Last week, I went to L.A. for a conference. I’d say about 70% of the participants were American, and 30% were Japanese. I went there to give a seminar, but I realized something way more interesting than my seminar was. I immediately entered scholar mode, and took notes religiously for the rest of the conference. So, I am going to tell you about it now.


殆どの日本人の参加者は、アメリカに長く滞在している。アメリカ人と結婚したり、アメリカの会社で働いたりしている。アメリカの生活が長いけん、英語がバリ流暢だ。なかなか、日本では、こういう集まりに行く機会がないから、凄く面白かった。私は最近、日本語は英語よりうまくなっているけん(冗談かな?)カンファレンスに来た日本人と話した時、日本語が多かった。ずっと日本語で話しよったけど、急に、相手は、”でしょう? That’s just unbelievableだよね!” みたいな発言をした。英語。日本語。変な英語。変な日本語。言葉の使い方が面白すぎてたまらんかった。


The majority of the Japanese participants have been living in the U.S. for a long time. Many of them have married American men, and others are working in the U.S. So of course, most of them can speak English fluently. I rarely have a chance to be around a crowd of people like this in Japan, so it was a blast. Recently, my Japanese is much better than my English (just kidding. Kinda.) So, at the conference, I had a lot of chances to speak to Japanese people in Japanese. We would be speaking English, and then all of the sudden, would break out with a sentence like, Desho! That’s just unbelievable dayone!” English. Japanese. Weird English. Weird Japanese. I was fascinated with how they were using language.



My bilingual friends. I love both them and their use of Japanese.




The most interesting thing of all is something I will call Japanese-American Japanese. I don’t think this is even a word, but my friend and I worked hard making it up. So, what exactly is Japanese-American English? It is the kind of Japanese that Japanese people living in America used to converse with each other. Their overall usage of Japanese was fascinating, but I was most interested in their liberal use of katakana.




Around 10% of the Japanese language is made up of loanwords borrowed from Western languages, and 80%-90% of that is from English. Why is it that Japanese borrows such a high percentage of words, when other languages don’t seem to borrow much at all? One reason is the iitoko dori spirit of the Japanese. They take what they like, what they find appealing, from foreign cultures, and they leave the rest behind.  For example, they like the cake and lights associated with Christmas, but aren’t really interested in the Christian origins. So they don’t implement that into the holiday. Another reason is the katakana alphabet. Since Japan has an entire alphabet dedicated entirely to foreign words, they can borrow whatever they want and just change the pronunciation in a way that makes it easier for Japanese to pronounce. This alphabet makes borrowing possibilities endless. I think there is nothing wrong with this iitokodori mentaility. All countries do it to one extent or the other.





My conversations with these two are a blast.


Still, you just can’t randomly make a word into a katakana word and expect people to understand it. There are words borrowed into Japanese, and there are words that aren’t. But many Japanese living in America make words that aren’t katakana into katakana anyway. For example, my Japanese friend lived in the U.S. for 7 years. When she went back to Japan, she went shopping at a supermarket. At the register she asked for a plastic bag, saying the word in katakana English—purasuchikku baggu. Of course, the cashier had no idea what she was talking about. So she asked several more times, but in the end, the cashier still had no idea. My friend could not for the life of her remember the real Japanese word for what she was asking for—biniiru bukuro.  Why was that? Probably because her Japanese friends in the U.S. all called it a purasuchikku baggu. She had become unable to distinguish authentic katakana words from those she and her friends had made up, and the cashier thought she was a foreigner.




So at this conference, the number of words used like my friend used  purasuchikku baggu were endless. I tried hard to listen to what the conference speakers were saying, but I found myself taking notes of the weird katakana usage of the speakers, translators, and my friends. Here is a list of some words I heard, with the Japanese word after it.


