to construct the image of the ‘mainstream’ group, minority groups are labelled as ‘undesirably different’ (ibid.:4). The intention of this study is to draw a direct analogy between such excluded minority populations and foreign loanwords in terms of their discursive treatment.
Method of Analysis
The Japanese term gairaigo literally means ‘words that came from outside’. The use of gairaigo has been actively discussed, particularly through public media such as newspapers. Linguistically, gairaigo refers to foreign loanwords adopted into Japanese fairly recently, mostly from Western languages. As they are made visually distinct the use of phonetic syllabary katakana, gairaigo is also known as katakanago. It constitutes one of the three strata of vocabulary in Japanese: wago [native Japanese vocabulary], kango [Sino-Japanese loans], and gairaigo. However it is considered that the mental categorisation of the Japanese lexicon does not always reflect the etymological origin of the word and the public perception of gairaigo is largely shaped by the discursively constructed image of the national language and nation itself. In order to scrutinise the discourse on gairaigo, letters to the editors of the two major nationwide newspapers have been used as the principal data for this study. The data was extracted using the electronic archives of Asahi Shimbun Kikuzo and Yomiuri Shimbun Yomidasu Rekishikan, targeting pieces on the subject of gairaigo issued between 1991 and 2010. In the analysis, a particular attention has been placed on frequently employed expressions and metaphors in order to reveal underlying images held toward loanwords (Analysis 1). Furthermore, a careful examination is also carried out regarding synonyms (words frequently used as equivalent to gairaigo) and antonyms (words used in contrast to gairaigo) (Analysis 2). It is believed that the contrast between the synonyms and antonyms highlights the discourse of ‘outsiders within’ based on the perceptual dualism between Self and Other we find embedded in the discussions on language and that is shared by both those who criticise the use of loanwords (the ‘opponents’) and those who praise it (the ‘proponents’).
Analysis 1: Absorption and Inundation
In terms of recurrent metaphors and expressions, it was revealed that the most recurrent expressions used by those who oppose the use of gairaigo were:
· Inundation [hanran] by gairaigo
· Gairaigo overflow [afureru]
· Abuse [ran’yô] of gairaigo
· Expulsion [tsuihô] of gairaigo
In contrast, expressions used by those who support the use of gairaigo included:
· Absorption [kyûshû] of gairaigo
· Gairaigo take root [teichakusuru] in Japanese
· Japanese adopts [toriireru] gairaigo
· Japanese accept [ukeireru] gairaigo
Using these expressions, proponents and opponents develop their own narrative on the relation between ‘Japanese’ or ‘nihongo’ and ‘gairaigo’. In particular, the two contrasting water-related metaphors of ‘inundation’ [hanran] and ‘absorption’ [kyûshû] delineate opposing narratives with regard to gairaigo.
In order to investigate the implications of the Japanese expression of ‘inundation’ or ‘to inundate’ [hanran/hanransuru], other terms often used with this expression were identified.
As a result of keyword searches in the electronic archives of both Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun in the same period (from 1 January 1991 to 31 December 2010), the words most commonly accompanying the expression ‘hanran’ [inundation] were the following:
· Counterfeit products
· Child pornography
These are either wholly negatively connoted objects, such as counterfeit products or child pornography, or things that can be useful if appropriately utilised but that can also be dangerous or misleading if uncontrolled or excessive, such as information, advertisements, colours, images, and sounds. The metaphorical expression of inundating or spilling water is therefore closely associated to an image of threat and disorder. In many cases, it conveys the impression that there is an appropriate and acceptable level to the quantity or flow of something analogous to the flow of a river relative to its banks and that this level is being exceeded. Thus, the current use of loanwords as ‘inundation’ leave readers with the impression that the use of loanwords is a threatening and corrupting development that must be brought under control.
On the other hand, the positive metaphor of ‘absorption’ or ‘to absorb’ [kyûshû/kyûshûsuru] is often accompanied by the following words:
· Company or country name(s)
· Increase of costs, decrease of sales, financial losses
· Shock, noise
· Ultraviolet, CO2
From the words above, it can be said that the expression ‘kyûshû’ is used to describe situations in which 1) the impact of the negative object is mitigated or cancelled out (such as increases in costs, decreases of sales, financial losses, shock, noise, ultraviolet, and CO2); 2) the positive effect of the positively connoted objects are taken in and turned into an element of the growth or improvement of the subject of ‘absorption’ (such as nutrition, wisdom, knowledge, and culture); or 3) the subject of the ‘absorption’ takes control of the neutral objects (such as a company merger or the unification of a country). Thus, used in the discussion on the use of gairaigo, the metaphor of absorption gives readers the impression that loanwords are under the control of the Japanese language, the Japanese, or Japan itself (terms frequently used interchangeably). The expression also implies that the positive effects of gairaigo are wisely taken in, while the negative effects are minimised or reduced.
