The Internet TESL Journal

The Role of English and Other Foreign Languages in Japanese Society

R. Jeffrey Blair
jeffreyb [at]
Aichi Gakuin Junior College, Nisshin, Japan

Previously published in The Faculty Journal of Aichi Gakuin Junior College No. 5, pp. 74-86 (March 1997)

This paper discusses the role of foreign languages, especially English, in Japanese society. The discussion touches on a broad range of topics including language contact, planning, and attitudes. All are examined in the context of modern Japanese culture.

I present the article that follows more as a working paper than a finished scholarly product. It is my purpose here to use this work in progress as a platform to generate discussion on this very interesting topic--the role of foreign languages in Japanese society. I have no doubt that among my readers there are those of you who are privy to or have easy access to more current information and information that has escaped me. There are vast unexplored areas in this particular subfield of sociolinguistics. In this era of the Information Super Highway, however, diffuse bits of knowledge can quickly be gathered and organized into a coherent whole, and thus yield new insights. The Internet also makes it possible to distribute the results or an ongoing discussion to those who contribute information or express an interest in the topic. With this in mind I hereby invite any and all comments-- including criticism and even anecdotes--to be directed to me at

Despite a growing bilingualism in English (Loveday, 1986), for the most part Japan remains a monolingual nation (Shibata, 1985) with a long, proud linguistic and cultural tradition. The Japanese have alternately absorbed culture and language from their neighbors in the East, isolated themselves from the world, and absorbed culture and language from the West. Yet they manage to remain uniquely Japanese, with a very strong sense of their own identity. In this paper I will explore the place of foreign languages in this monolingual nation that has nevertheless become an economic superpower and examine how and why foreign languages, particularly English, are used in Japanese society and what this might indicate about Japanese attitudes toward foreign languages.

Japan's Language Policy

Shibata (1985) states that Japanese is so firmly entrenched as the one and only national language that no legal designation of its official status is necessary. Yet at least three public figures in modern Japanese history have suggested that Japan abandon its national language in favor of another (Miller, 1977, 41-45). Meiji political leader and educator Mori Arinori (1847-1889) argued in favor of establishing English as the language of Japan and solicited the advice of one of the world's linguistic authorities (Hall, 1973, 189-195). In 1946, during another turbulent era in Japanese history, Shiga Naoya (1883-1972), a highly revered literary figure, advocated replacing Japanese with French, while Ozaki Yukio (1859-1954) advocated the use of English (Suzuki, 1987, 128). Many other Japanese have expressed the feeling that their national language is grammatically deficient and lacking in lexical resources. If this is a widespread perception in Japanese society it might explain some of the popular enthusiasm for the study of English and other foreign languages, but there are also other concrete economic incentives which are undoubtedly of greater significance.

Foreign Words in the Lexicon

Japanese view their language as one of the principle factors that makes their society unique (Higa, 1984 as cited in Loveday, 1986; Shibamoto, 1987; and Haarman, 1986). In fact, Japanese commonly believe that the language they speak is completely unrelated to any known language family (Higa, 1977). Yet this does not mean that modern Japanese is seen as a pure language, isolated from or resistant to the influences of other languages. Chinese, English, and other Western languages are widely recognized as having had great influence on the Japanese lexical inventory. The Japanese writing system itself was borrowed with adaptations from Chinese and includes two different groups of readings for almost every character: native Japanese kun-yomi and Chinese-based on-yomi. The vocabulary items later borrowed from Western languages are so prominent that there is a special term to designate them--gairaigo.

A survey conducted by the Japanese National Language Research Institute in 1964 tallied a generous portion of the lexical inventory (47.5%) as having been derived from Chinese (Loveday, 1986). These loan words came into the country, along with a massive cultural infusion which included Buddhism, Confucianism, and ideographic writing. The new vocabulary and the culture that accompanied it were adopted by an educated elite within Japanese society (Watanabe, 1974 cited in Miller, 1977).

