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Are Japanese Comfortable with English?

I won’t bury the lede:  no, but that’s changing.

I’ve been watching a lot of anime lately.  An interesting thing about anime is that it is written by Japanese people for Japanese people, and the western audience is an afterthought and, I think, seen as unimportant.  That’s changing because there are a lot of potential fans in the west (the Crunchyroll awards seemed pretty well attended in Tokyo) but for the most part, that’s true.  So, by watching anime, you get a pretty good idea of not only Japanese culture (obligatory fireworks festival, anyone?) but also how the Japanese see themselves and the world around them.

And I have noticed that recently, there is a lot of English in anime.

It’s not like they’re speaking English – they’re not.  It’s Japanese.  99% Japanese grammar, Japanese word constructs, etc.  But the inclusion of English as much as it is, is jarring.  For example, in some anime, they often don’t say “arigatou gozaimasu” anymore, at least amongst people of similar social standing.  They say “thank you” (pronounced “sank yuu” but it’s very much recognizable).  And there are a whole bunch of other words you’ll pick up.  Like in Love Live.  I mean, even the title is in English!  But then, there’s “school idol” (“sukuuru aidoru”), which they use frequently, and there is at least one foreigner or half-foreigner in ever series that speaks English passably (though with a pronounced and ill-fitting accent).  In the Love Live movie, they even went to the trouble of hiring voice actors who spoke with a perfect American accent while they were in New York, and my only criticism would be that they spoke a little slow, like they would to children.  I suppose Japanese audiences are still a little unused to English not in a Japanese accent.

And that’s kind of where it all falls flat.

Because it’s not English.

I mean, the words that they’re speaking are of English origin, sound like their English counterparts, often have the same meaning as their English counterparts, are used exactly in the same way as the corresponding English words would be used – but they’re not English words.  They’re English loan words into Japanese.  Because a large fraction of Japanese folks would not understand those words if they were spoken with an American accent.

And I think that the Japanese people prefer it this way.  In a few anime I’ve seen, they have to study English, and they complain (sometimes pretty loudly) that they shouldn’t have to study English, they’re Japanese in Japan.  And while studying English has a utility for Japanese people that studying Japanese doesn’t have for English people, they do have a point.  They are Japanese, and they are only studying English because we won the war.

But on the other hand, they are still slowly incorporating English into their language in a real and significant way.  In fact, I’ve heard that sometimes they don’t even use the Japanese words.  I saw a YouTube short where a woman said “I tried to use ‘otearai’ (bathroom) and they corrected me to ‘toire’.  This was the case for a few words.  So they’re starting to use the English loan words in favor of the corresponding Japanese words.  And there are some benefits to them for this, too.  For the low, low price of their language and cultural identity, well, they can understand gaijin better!

I can’t really pretend to know why this is, not entirely.

But it sure is a fascinating phenomenon.

Are we watching the destruction of the Japanese language in real time?  Probably not.  But are we watching it morph into something different, some kind of weird amalgamation between Japanese and English?

Sure looks like it.

And it’ll be fascinating to see how that turns out in twenty years, as Japanese demographics change spectacularly.

It would not be out of the question, in forty years, for them to be speaking some kind of weird kind of “Japanglish”, where they keep their culture for the most part, but the language has morphed to something that removes some of the more, I guess, “archaic” structures that make it difficult for them to communicate amongst themselves and with others.  Will definitely be interesting to see.  And it’s not out of the realm of possibility I’d be alive to see it.

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