Japan, a country slightly larger in area than the U.K, is considerably longer: It stretches for more than 3,000km Northwest to Southeast. If you were to overlay Japan on a map of Europe, tip-to-tip it would reach from Spain to Norway. Yet the only widely-spoken common language in the country is Japanese. Almost every Japanese learns English as a foreign language at school, but as English communication is essentially unnecessary for daily life, most do not speak it.
Japan also has a very small immigrant community (less than 2% of the population, lowest in the OECD), a fact probably well known to anyone with a passing interest in Japan. Perhaps less well known is Japan’s variety of regional languages, although due to modernization of school education and the impact of mass media from the 19th century onward, these regional languages are now severely endangered. Given this state of affairs, Japan appears to be almost entirely monolingual, which some may view as an ‘ideal’ nation-state, unified under one tongue.
However, the linguistic landscape of present-day Japan paints a slightly different picture. Let’s take a look.
Language of traffic signs
Have a gander at the traffic signs below. The left says ‘stop’ (止まれ) in Japanese alone. The sign on the right includes the English, ‘stop.’ Why the difference? Perhaps a sign of the times changing? In 2017, in response to increasing numbers of foreign visitors, and in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics (which, ironically, was ‘stopped’), a change in law requiring all public signage in Japan to be bilingual. The law remains in place, even though in 2020, it is rare to see foreign visitors.
Language for tourists
I am writing from where I live in Kyoto, an ancient capital in central Japan, and a traditionally touristic city. What is the signage like here? The following is a picture of the Keihan train line, which I ride frequently – we can see Chinese and Korean in addition to Japanese and English.
While English is the only language taught as a lingua franca in Japanese schools, the public service industry reflects a greater need: Chinese speakers represent the majority of foreign visitors to Japan, and Korean speakers are a large demographic, too.
A short train-ride from Kyoto is Nara, another yet more ancient capital of the 8th century. Nara is home to Nara Park, which is in turn home to many wild deer who are protected by the local government. They have free rein to move about in the city as they like, and people must make way for them. The deer are associated with Japanese mythology and are recorded to have been living alongside humans since Nara’s time as capital. Although used to humans, the deer are wild, and often unpredictable. The following sign addresses this potential predicament.
Here again, the languages of the sign are English, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, now alongside pictograms that clearly display the potential dangers living together with the mischievous animals. If you look closely, you can see a QR code to the right – by accessing the code you can get the same information in a number of different languages.
Now let us leave the deer and move away from Kansai. In Hakodate of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, you will find the Russian language appearing on tourist signage. A closer look at the image below reveals two varieties of Chinese language; the simplified characters in the middle are targeted at mainland Chinese, while the traditional characters on the right, Taiwanese tourists.
Indigenous languages in “City Crossing the Sea”
The ancient name of Hakodate City was Usukeshi (宇須岸 or 臼岸), apparently derived from the Ainu word us-oro-kes, meaning ‘edge of the bay.’ Ainu is the indigenous language of Hokkaido, and one of the critically endangered languages mentioned above.
Some endeavors have been undertaken to preserve the Ainu language. For instance, in the city of Asahikawa, the educational board has put up signs such as the following to help spread knowledge and recognition of the Ainu language. Alongside the Japanese name ‘Chikabumi,’ it gives the Ainu name, chikap-un-i, and a description of its meaning: “the place where the birds are.”
The language of business and immigrants
More than halfway down the country, in Tottori Prefecture, I was drawn in by the signage on ‘Mizuki Shigeru Road,’ named for one of the leading manga artists of post-war Japan, especially famous for his creative stories of Japanese Yōkai (supernatural monsters). If you can tear your eyes away from the image of Mizuki’s fictional monster, Cat Girl, you may notice the languages on the sign: Japanese, English, Chinese, Russian and Korean. Much farther away from Russia than Hokkaido, I wondered, ‘why Russian?’
As it turns out, Tottori Prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan, has a long history of extensive trade and exchange with the Far East region of Russia, including Primorsky Krai, and so, for Tottori, Russia is an important business partner. It’s no surprise then, that the official signage below employs Russian too.
