Imperial DJ’s and Katakana Etymology

Japanese culture is like a team of explorers in a hot air balloon soaring around on a survey of the world. The explorers in the balloon are always looking out with their binoculars and pocket telescopes behind their monocles and well-groomed explorer moustaches, scanning the world for things that they can incorporate within the entity that is Japan in its quest for perfection. Do not be mistaken, Japan is no full-chameleon devoid of its own identity; there is always a rope anchoring the culture to the point at which it took off; and it seems (for better or worse) that there are certain traditional values and ways of viewing life that the Japanese will never fully deviate from. Nonetheless, the quest to create a sort of super-culture has brought the Japanese great things and has crafted the country into what it is today.

You’d be shocked at the long list of things you view as quintessentially Japanese that were actually borrowed from other cultures. White rice, green tea, Zen Buddhism, and the Japanese system of writing (a system which they didn’t adopt until sometime in the 8th century!) are a few traditional examples, all of these having originated from China. Modern style of dress, hygiene, urban architecture, and the current system of government–all predominately based on western innovations.

During the Meiji Period, intense efforts were made to gather information and tidbits of culture from around the world. Fact finders were sent out to scores of different countries to collect data and report back with the discoveries they thought would benefit Japan. Western toilets, the use of German beer recipes, elevators, showers, trains, pocketwatches, pastries, western-style music and theatre—Japan sought to “modernize.” But it didn’t just blindly swallow all of these new ways as a sort of “copycat culture” and leave it at that. The brilliance of the Japanese eclecticism and the great fruits that it has borne lies in how the Japanese have been able to take these foreign treasures and apply their own cultural spin and methodology to them, creating products that are often better than their original inspirations.

The fastest and most reliable train system in the world, the Japanese business model, and the generativity of the Japanese electronics industry are a few living examples of this ability to reshape and retool old parts into something better and new. Their foreign origin becomes irrelevant and outshone by their results.

What has become particularly apparent to me as an English teacher is that all of this cultural blending has brought literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foreign words into the colloquial Japanese language. Hamubaga (hamburger), mountain bikuu, spotsu kaa (sportscar), baraku kohee (black cofee), neku tie (necktie), etc. etc. The Japanese language has been incorporating loan words for as long as it has had a written language, and actually has an entire alphabet (katakana) that it uses specifically for the adoption of foreign words.

As a native English speaker traveling to Japan, what many find really intriguing is that these loan words have become so imbedded into Japanese life that they’ve practically forgot that they were borrowed concepts to begin with. On top of this, the words are slightly corrupted with the use of the Japanese alphabet to transliterate the words (which does an ok job, but is far from perfecta), and if one pronounces these words as they are pronounced in English-speaking countries, one will most likely not be understood. Order a “tall hot coffee” in a coffee shop and you’ll be standing there with a confused cashier. “Taru hottō kohii” is what they’re looking for. McDonalds? You must mean “ma-ku-do-na-ru-do.”

I have found that most Japanese students already have an incredibly large bank of English vocabulary at their disposal before ever touching an English textbook, however, the great bulk of it entirely useless for actual English conversation because they are usually unaware of the original English words that these words correspond to, or that they were even English words to begin with. Little lightbulbs click every day while teaching and students realize the English or French roots of the katkana words that they’d been using. This is the essence of the experience of discovery experienced in the process of any etymology I suppose, whether it be in Latin, Greek, Arabic, or whatever, as we  Incorporation and the subsequent washing away of ownership like footprints on a beach. New identities.

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