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nettime's_roving_reporter on Sun, 4 Apr 1999 09:48:02 +0200 (CEST)


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http://www.nytimes.com/library/review/040499japan-language-review.html

April 4, 1999

Help! There's a Mausu in My Konpyutaa!

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

TOKYO -- Toshiyki Shimizu picked up a computer instruction manual
and frowned.

"Look at this," he complained. " 'Start button.' 'Click.' 'Start
menu.' 'Device.' 'Slot.' This is all English!"

Well, not quite all English but pretty close. The actual first
sentence read: Sutaato botan (start button) o kurikku (click)
suru, sutaato menyuu (start menu) ga hyoji sareru.

For many middle-aged and elderly Japanese, life these days is a
perplexing struggle through what seems like an endless language
school. In restaurants, in stores, in newspapers, on television
and in conversation with young people, they find themselves
bewildered by what seems like an explosion of foreign terms.

"It's very annoying when you walk down the street and you can't
understand a word on the street signs," complained Hideko
Nabekura, an 82-year-old fireball of a woman, her arm gesturing
furiously.

"When my friends and I go to lunch these days, we can't
understand the menu," Mrs. Nabekura continued. "One time I went
by myself, and I couldn't understand the items on the menu, so I
picked what seemed to be the cheapest. And the waitress said,
'No, it's a kid's meal.' "

Restaurant menus are particularly challenging because, out of
snob appeal, they translate the sounds of foreign words rather
than the meanings. That results in offerings ranging from paati
menyuu (party menu) or happii awaa (happy hour) at the simpler
end to haabu-roosutochikin (herb-roasted chicken) and ruijiana
sutairu kurabukeeki (Louisiana-style crab cakes).

English words may seem challenge enough, but for many Japanese it
is the menus of French restaurants that are the most baffling.
For example, l'Ecrin, a French restaurant in Tokyo, offers a fish
and shrimp dish that is "poware ju do omaaru." The chef explains
that this is "poilee, jus de homard," or sauteed in a special way
in the juice of lobster.

When it comes time to the use the restroom, the less cosmopolitan
face similar challenges. One club writes the words "Gentleman"
and "Ladies" in English calligraphy so curved and fancy that
almost all guests look a bit tentative making their choice for
the first time, and patrons of restaurant toilets often must rely
on the typical Japanese color coding of blue for men and red for
women.

"No one knows what bathroom to go into from the signs," sighed
Hisako Sekine, an elderly housewife. "You just have to look at
the pictures, or else see if one is blue and the other red."

The linguistic challenge is perhaps most pronounced in computers.
In the 19th century, Japan tended to come up with traditional
ways of writing new products or concepts, so that a telephone was
dubbed "denwa" or "electronic talk." But while China continues in
that approach, terming a computer a "electronic brain," Japan in
recent decades has shifted almost exclusively to simply
transcribing the sounds of foreign words, so that computer in
Japanese is "konpyutaa."

This has some advantages for intellectuals who travel abroad and
communicate in English as well. But it is a bit overwhelming for
the person who sits down at a kiiboudo (keyboard) for the first
time and is told to move the mausu (mouse) and daburu-kurikku
(double-click) on the aikon (icon).

"I look at a computer book and I can't even figure out how to get
started," fretted Kimii Oishi, a 74-year-old woman who has joined
Tokyo's Grandma "Pasukon saron" (personal computer salon) and was
clutching a "konpyutaa manyuaru."

"Look at this," she added. " 'Manyuaru.' I don't even know what
that is. What's a manyuaru? I don't even know how to begin."

A manyuaru is a manual. And since there is already a word in
Japanese meaning the same thing, "manyuaru" reflects the tendency
to adopt foreign words even when their are already perfectly good
ones available in Japanese.

Still, Mrs. Oishi said in some cases she feels more comfortable
with computer word transcriptions like mausu rather than
translations like "nezumi," the Japanese word for a mouse or a
rat.

"In Japan, the image of a nezumi is rather dirty," Mrs. Oishi
said primly. "So I think for that, it is better to use the
English word."

Perhaps the lesson for Americans is that when they are ready to
smash their computers for generating error messages, they should
realize that it could be worse. They could be
"toraburushyuutingu" (trouble-shooting) using the Japanese
version of Microsoft Windows and getting "herupu" (help) like the
one beginning: "What to do if the fairu (file) does not appear in
the correct doraibu (drive) and foruda (folder) of the open fairu
(file) daiarogubokkusu (dialogue box)."

For all the image in the West of Japan as a country unusually
resistant to foreign currents, in fact Japan has long been an
eager importer of foreign terms. In serious discourse, about half
of expressions are originally Chinese, some imported more than
1,000 years ago.

Western words came drifting in as well, and are usually written
in a separate alphabet called katakana, or sometimes directly in
Roman letters. Thus a single sentence of written Japanese can be
a mixture of four writing systems: Chinese characters, katakana,
Roman letters and a Japanese alphabet called hiragana.

The adoption of foreign words often seems aimed not at
facilitating communication but obstructing it. Just as Americans
might show off by using Latin ad infinitum, or by using French
words to demonstrate their savoire-faire, Japanese often use new
foreign words because they have the appiru (appeal) that not
everyone understands them.

This snob appeal of foreign words has accentuated the generation
"gappu" (gap) in Japan, for young people in the cities
enthusiastically adopt new words that leave the elderly
befuddled.

"When my grandkids are speaking their weird way, I don't
understand it but I don't mind," said Fumiko Kawaguchi, an
87-year-old woman living in western Tokyo. "But if they want to
talk to me, then I tell them that they'll have to speak
Japanese."

For all the foreign words, there is no French-style political
opposition to imported words, and most people seem to accept them
as useful -- even if a growing number of elderly people feel left
out.

"Old people and young people may live together in the same house,
but they are living in different worlds," mused Matome Ito, a
64-year-old porcelain salesman in a small shop in Tokyo. "For
young people, the whole life style is all American now. Their
food is different, and they can't even use chopsticks right any
more. Even the smell of the houses is different: The homes of
older people smell of fish and miso soup, and the kids' houses
smell of America."

Ito paused and sighed, and, perhaps getting carried away, added
sorrowfully: "Young people are so different now, even their faces
have changed. They're like Westerners -- they don't have chins
anymore. I think maybe it's partly because they don't chew on
things like dried squid any more."

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