Readers in Council,
54-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
There is a lot of domestic violence that does not occur between spouses, but rather between adults and children. That is why the phrase "haigushukanboryoku," or "violence-between-spouses" reported in "Incomprehensible foreign loanwords land on hit list" (September 2) as being considered as a possible substitute by the Institute for Japanese Language (Kokugoken) for Japanese people's use of "Domestic Violence" just doesn't cut it as a suitable substitute.
The same is true for the phrase "nattokushinryo," or "understood-diagnosis-and-treatment" which is being considered as a native language substitute for the English phrase "informed medical consent." If I go to a Japanese doctor for some condition and I both understand the diagnosis and the proposed treatment, that does not mean that I agree with it and to it. So it worries me that Japanese confuse understanding with agreement.
Kokugoken is acting from the position that the current density of loanwords in the language is bad, and that correction is needed because there is a large portion of the Japanese population that simply does not understand much of the current vocabulary. But at least two points ought to be made about that. First, near-universal adult literacy in this country is a myth. Inability to comprehend written Japanese is widespread among Japanese themselves. It starts with smokers who cannot read the No Smoking signs on the wall 40cm in front of their eyes, to my wife who cannot understand documents sent to us from our local city office. Second, the acceptance into popular usage of so many foreign - particularly English - loanwords is, in effect, a convincing condemnation by Japanese themselves of the structural vagueness of their language. There is so much aimai, or vagueness built into the Japanese language that it was never, ever true that Japanas a nation or Japanese as a people experienced good communication and harmony because of it. Instead, profound disharmony is and has been just under the urface everywhere in this culture.
I hate to be the one to pop the balloon of cultural myth, but there it is.
Published on Sunday, September 12, 2004 as “Vagueness hinders communication.”