Abe Shinzo's kakakana

Not beautiful but utterly traditional

By William Wetherall

First posted 30 September 2006
Last updated 31 September 2006

This article consists of my commentary on an article by Oniki Hirofumi, which appeared on the Mainichi Shinbun / MNS News site in both Japanese (signed) and English (unsigned). The article, in both languges, is reproduced below for non-commercial purposes, and my commentary follows.

Mainichi / MNS articles

Japanese version

Oniki Hirofumi
"Abe shuso: Katakana kotoba wa 109 kai, Koizumi shuso no 4 bai"
Mainichi Shinbun
29 September 2006

安倍首相:カタカナ言葉は109回 小泉首相の4倍






English version

"Abe's katakana-laden policy speech rings hollow with listeners"
Mainichi Daily News
29 September 2006

Abe's katakana-laden policy speech rings hollow with listeners

New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's use of words written in katakana, a form of writing used mainly for scientific terms and words derived from other languages, stood out in his policy speech on Friday, as he apparently aimed to create a new image of himself as a leader.

Abe, at 52 the youngest Japanese prime minister in the post-war period, used a total of 109 katakana words in his speech, four times the number used by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who disliked katakana words and bureaucratese.

The prime minister is apparently trying to send out a new image with his use of fuzzy katakana words instead of concrete target figures. However, at the same time he is promoting the slogan "Beautiful country, Japan," conservatively emphasizing Japan's tradition and culture, and the two stances appear out of step.

Abe's policy speech, which provided comprehensive details on the administration he promoted during the election for presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was 8,301 characters long. For an inaugural speech, it was longer than the 4,982-character speech given by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and the 6,452-character speech by Koizumi.

The katakana terms Abe used included words such as "missairu" (missile), and "tero" (terrorism), which are hard to convert into Japanese, as well as with names of foreign countries and other proper nouns.

Other examples in phrases from Abe's speech included "terewaaku (telework) enabling work to be done from home," "the promotion of an Ajia geetouei (Asian gateway) concept with which Japan can become a bridge between Asia and the world," and a "kantorii aidentitii (country identity) for a new Japan looking to the future."

Many of the words failed to strike a chord among listeners and doubts appear to remain over whether using so many katakana words is actually effective. (Mainichi)


The article itself rings hollow. There is no foundation in the Japanese article for the headline in the English -- a good example of how English versions of Japanese news reports tend to distort the original reports.

Degress of naturalization

Mainichi writer Oniki Hirofumi begins the Japanese version by observing that Abe used katakana words in expressions like "oopun-na keizai shakai" [open economic society] and "inobeeshon (gijutsu kakushin) no sozo" [creation of innovation (technological reformation)] -- instead of speaking of concrete goals.

Seemingly with no sense of irony, Oniki then remarks that, in sprinkling his policy speech with katakana, Abe apparently had the aim of "apiiru suru" [appealing] to an original "imeeji" [image].

The only difference between Abe's and Oniki's katakana words is that Oniki's are now considered completely natural, while Abe's are still in the process of naturalization.

Abe, in fact, was speaking perfectly good Japanese. It may not have been beautiful, or always clear much less concrete. But his usage was entirely normal. And it was also very traditional.

History of borrowing

Abe's manner of speaking can be heard everyday when surfing the news and other programming on television, and it can be read in all manner of publications, from daily tabloids to government reports. Speakers and writers of Japanese commonly lace their speech and text with expressions adopted and adapted from other languages.

Linguistic borrowing, with no intent to return, has been going on in Japanese for as long as there have been written records. Even the means of writing Japanese developed from the wholesale importation of Chinese literature and characters.

The introduction of katakana expressions, representing words from many other languages, especially those of Euroamerican countries like Britain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States, is merely a more recent inobeeshon.

Capacity to incorporate

It would not be difficult to express "missile" or "terrorism" in Japanese -- if there were enough interest in using established Japanese words, or in creating new words using Japanese elements, to convey the same meanings. Apparently, though, it is easier, faster, more fun, if not more impressive to Japanize the English words.

All human languages absorb elements from other human languages. Incorporation of alien words, and even grammar, may at times seem conspicuous in Japanese, but the capacity of Japanese to incorporate words from other tongues, with varying degrees of localization, is perfectly natural.


It is also the nature of criticism -- again not exceptionally in Japan -- to focus attention on the language of a speaker one does not like to begin with.

If a super popular tarento were to make the same speech Abe Shinzo did, the world would hear an incredible chorus of naruhodos -- or should that be naruhodoes? -- from those inscrutable frogs off the coast of the Northeast Asian continent.

As for "kantorii aidentitii" -- a native speaker of English who said "country identity" would also be suffering from a bad case of linguistic constipation.