Multifaceted analysis for inundation of loanwords in Japanese language

Ryuichi Hotta
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: English Language History and Linguistics

The problem of loanwords

Students always show great interest whenever I introduce the issue of how loanwords have recently inundated the Japanese language. Undoubtedly, students recognize their own relationship and familiarity with the related themes of today’s youth, poor language usage, and English.

There has always been fierce debate surrounding the introduction of a large number of loanwords (katakana loanwords) into the Japanese language from European languages, mainly English. The Agency for Cultural Affairs recently released the 2013 Opinion Poll on the Japanese Language ( This survey raises an example using the loanword puraioritī (priority). Survey results show that despite being frequently encountered in daily Japanese language usage, nearly half of Japanese people do not understand the term. The survey also indicates that many people do not recognize the need to consciously use loanwords such as konsensasu (consensus) or mastā puran (master plan). As illustrated by these examples, there are many loanwords which may cause confusion in native Japanese speakers. Furthermore, it seems that such loanwords are troublesome vocabulary to people learning Japanese as a foreign language. While it is a fact that numerous loanwords have been assimilated into the Japanese language, there is criticism that such loanwords play a leading role in corruption of the Japanese language. On a related note, some people are wary of English linguistic imperialism.

Kango (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) were originally loanwords

Disputes regarding loanwords reflect the participants’ personal feelings towards the Japanese language. As a result, such disputes cannot be easily resolved. Personally, I feel that such discussion is healthy because it reflects the extent of people’s interest in language. In this article, I will introduce material from two historical perspectives, with the intention of adding both breadth and depth to the discussion. The first perspective is the history of loanword acceptance in the Japanese language. The second is the history of loanword acceptance in the English language, which is the main source of katakana loanwords in Japanese.

One deep-rooted opinion is that we should protect the pure Japanese language by avoiding the inflow of loanwords as much as possible. However, in the first place, the Japanese vocabulary is formed by a large number of loanwords. The kanji (Chinese characters) and kango (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) which are essential to daily Japanese usage are full-fledged loanwords. The majority of kango came to Japan in the 6th century together with the introduction of Buddhism. This inflow started with Buddhist-related vocabulary such as incense burner, candle, and memorial service, and then expanded to a huge amount of general kango. Japanese people showed wide acceptance for characters and vocabulary from the Chinese language, which was a prestigious international language at that time. Japan succeeded in molding such aspects of Chinese language into the native Japanese language. This resulted in kana (the Japanese syllabary), the Japanese official system of writing, Japanese language readings of Chinese characters, and Japanese-created kango. Most Japanese people don’t know that the majority of kango is Japanese-created kango—this includes everyday Japanese language vocabulary such as reference, number, policy, monetary amount, and characteristics. Either directly or indirectly, Japanese language vocabulary is filled with Chinese loanwords.

Sullen acceptance and open acceptance

The second full-scale acceptance of loanwords into the Japanese language was in the early Meiji Period. Ever since Japan’s civilization and enlightenment movement, the Japanese language has faced the necessity of accepting a huge amount of Western vocabulary from languages such as English. At that time, the method of using katakana to express the original foreign vocabulary was not used; instead, the original meaning was comprehended and kanji was allocated for use in the Japanese language. Today, using katakana to express the original foreign vocabulary is the prevalent method. However, Japanese scholars in the Meiji Period had sophisticated knowledge of kango and it was probably more natural for them to change the foreign vocabulary into kango. Still, both methods accepted the meaning of the original words which indicate the acceptance of new culture and concepts from the West. Although acceptance through the use of katakana and kango differs in terms of strategy, the meaning of the borrowed terminology is in fact the meaning of the original word in the Western language. We can say that katakana could be described as open acceptance, while kango is sullen acceptance. In the Meiji Period, the Japanese language sullenly accepted a huge amount of Western vocabulary by converting it into kango which is already somewhat Japanese. Similarly, a huge amount of Western vocabulary was accepted in the Showa Period and Heisei Period through open acceptance using katakana. According to a survey of vocabulary in modern spoken Japanese, 46.9% of vocabulary is native Japanese words, 40.0% is kango, 10.1% is loanwords other than kango, and 3.0% is other vocabulary. These percentages are calculated based on the number of different words. This shows that more than half of spoken Japanese is actually not Japanese as far as origin is concerned.