The survey concluded that non-Chinese loan words comprise about ten percent of the vocabulary of common usage and that about 90% of those loan words have come from English (Morito, 1978 and Stanlaw, 1982 both cited in Loveday, 1986 and Higa, 1977). English, particularly American English, has become the predominant foreign contact language in Japan (Loveday, 1986 and Haarman, 1986). The next most influential, though its influence seems to be waning, is German, which has made numerous contributions to the lexicon, particularly in the fields of medicine, mountain climbing, philosophy, and literature (Haarman, 1984b). These new words appear to enter Japanese as "raw, unassimilated foreign words", later to be reduced phonologically and orthographically into the angular katakana syllabary and then, perhaps, abbreviated (Suzuki, 1987). Haarman (1984a) suggests that one of the ways loan words enter colloquial Japanese is through what he terms "commercial Japanese"--the Japanese and foreign language mix used in commercial texts intended for Japanese audiences. In addition to media personnel, Loveday (1986) includes copy-writers, journalists, translators, and academics among the main Japanese agents of dissemination.

The motivation for this massive lexical borrowing came from the rapid westernization and modernization that occurred after the coming of Commodore Perry (Loveday, 1986) and frantic industrial and economic growth after the Second World War (Takahara, 1991). It allowed the Japanese people to distinguish between traditional and Western styles (nomiya--bar and kimono--suits, for example) and to avoid the connotations of some of their established lexical items, while adding the social prestige associated with Western culture.

Suzuki (1987) worries that this flood of loan words will lead to a stratification of the Japanese language, a fragmentation of society into groups with reduced mutual intelligibility, and a possible lag in the popularization of higher education. Pointing to seven different meanings of kon (conditioner, condenser, control, computer, complex, converter, and concrete), he warns that such borrowings lower the efficiency of the Japanese language as a medium for transmitting information and handicap its quest for a global role.

Historical Attitudes Towards European Languages

Japanese people often tell Westerners living in Japan that they have an inferiority complex towards Western culture. Perhaps this stems from the historical circumstances of early contact--during the Meiji era, when Japan's elite were struggling to modernize the country and assimilate Western technology, much as they had with the Chinese hundreds of years before. The strength and wealth of the nations of Europe may have been projected onto their languages as well as cultures, giving rise to radical ideas of changing Japan's national language to English or French. The new foreign loan words, associated as they were with the world's strongest nations and Japan's political and social elite, quite naturally took on certain general attributes of prestige. In order to focus more closely on how these attributes might be reflected in the images of modern Japan, let's turn our attention towards the media.

Foreign Words in the Media

"Foreign language usage in Japanese mass media is ... one of the main features in the mosaic of modern Japanese culture (Haarman, 1986, 120)". Studies of Japanese commercials and advertising demonstrate that commercial managers employ positive ethnocultural stereotypes, usually of white North Americans or Europeans (Haarman, 1984a and 1984b) in the advertising of numerous products. Multilingual commercial texts used for sentence level communication almost always supplement the native Japanese with English or French, whereas Italian, Spanish, and German tend to be used in background music, very short utterances, or the naming of products. Though all of these languages share a general prestige, Haarmann (1984b and 1986) feels that Japanese society ranks them in the order: English, French, Italian, and then German. English evokes an image of quality, reliability, (Haarman, 1984a and 1984b) and modern living (Haarman 1986 and Loveday, 1986); French communicates elegance, most often in women's products; Italian brings to mind simple elegance and speed; Spanish projects masculine charm and wild female tenderness; and German suggests tidy, industrious people in a pleasant rural setting. The texts and expressions used in these commercials are not intended to be understood by the ordinary Japanese, and aren't. Although individual lexical items might be understood, the major portion of the text is simply used to create an image and attach prestige value to the products being advertised. In Haarman's opinion, the English language attracts much more general prestige than French or any other foreign language. Kloss (1969) has termed this kind of multiple language use "impersonal bilingualism".