インテンショナル (intentional)(意図的)

ディスカレッジド (discouraged)(がっかりしている)

アプライする (apply)(申し込む)

インター (international school)(インターナショナルスクール)*

リメインする (remain)(残る)

エクスパンド (expand)(拡大する)

プラクティカル (practical)(実用的)

ロジカル (logical)(論理的)*

マテリアリズム (materialism)(物資主義)

ドランク (drunk)(酔っぱらっている)

オプショナル (optional)(選択肢ができる)

モンク (monk)(お坊さん)

スナック (snack)(おやつ)

メイクセンス (make sense)(理解ができる)

レイシスト (racist)(人種差別主義者)

キャッチアップ (catch up)(ずっとやっていないことを一気にやる)

アフォード (afford(お金の余裕がある)

コンプリメント (compliment)(褒め言葉)

アルコホリック (alcoholic)(酔っぱらい)

メモリー (memory) (記憶)

ジェネレーション (generation)(世代)*

ヒアリングエイド (hearing aid)(補聴器)

バウンダリー (boundary)(境界線)

リーチ(reach) (届く)

ブロークンファミリー (broken family) (家庭崩壊)

カルマ(karma) (因果応報)*

チャッチ  (church) (教会)*


グリーク(Greek) (ギリシャ語)


*日本でも使う人はいるけど、みんなは使わない。Some Japanese in Japan know these words, but not everyone.

*日本に住んでいる日本人は、こういう単語を使ったら、外国かぶれだと思われる。Often, if Japanese in Japan use these words, they are accused of being show offs.

*日本では使っているとけど、使い方が違うのもある。例えば、コンピュータのメモリーは言うけど、[記憶] を言いたい時は使わない。私は聞いた文章は、[私の記憶がよくない] みたいな文章だった。同じように、ジェネレーションギャップは使うけど、[お母さんのジェネレーションは。。。]みたいな文章をあまり聞かない。

There are some words used in Japanese but in different ways. For example, Japanese use the word memory regarding computers, but rarely when referring to a person's memory. Generation gap is used here, too, but generation is not used by itself too much. 

 こういう単語は素敵くない?でも単語の遊びだけじゃなくて、英語の文章をそのまま日本語の訳する時もある。アメリカに住んでいる友達は、「私達は同じページにいるよ!」と言った。私は爆笑した。「あれ、直訳し過ぎやん!」と、私はすぐ言った。英語の慣用句、on the same pageがある。意味は、私たちは同じ考えがあるとか、同じやり方を考えているとか、という意味だ。友達は、それをそのまま日本語に訳した。ウケる。英語がわからない日本人は、「私たちは同じページにいる」と言われたら、どう思うかな?




Aren't these words awesome? But it is not just that they are having fun with words, but sometimes translate whole sentences directly into Japnaese for funny results. As we were talking in Japanese, one friend said to me, Watashitachi-wa onaji peeji-ni iru.” I busted out laughing. In English, we have this idiom, “on the same page.” It means when two people are thinking the same thing, or have the same idea about something. In other words, they are in total agreement. Of course, the same idiom doesn’t exist in Japanese, but she directly translated it anyway. I wonder what a monolingual Japanese would think about that…






The first time I heard this kind of reckless katakana usage, I thought, what the heck? Use your native tongue correctly, please! But after I thought about it for a while, I realized that Japanese-English Japanese is exactly like Japanese English. Japanese English is a communication tool used for Japanese people to communicate with each other, so it doesn't really matter whether native English speakers understand it or not. In the same way, Japanese-English Japanese is a communication tool used among bilingual Japanese living in America. They understand what each other is saying, and they are communicating with each other. So it doesn't really matter if monolingual Japanese understand or not.




If a Japanese is unable to distinguish Japanese English from authentic loanwords when they travel to English speaking countries, a major communication breakdown may occur. In the same way, a Japanese living in the U.S. who travels back to Japan, may be unable to distinguish between Japanese-English Japanese and real katakana.  If that happens he may find himself asking for a purasuchikku baggu, just like my friend did, and as result the cashier will think he is a foreigner, too.




Man, this is interesting. I love words like crazy. I had a great time in America. My seminar went really well, and I got a lot of work done. In addition, I made many new rocking friends. But maybe the coolest thing of all is that I found a new research subject that fascinates me. I pumped about what will happen from here.




By the way, my friends are all afraid that their language usage in going to find its way into my blog. They should be afraid, very afraid. Haha.