Imagine your television news sprinkled with words that sound vaguely English but are in fact a corrupted form of Japanese.
You would surely be confused. That’s the problem facing Japan’s elderly when they tune into the National broadcaster NHK at the moment.
I worked at NHK for a few years at the turn of the century on the English side of their operation, and I know it’s a very conservative organization with a desire for perfection in its broadcasts. It steers clear of anything controversial, as I found out often when writing stories there.
That’s why the decision by 71-year-old Hoji Takahashi to sue Japan’s national broadcaster for “mental distress” –caused by what he describes as an excessive use of words taken from English– was a surprise to me.
But it seems Japan has changed a lot since I worked there and one major change is the increased use of “wasei eigo” or directly translated “Japanese-made English” in daily use such as “teiku auto” (take out) and “poteto furai” (potato fry.)
Other words commonly used now are “terebi” (TV), “taoru” (towel) and “dejitaru” (digital).
The only word I’ve found that has come from Japan and been Anglicized in the same way and now commonly used is “taikun” (tycoon.)
Borrowed English words have been slipping into NHK’s news bulletins over the past decade and some of the country’s elderly aren’t happy.
Mr Takahashi, in his claim for damages of 1.4 million yen ($14,300) highlighted the use of words, such as “risuku” (risk), “toraburu” (trouble), and “shisutemu” (system) in its TV output and said it was irresponsible for using borrowed words rather than their Japanese equivalents.
“I contacted NHK with inquiries into this issue, but there was no response. So I decided to take this to court,” Japan’s Kyodo News quoted Takahashi as saying.
“I want the broadcaster to take into account the presence of elderly viewers like me when it’s creating shows.”
And the plaintiff’s lawyer Mutsuo Miyata told The Japan Times, “With Japanese society increasingly Americanized, Takahashi believes that NHK, as Japan’s national broadcaster, shouldn’t go with the trend, but remain determined to prioritize the use of Japanese, which he thinks would go a long way toward protecting Japanese culture.”
NHK has said it hasn’t studied the complaint yet.
But the plaintiff is fighting a lonely battle on the issue.
He leads a tiny organization named Nihongo wo taisetsu ni suru kai, which translates as “group that appreciates the Japanese language.”
Japan’s elderly have seen dramatic changes during their life.
Many experienced the American occupation at the end of World War II and then decades of rushing in hyper-drive to the modern world, which the country represents now more than perhaps any other country.
Part of that was the embrace of American culture from baseball to Hollywood.
But as you walk the streets of Japanese cities, you see youngsters creating styles which will be mimicked the world over from Los Angeles to London, and is itself an invasion of modern Japanese culture. The reality is that Japan is a rapidly aging society, which can be seen by the number of elderly on the streets.
Desperately low birth rates and long life spans mean Japan’s elderly have a growing voice in the country, which can’t be ignored.
And some are prepared to fight to protect their language from ‘Americanization’.