Unintelligible kango

I would like to make some additional remarks on the sequence and impact of accepting Western words into the Japanese language through conversion to kango in the Meiji Period. In this period, an immeasurable amount of Japanese-created kango was born. People were unable to keep pace with the new vocabulary and the inundation of kango was a problem. While such vocabulary was derided as unintelligible kango, a large number of kango dictionaries were also published to help with understanding. In turn, the inundation of katakana loanwords is viewed as a problem today and a large number of katakana dictionaries are being published. It is important to note the close resemblance between the situation in the Meiji Period and the Heisei Period. Today, in addition to original words directly accepted, there are also many katakana loanwords which come from English but have been molded to fit the Japanese language. Such words are known as Japanese English words. This sequence can be described as repeating the history of loanwords from the Chinese language.

English language history is filled with loanwords

Next, let’s examine the history of the English language, which provides the majority of katakana loanwords. Currently, English has the greatest global influence of all languages. The number of English speakers worldwide is estimated to be about 2 billion. In 1500, English was simply another inconspicuous language with about 6 million speakers—one three-hundredths of the current number. Going back another 1,000 years, English was a minor dialect spoken by a faction of Germanic peoples. Before then, English was composed almost entirely of pure Germanic vocabulary. The subsequent history of vocabulary in the English language is surprisingly similar to the history of Japanese vocabulary in several ways. For example, together with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, the Japanese language accepted many loanwords (kango) which were related to Buddhism. Likewise, together with the introduction of Christianity in the 6th century, the English language accepted many loanwords (Latin words) related to Christianity. Indeed, this was the moment when English speakers learned to fully write words in the alphabet. The same is true for how Japanese speakers learned to write kanji.

Unintelligible Latin

The English language intently continued to accept loanwords. When the British Isles were attacked by the Vikings from northern Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries, the English language accepted about 900 words from the Scandinavian vocabulary. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, more than 10,000 words were accepted from the French vocabulary. However, the 16th century was the most conspicuous period in terms of accepting loanwords. The 16th century was during the English Renaissance, which was also the period of civilization and enlightenment in England. During the age of civilization and enlightenment in Japan, the Japanese language accepted a large number of loanwords (even while converting them to kango) from Western vocabulary which embodied the most advanced civilization at the time. Similarly, during the English Renaissance, the English language accepted a huge amount of vocabulary from the influential Latin. In the Meiji Period in Japan, people had trouble digesting a large number of new loanwords and the problem of unintelligible kango arose, thus resulting in the appearance of dictionaries intended to aid comprehension. Likewise, during the English Renaissance, people had the same problem understanding new loanwords and the problem of unintelligible Latin arose. As expected, a great number of dictionaries were published to help. Currently, one-third of the English language vocabulary is original English words. Half of the vocabulary originates from the French and Latin languages, while the remaining one-sixth consists of loanwords accepted from 350 other languages. This shows how the Japanese and English languages share many historical similarities in terms of accepting loanwords.

The fate of katakana loanwords

Throughout their history, both the Japanese and English languages have accepted a large number of loanwords. However, not all of the loanwords accepted in the past still remain today. Indeed, in the case of any language, many loanwords failed to take root and disappeared from the language. The decision as to whether each loanword would be fixed into the language was made by daily speakers of the languages. Furthermore, in almost all cases, that decision was an unconscious group selection. Words which society judged to be useful remained, while words which were deemed useless disappeared—this is true for both loanwords and native words. I think this process related to the survival of vocabulary applies to the copious katakana loanwords used today. The inundation of loanwords is not an issue limited to the Japanese language, nor is it a problem limited to modern times. It is my hope that viewing the issue through a multifaceted perspective will enable meaningful and stimulating discussion.

Ryuichi Hotta
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: English Language History and Linguistics
Ryuichi Hotta was born in Tokyo in 1975. In 1998, he graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In 2000, he completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. In 2005, he completed the Doctoral Program in the English Language & English Linguistics Postgraduate Degree Programme at the University of Glasgow (obtained PhD). In 2006, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. He served as Assistant Professor at the Kanagawa University, and Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at the Chuo University Faculty of Letters before assuming his current position in 2013. His research focuses on tracing historical changes related to the internal and external aspects of English in order to clarify how the English language assumed its current linguistic and social forms. In particular, his research focuses on the historical development of the plural form using -s. His major written works include Using English Language History to Unravel Misunderstandings in the English Language—For a Satisfying Study of the English Language (Chuo University Press, 2011). Also he updates the blog daily hellogHistory of the English Language Blog (