English use in Japan -- Why?

The same issue is a partial answer to both of your questions. Phonetically, Japanese is the simplest language in the world after Polynesian - in other words, Japanese has relatively few sounds. Plus, because its basis is in syllables rather than phonemes, those sounds can only be arranged in a limited number of combinations. Every sound of my name (Christian Johnson) exists in Japanese. However, becuase of the syllable foundation Japanese isn’t capable of simply reproducing my name - instead, my name becomes kurisuch’yan j’yonson. (The apostrophe represents certain characters that are sort of swallowed. Don’t ask. :)). With one exception (“n”), to form a syllable every consonant must be followed by a vowel. Sometimes those vowels become silent, or nearly so, but they’re still there.

Ok, are we set on the concept of syllables?

Perversely, Japanese has actually been losing certain syllables. Most consonants can be followed by one of five consonants, so in hiragana and katakana there are symbols for ka, ki (“kee”), ku, ke (“keh”) and ko. Two consonants have lost vowels: W, which now only goes with “a” for “wa,” and Y, which only goes for “ya,” “yu” and “yo.” There are archaic characters for wi, wu, we and wo, but except for the latter, they aren’t used (and wo is pronounced without the “w” and is reserved for certain purely grammatical uses). Yi and ye borrowed the characters for i and e, but were pronounced differently. That pronunciation has now disappeared, but still appears in archaic forms. One of them is “yen,” which modern Japanese pronounce “en” but which internationally retains its old name of “yen.” The other is in the old name for Tokyo - although the majority of historians use “Edo,” a minority use the true, old pronunciation of “Yedo.”

Now then, on to Kanji. There have been various movements to abandon Kanji, either in favor of kana or for romanization. The major argument against either is the enormous number of homophones in a phonetically simple language. My japanese text (which I no longer own) suggested that the number of these homophones is, perversely, increasing. Sometimes the homophones are for similar concepts: this text used the examples of “creativity” and “inventiveness” (I don’t remember the words themselves, sorry), which were identically pronounced but used completely different kanji. Occasionally, wou will see people actually write kanji in the air to one another to deal with homophones like these.

Yes, kanji are difficult - suck it up and deal, just the same way your forbears have :D. They do get easier as you go along - you’ll start learning the roots. To get yourself in the habit, make sure you buy yourself a copy of Nelson’s kanji dictionary, which is cumbersome at first but once you’ve got the system down it makes your life infinitely easier.

Also, Japanese people usually write their kanji in a sort of cursive, which I never did learn.

The first is incorrect, the second is off on the numbers. The foreign population of Japan exceeded the 1% mark several years ago. The population of Japan as of 1999 was 126 million. The total foreign population was 1,556,113. Of those, 42,802 were from the US. The Korean population was the largest at 636,548, followed by Chinese, Brazilian , and Philippine. (Data: http://jin.jcic.or.jp/stat/stats/21MIG22.html ).

On to the OP: I’d say it’s primarily the ‘coolness’ factor, reinforced by the fact that English is a required school subject.

The reason so many English words are used in animé theme songs is definitely the coolness factor. [/geek]

This is interesting because I read somewhere, once, that English is one of the hardest languages on Earth, especially because of things like ‘two, to, and too’ or ‘which and witch.’ It was an article discussing the possibility of a universal language, right around the time someone started promoting a blend of Spanish and English for such a use.

Our spelling doesn’t help either because many words aren’t spelled as they sound. (Thank goodness for Spellcheckers!!)

I’ve been reading up on Japan a bit and I was surprised to find many of the people taking English in their schools. Here many students take Spanish either because they have to or because it’s easy but in the whole Southern quarter of the country, the influx of Spanish speaking immigrants makes this necessary. Like the bilingual TV programs, classes, notices and so on. Especially in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It seems English is elective in Japan, but widely selected in the schools.

I’ve noticed English being used often in advertisements in other nations, especially those friendly with the US and UK. Its usage seems to drop dramatically in areas where the Jewish and Islamic religions are predominate, if I’m correct.

I might be wrong, but documentaries of these nations rarely show English written signs or advertisements.


Indeed, it is. It’s particularly difficult for Japanese people. In addition to the well-known phonetic problems, Japanese also lacks distinctions between singular and plural (one table, two table, three table…) and between present and future (by next year I have enough money to buy a new car…). It also completely lacks articles, so trying to convey the difference between definite and indefinite is mind boggling (I remember a several-hundred page book titled something like “A, The, and An.”).


Actually, it’s mandatory beginning in 7th grade and continuing through high school. (I wouldn’t have had a job teaching there if it weren’t! I taught junior high (grades 7-9, ages 12-14), and usually grades 7 and 8.)

Moreover, because English is so difficult for Japanese people, and because the mandatory classes start so late (the conventional wisdom is that learning a foreign language becomes significantly more difficult after about age 10), very few Japanese people ever become really good at it. English therefore becomes the make-or-break subject for the high school and college entrance exams, since most students can do the history, science, math and literature sections. The neuroses start late in 8th grade. I found my job much easier, because I got the kids before they started to go nutty worrying about exams. The most difficult teaching positions were often those in elite high schools, where the kids were under enormous pressure and would ask the most absurd, hypertechnical grammatical questions, because those were what appeared on the college exams. (In fact, the Ministry of Education was notorious for making distinctions that in fact don’t exist for native English speakers :rolleyes:.)

I got an e-mail from a Japanese person once and it surprised me because it read something like this:

It respectfully requests response to its questions with true meaning. One is pleased to be communicating with you.

It brought a smile to my face. I assume ‘it’ was meant to be ‘I.’

matt_mcl said "ato ha futari ga SIMULATION sureba HIGH LEVEL na nisei no tanjou "

I used to work in a Lab where i was one of the very VERY few americans. They were all chinese and would usually speak chinese to each other ( and ocassionally to me out of habit). I always thought it was funny to listen to them as they talked about fixing a car or some such.
" huong che catcht eh CARBORATOR in kangyo CHEVROLET. ni’ga kwanto un MUFFLER …"