Though not recorded in the literature, foreigners living in Japan for any length of time soon realize that the audio and video entertainment industries have a very strong multilingual component. Somewhere between junior high and high school a great many Japanese develop a taste for the cosmopolitan sounds and images that foreign music and movies provide. CD and video rental shops carry large stocks of contemporary selections and old standards from outside of Japan, especially from America. Even televisions often have a multiplex sound system that allows viewers to listen to foreign programs in the original language.

Magazines are not immune from the influence of foreign languages and their respective images. A group of graduate students came up with a list of almost 50 magazines whose titles were not only foreign but also written in the Roman alphabet, rather than the angular syllabary usually prescribed for foreign loan words (Suzuki, 1987).

Foreign Words in Society

All junior high and senior high school students study English (Sather, 1981). And data from a survey of 10,381 university students indicates that up to 30% actually begin studying English while they are in elementary school (Koike et al., 1985). English testing is an important component of the admissions process. Once in college about 16% actively participate in their English classes and an equal number supplement their English studies outside of school, where English conversation schools are a big business. About 20% read English newspapers or magazines or listen to English programs on radio or television.

In addition to those students who study English as a foreign language in Japan, there has been an increasing number of Japanese living abroad. Figures for 1977 show that more than 19,000 school- age children were living abroad (Japan Overseas Educational Services, 1977 cited in Higa, 1977). At that time 8,000 of them were attending Japanese schools established by the government, seven thousand were attending Japanese language schools on the weekends, and the remaining four thousand were not attending any Japanese schools. Many of these children were returning to Japan more fluent in a foreign language than in Japanese. Back in Japan the chief concern or annoyance of teachers conducting special classes for these children was their foreign behavior, not their Japanese language ability. Public opinion seems to be divided between those that want them to get rid of their non-Japanese behavior and those that appreciate the diversity it provides (Goodman, 1990). With all the public concern and special programs being set up for returnees, there is increasing evidence that, far from being a disadvantaged minority within Japanese society, they are in fact becoming a new, fashionable, international Japanese elite.

English and other foreign languages are not just subjects to be studied in school. There are indications that foreign languages are instrumentally involved in many areas of academic research. Medical researchers who want to get responses to their work find it more effective to publish in English than in Japanese. Scholars in fields, such as the social sciences and humanities do not utilize foreign languages in publishing their work to the same extent as those in scientific and technological fields and, as a result, find themselves linguistically isolated from their foreign colleagues (Suzuki, 1987).

NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), a government subsidized network, broadcasts public television throughout Japan, a channel of general programs and an educational channel. In 1977 it offered 50 hours of language learning programs a week, in six languages: the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, and French) and German (Higa, 1977). Since then two more, Japanese as a Second Language and Korean, have been added. Sesame Street has been broadcast for a number of years on NHK. To this NHK has added a bilingual program for children to help bridge the gap from Japanese monolingualism to bilingualism. In that way the children can pick up English naturally from both visual cues and also the linguistic cues found in the Japanese utterances. Even a commercial channel, whose program Hirake Ponkiki is the equivalent of Sesame Street in America, has inserted a sizable block of English skits and songs in its format.

Conversation schools and vocational schools that emphasize foreign language abound throughout Japan. The motivations for those that attend include professional training, study as a hobby, preparation for a move overseas, and sometimes even a desire to seek an international marriage.

Whatever places Westerners frequent, there is English to make them feel at home. The bullet train and many subway lines have announcements in English. Western-style restaurants often have at least a few copies of their menus in English, French, or Italian depending on the kind of food served. Tax offices in Japan provide all foreign residents with an English translation of the income tax form and detailed instructions in English. Here in Nagoya, there is even a special section where foreign residents can go to get help with their tax returns from English-speaking employees. Misonoza Theater, also in Nagoya, which stages kabuki plays in October each year, sells bilingual programs with the summaries of the plays in both English and Japanese.