How about other languages in Japanese landscape? Naturally, in cities with substantial immigrant populations, one can easily find Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, and other languages in both public and private signage. This is the landscape of Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a large population of immigrants from Brazil.
The language of commerce; emblematic use of language
In every region of Japan, regardless of the presence of immigrant communities, bakeries, pastry shops, Western restaurants, or company names are often represented in Western languages, most commonly in English, but many in the French, Italian, or German languages. In business, one can easily find language used without any overt linguistic function. Many of the names are, of course, meaningful, but most consumers are not interested in the language itself, but rather the associated image.
For instance, take this restaurant in the centre of Kyoto which takes a French name as a bistro (although only a handful of customers will be able to pronounce “Vapeurs” correctly – they will likely be able to find a phonetic representation in kana somewhere within). However, the more immediately important information for customers – the menu, prices, and opening hours – appear on the blackboards in front in either English or Japanese.
Some readers may recall a Bloommaert’s (2010) photo shoot in Tokyo, where two nouns, “NINA’S” (a French tea shop) above “derrière” (a French bakery), which made an unfortunate combination. French nouns are in fact often used for in Japan for emblematic functions rather than linguistic ones, which can result in a phenomenon sometimes called “franponais,” which refers to strange word creations by Japanese who do not know French language. The next photo is a prime example: the grammatical errors and resulting unintelligibility have given it a certain flavour.
The name of the bakery is read 「ウルー ウール」“Ou-Loou, Ooou-Lou,” and is followed by the words “la faire heureux heure,” which make no sense in the French language. The shop’s website explains that the phrase in French means “we make happy times,” which is incorrect. They may have taken a wording that works somewhat in English, and translated it word-for-word into French. That makes at least some sense. At any rate, very few (expect a handful with French ability) are concerned or even interested in the accuracy of the French. The shop’s name – or it should be pronounced – written in Japanese katakana, and the important information such as opening hours, in English. Here, the French is nothing more than decoration.
This phenomenon – the emblematic function of language – is of course, not unique to Japan. Imagine Japanese writing in a sushi restaurant somewhere in Europe – a far-removed language of an ‘exotic’ country. The language is there to provide a sense of exoticism, or perhaps authenticity. How many would care if the Japanese is accurate or not?
But it can produce some funny results. A quirk of the Japanese language allows for different usages and readings of kanji characters. For instance, the Japanese kanji “冷” means “cool”, and “奴” can mean “guy.” So it would follow that “冷奴” would mean “cool guy,” right? Unfortunately not. It’s totally different. It is a name of a cold tofu dish. There’s a story that floats around of someone, unaware of this meaning, tattooing the word ‘冷奴’ on his arm. It may just be an urban legend, but it’s well-known in Japan, and has a ring of authenticity considering it is a very easy mistake to make. On Amazon Japan you can now find t-shirts emblazoned with “冷奴, Cool guy.” I wonder if a “Nina’s derrière” t-shirt would be a hit on Amazon Belgium?
A final unique quirk of the linguistic landscape in Japan is that emblematic use of language is not limited to foreign languages. Take the kanji characters, in use in Japan since the 5th century C.E. They are often called ‘Chinese characters,’ given that they were originally imported from China, although they are phoneticized differently, and include uniquely Japanese characters – to the point that Japanese writing is no more Chinese than German written in the Roman alphabet is Latin. The final two pictures here include some kanji characters that have fallen out of use. The following are tea shops in Kyoto, the signs adorned with older kanji, no longer taught in schools. Why this choice? Perhaps because in Japan, age conveys a sense of refinement and luxury.
Of course, this can sometimes lead to mistakes, too. Many Japanese are able to read a much larger variety of characters than are taught in schools, and are often quick to point out mistakes (certainly more than with foreign language signage!). Perhaps because it is ‘their language,’ misuse is a little more irritating. Anyway, whatever the reason, we are less likely to find errors even in the Japanese signage, which means it’s more difficult to find an error as exquisite as ‘cool guy.’ A bit of a shame, perhaps.
Mayo Oyama, December 2020