Based on the contrasting metaphors shown above, it can be summarised that opponents express a viewpoint according to which the Japanese language is being threatened by the uncontrollable increase of loanwords, which is often described as a recent phenomenon that is depriving the Japanese language of its traditional beauty. On the other hand, proponents describe the situation in which the Japanese language has a long-standing and unique capacity for taking in what is foreign and putting it to good use and therefore the recent increase of loanwords is well under control as part of the natural development of the Japanese culture. The two water-related images of ‘inundation’ and ‘absorption’ thus convey two contrasting points of view.
There are, however, also important commonalities between the views of opponents and proponents. First of all, these contrasting views are both premised on an imagined boundary between the domestic and foreign through the use of recurrent vocabulary and in both cases gairaigo represents the foreign or Other while nihongo represents the domestic or Self. It should be further pointed out that both opponents and proponents base their argument on Japanese history and tradition even if their interpretation of the tradition is different. It can be argued that these images of Japaneseness are reflected in the debates over the use of gairaigo and thus the term nihongo is used synonymously to Japan as a country just as the term gairaigo is used synonymously to foreign (or sometimes Western) influence. It becomes evident if we examine the vocabulary used as equivalent (synonym) and in contrast (antonym) to the term gairaigo.
Analysis 2: Synonyms and Antonyms
In the newspaper extracts surveyed in this research, the following words were used in contrast to and as equivalent to the term gairaigo. The Japanese words are accompanied by their English translation in square brackets.
Gairaigo was discussed synonymously to:
· Gaikokugo [foreign languages], eigo [English]
· Yokomoji [horizontally written letters], yokogaki [horizontal writing]7
· Foreign culture, ideas from abroad
· Western culture, Western civilisation
· New concepts or knowledge
The above words were described with the following qualities:
[Those who criticise the use]
[Those who praise the use]
On the other hand, gairaigo was contrasted to:
· Wago, yamatokotoba [Japanese native vocabulary], hiragana
· Kango, kanji
· Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese people
The above words were described by the following qualities:
[Those who criticise the use]
[Those who praise the use]
The difference between opponents and proponents lies in the associated qualities of nihongo and gairaigo. Opponents tend to associate nihongo with qualities such as correct, beautiful, appropriate, and splendid, while associating gairaigo with negative qualities such as incomprehensible, difficult, unfamiliar, or halfway (between English and Japanese). Proponents tend to associate nihongo with qualities such as energetic, vigorous, broad-minded and flexible, while defining the process of adopting gairaigo as part of the Japanese tradition and excellence to take in new and convenient things.
However, it can also be said that both positions on gairaigo rely on a contrast between nihongo, associated with hiragana and kanji, Japanese culture or the country of Japan itself, and gairaigo, associated with katakana, Western culture, or foreign countries. It is noteworthy that, as Loveday (1996:49) has pointed out, there is a clear perceptual distinction between wago and kango on one side and gairaigo on the other, despite the fact they all belong to the Japanese vocabulary. Sino-Japanese loans, which account for nearly half of the total number of words in the Japanese vocabulary8, are treated as internal to the Japanese language, due to the fact that they have been in use for hundreds of years in Japanese and that Chinese characters are used for both Japanese native vocabulary and Sino-Japanese loans alike. This suggests that the distinction between nihongo and gairaigo is based upon the perceptual division between the East and the West, providing a valuable insight into the study of the regional identity of Japan.
Below are a few sample extracts of the letters to the editor that substantiate the above analysis.