According to Suzuki (1987), the Japanese government conducts all international affairs in foreign languages. High officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not seem to be interested in changing the situation, for instance by getting the United Nations to make Japanese one of their official languages. At least one official does his best to discourage foreign diplomats from even studying Japanese.

When naming new projects, the National Police Agency uses English words, put into kana , because it is easier to get funding from the Ministry of Finance that way (Suzuki, 1987). One writer probably reflected the views of a number of Japanese when he wrote a letter to the editor complaining of foreign names being used as part of the Metropolitan Police Department's plan to start lunchtime promenades on Tokyo streets (Asahi Evening News, Sep. 29, 1971, cited in Miller, 1977). It has been noted, on the other hand, that government publications, scrupulously avoid direct loan words as much as possible (Loveday, 1986).

Foreign Words in Personal Communication

Many of the uses of foreign language that we've been discussing thus far might be characterized as impersonal, institutional uses of language. Increased contact between Japanese and people from other language communities, however, is providing more and more opportunities for the use of foreign languages for personal communication. International tourism has increased dramatically from 4 million per annum in the 1970's to 8 million in 1988 and was expected to go to 10 million by 1991 (Moeran, 1989). Contact with foreigners and their languages is increasing abroad, but also within Japan. The literature on codeswitching contains a lot of theories explaining how people choose which language to use when confronted with a bilingual situation (see Heller, 1988). While bilingual situations within a monolingual society, like Japan, have largely been overlooked, some behavior patterns have been noticed.

Most foreigners in Japan have noticed that many Japanese people are extremely surprised, even taken aback, if they speak more than a few words of Japanese (Suzuki, 1975; Miller, 1977; and Sather, 1981). The sociolinguistic rules covering this situation seem to be clear: (a) Westerners cannot speak Japanese; (b) unless they are of Asian ancestry; and (c) they all, however, understand English (Sather, 1981).

Some research, however, shows that 94-96 percent of the Japanese favor the use of Japanese when talking with a non-Japanese foreigner and that 97 percent do, in fact, speak Japanese to foreigners who can use the language (St. Jacque, 1983 cited in Loveday, 1986). Jorden (1977) came up with some similar findings, but noted that a "universal howl of protest and disbelief has been raised by all foreigners with Japan experience" (114).

Present-Day Attitudes

Our discussion here shows that English, and to a lesser extent other foreign languages, are used by Japanese in Japan in a myriad of ways. Is it as some have claimed used only "as a tool for absorbing the fruits of Foreign civilization" (Kunihiro, 1973 cited in Jorden, 1977)? Certainly this could explain why language schools and educational programs in the mass media are so popular. And magazines with foreign titles might sell better, because people feel that the Western nations are a rich source of knowledge and information. The Japanese who had the most direct access to these valuable sources might well form an elite within Japanese society, as seems to be happening with bilingual children returning from overseas. And, of course, the corollary of such a strategy would be to keep non-Japanese from becoming proficient in the national language and to avoid putting any information into foreign languages or even easily accessible Japanese, like foreign loan words.

Yet, if Japanese are fond of western culture but distrust foreigners (Masuda, 1967 cited in Haarman, 1986), where does this leave foreign languages? Are they more closely associated with their respective cultures or the people who speak them? Wouldn't such negative images handicap the advertiser who tries to use them to sell products? And how about the Ministry of Finance's seeming preference for programs with foreign names? The real problem is that anecdotes and theories abound, but empirical evidence just doesn't seem to exist; nor does a detailed description of the use of foreign languages in Japan.


I'm afraid that this brief discussion has raised more questions than it has answered. How do Japanese perceive their language in relation to other Western and non-Western languages? Do foreign languages really evoke the feelings that Haarman describes? Do recent surveys indicate any new trends in language attitudes? How has foreign language use changed in the media, in business, and in government in recent years? How does the reliance on foreign languages in research vary with respect to academic field? What is Japan's national language policy at present? I look forward to hearing from those of you who have some input on these kinds of questions.


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The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 7, July 1997