1) Japanese culture has a diverse and broad-minded characteristic and in the end it kyûshûshite [absorbs] everything including yokogaki and gairaigo as part of its tradition. (Yomiuri, 2 February 1994)
2) Katakanago are hanranshite [inundating] today and halfway English has been taught. The learning of nihongo tends to be undervalued. All the more, I would like to cherish the beautiful language. (Asahi, 18 April 2002)
3) Difficult gairaigo should be replaced with appropriate nihongo. The National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics has proposed examples for replacing sixty-three gairaigo (katakanago) words such as sukîmu [scheme] or konsensasu [consensus] with nihongo. I cannot help thinking that the hanran [inundation] by katakanago indicates the decay of the ability of the Japanese to create new words. (Yomiuri, 10 January 2003)
4) Japan has skilfully kyûshûshite [absorbed] Western words into nihongo. (Asahi, 17 July 2004)
National language is one of the key elements involved in creating and strengthening the shared feeling of belonging to a nation. The narratives surrounding the national language are constantly being reactivated in order to sustain national identity in a changing external environment. It is therefore essential to understand the contextual background of linguistic debates as they reveal how the national language is currently perceived in relation to wider national sentiment. This universal tendency finds in contemporary Japanese debates on the use of loanwords a particularly illuminating example of the intertwinement of language and national identity.
As a result of the analysis of newspaper discourse on the use of gairaigo, the following findings have been made:
1) While foreign loanwords are a part of the Japanese lexicon, the total number of which accounts for at least around 10% of the Japanese vocabulary, within the normative debates on the use of language gairaigo is treated as the representation of otherness felt within the Japanese language. This tendency to associate certain internal elements of a language as the symbolic representation of foreignness can be related to the concept of ‘outsiders within’ discussed by Gottlieb (2006) with regard to the social discourse on minority populations in contemporary Japan.
2) Two water-related metaphors, inundation [hanran] and absorption [kyûshû], express contrasting visions of the situation in which an increasing number of gairaigo have been in use. The metaphor of inundation expresses fear and threat about uncontrolled use of gairaigo corrupting the ‘traditional’ Japanese language. On the other hand, the metaphor of absorption expresses the belief in the ‘traditional’ vigour and vitality of the Japanese language that takes in foreign elements in a controlled manner. It should be underlined that both metaphors are expressions of the respective visions of ‘traditional’ Japaneseness they support with their own understandings of the historical development of the Japanese language.
3) On the surface, debates for and against the use of loanwords appear to be an opposition between nationalists and internationalists. However, both opponents and proponents of gairaigo manifest persistent national sentiment and therefore the normative discussion on the use of gairaigo is itself based on the puristic premise that there are ‘domestic’ elements and ‘foreign’ elements in language. The analysis of the vocabulary used in contrast and parallel to the term gairaigo demonstrates that both opponents and proponents see gairaigo as external to the Japanese language. Thus, the Japanese vocabulary is conceptually bisected into nihongo and gairaigo, which is comparable to the dualistic view characteristic of linguistic and national purism.
4) The qualities associated with nihongo by opponents and proponents are used to assert their respective visions of ‘Japaneseness’, while qualities associated with gairaigo are used to delineate their respective visions of otherness, which is often framed in terms of ‘the West’. This point can be further substantiated by the fact that in the narratives on the use of gairaigo, the terms Japan [nihon], the Japanese [nihonjin], and the Japanese culture [nihon bunka] are often used interchangeably with the term nihongo, while the terms such as foreign culture, Western civilisation, and new technology from abroad are often used interchangeably with the term gairaigo.
Although languages predate the creation of nation-states, nowadays they are often discussed in the framework of national languages. Throughout the modern history of Japan, language-related debates have been provoked by wider social and cultural changes and the questions over national identity these have raised. The debates on the use of gairaigo can thus be understood as the latest manifestation of the (re)negotiation of Japanese national identity in the contemporary context with gairaigo occupying the essential contrapuntal role of an ‘outside within’.
· Cohen, Anthony P. 1985. The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge.
· Gottlieb, Nanette. 2006. Linguistic Stereotyping and Minority Groups in Japan. Abingdon: Routledge.
· Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
· Loveday, Leo. 1996. Language Contact in Japan: A Socio-linguistic History. Oxford: Clarendon.
· Thomas, George. 1991. Linguistic Purism. London: Longman.
· Asahi Shimbun database on Kikuzo. Available at: http://database.asahi.com/library2e/.
· Yomiuri Shimbun database on Yomidasu Rekishikan. Available at:
This is based on: Hosokawa, Naoko. 2015. “Nationalism and Linguistic Purism in Contemporary Japan: National Sentiment Expressed through Public Attitudes towards Foreignisms”. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15/1, 48-65.