The Infiltration of Katakana into 21st Century Native Japanese
So is the only function of katakana to mark “foreignness” and to reserve hiragana and kanji for “true” Japanese? An article by Erica Hashiba.
It must be with at least some hesitation that students of introductory Japanese learn to accept the fact that their (most often) non-Japanese names must be written in katakana, a type of script which is used to write all foreign or imported words. Alas, they must forfeit their dreams of writing their own names in hiragana or even the exotic kanji characters (like the ones on their T-shirt) that the native Japanese use to write theirs. But both hiragana and katakana are phonetic, and represent the same 47 syllables that constitute the Japanese language. So is the only function of katakana to mark “foreignness” and to reserve hiragana and kanji for “true” Japanese? Indeed, even names of Japanese-Americans, although they may be Japanese (or at least the last name, as in “Mary Tanaka,”) are often written in katakana because they are not Japanese nationals. It is like using a different font in order to distinguish foreign from native, and for this reason, it may seem as though the use of katakana is not so much vital as it is ethnocentric. However, Japan has undergone extensive westernization especially after the second world war, and have since then made major technological, cultural, and linguistic imports. The Japanese language is now fully integrated with hundreds of “loan words” that are virtually unavoidable in everyday language, and this has given way to a phenomenally widespread use of katakana in modern Japanese discourse.
However, a closer look at the usage of katakana in Japanese discourse will quickly reveal that this simplistic explanation of katakana as a foreignness-marker is by no means sufficient. Though less common, katakana is also conventionally used to write native Japanese words like various kinds of onomatopoeia, and words used in a scientific or technical context. A manga reader is well-accustomed to the “sounds” of anything from hurried footsteps to trembling anger that confetti the page in katakana. The native Japanese names for roaches, squirrels or wisteria might appear in katakana in a biology book or a science related text, but would otherwise usually be written in hiragana or kanji. But the seemingly marginal roles of the katakana doesn’t stop there.
When reading a girl’s teen magazine one might come across a sentence like this (words in katakana are underlined):
The bastard’s ex-girlfriend was really pretty.
(Lit: Bastard’s ex-girlfriend really pretty was)
This sentence consists of all native Japanese words, albeit with some slang and colloquial expressions. So why would the word sugoi (“really”) be written in katakana? It’s not a foreign word, not an onomatopoeia, and certainly not an organism to be listed in a science text. And what in the world might be the connection between sugoi and yatsu (“bastard”), which also doesn’t fall into any of the aforementioned conventional uses? To further add to the mystery, a few lines over, sugoi might be used once again in a different context—not in katakana, but in hiragana instead.
In anywhere from manga, magazines, advertisements, to TV, katakana has increasingly been used for native Japanese words that would otherwise be conventionally written in hiragana and/or kanji. Just to list a few more examples, among them are kakkoii “cool/handsome,” kenka “fight,” osusume “recommendation,” and kimoi “gross” (slang.) The usage of katakana for such words seems to be by no means consistent, and in any given discourse a word may appear sometimes in katakana and other times in hiragana. This conscious decision of the writer to use katakana for certain native Japanese words in certain contexts (but not in others,) seems to suggest that this newly emerged phenomenon does indeed has some actual function in contemporary Japanese.
In hopes of discovering some sort of pattern and function, I investigated several sources of popular magazines for men and for women, blogs, and novels. It is very clear that the use of katakana for otherwise-non-katakana words does have a certain effect on its meaning—and I’ve somewhat arbitrarily come up with four rough categories of functions that I discovered the katakana to have undertaken beyond its conventional uses.
Marking Emphasis/Point of Interest
The following is the title of an article in a women’s magazine and contains two katakana words:
Maybelline is the secret to beauty.
Beauty is obviously an interest for many women, making the word kirei (“beautiful”) one of the most overused words in many magazines, including this one. What some women love even more, of course, are himitsu—secrets. Here, both words are written in katakana to mark emphasis to these words so as to get the attention of the secret-hungry reader.
In the men’s magazine, however, the point of interest changes. An article titled “Manner Cram-School For Popular Guys” extensively incorporates the direct-quote opinions of girls about who makes an attractive or unattractive guy. For every instance of the word onnanoko (“girl”) the “ko” in “onnanoko” is written in katakana rather than in kanji. Clearly, girls are exactly the reason why for such an article, and thus, they are marked as a point of interest by means of the katakana. To the contrary, an article immediately following this one which gives instructions on eyebrow-making (yes, for men!) has some instances of the word onnanoko, however, they are not written in katakana. Apparently, the onnanoko is not so much a point of interest any longer as is now the best type of eyebrow cutter. Similarly, the word onnanoko is obviously frequented in the women’s magazine but is rarely in katakana, and instead, is properly written in kanji.
Marking Slang and Newly Created Words
Another usage of katakana is for writing slang and newly created words. Newly created words sometimes consist of loan words, but many of these words originate from already-existing Japanese words. For example, maji (“seriously;” “for real”), mukatsuku (“irritated;” “pissed off”), and motokano/motokare (“ex-girlfriend”/“ex-boyfriend”). Motokano and motokare are abbreviated words (from motokanojo and motokareshi) so usually moto (“ex”) remains in kanji and only the shortened kano and kare portions are written in katakana since they were modified from the original word to create the new term.
Unlike the katakana use for marking focus which is highly dependent on the context, slang words are very consistently written in katakana. Not too surprising, since slang words are newly created words that have a sense of “non-nativeness.” They are very much like loan words which have been incorporated into the language to supplement the already-existing language.
As a result of the systematic westernization that first began in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and which still continues today, the Japanese have developed an affinity and profound admiration for the western culture. The west is trendy and “now”— and because katakana represents this culture in writing today, it came to bear these cultural implications as well. So when a word that should be written in the hiragana/kanji form is arbitrarily written in katakana, it suddenly gives the word some pizazz, eliciting trendiness to an otherwise neutral word.
The title of the aforementioned article in the men’s magazine on how to “make” the best eyebrows (by means of plucking, combing, drawing, etc…) reads:
Is it okay like this? My (I + possessive) eyebrows.
“Ore” is the personal pronoun “I” for men, which is the more rough, “cool” alternative to “boku” which is the neutral, perhaps too goodie-two-shoes way of saying “I” for some dudes. Fashion magazines often use “ore” over “boku,” and when they do, often write them in katakana rather than in kanji. This seems to make the “ore” (and who it refers to) even more cool and trendy than if it were to be written in the proper, heavy-looking kanji.
Another example of the “trendy” use of katakana is when celebrities and entertainers write their name in katakana. Some people will appear with their full name written in kanji, but many others will change their name, slightly or completely, to give it more pizzazz as a “professional” name. When doing so, many choose to write their new names in katakana, like Tamori, a popular TV show host who simply goes by his last name (which is actually “Morita” scrambled), and writes it in katakana. Countless manzai (Japanese comedy) duos come up with team names written in katakana, such as “Cream Stew”. There are both instances of celebs writing their Japanese names in katakana, as well as those who completely do away with their Japanese name and give themselves a western name which is also, of course, written in katakana (although some get really clever and adopt a western name and write it in hiragana or kanji.) While some students of Japanese may wish to ascribe self-picked kanji to represent their originally katakana names, many Japanese do just the opposite—and write their kanji names in katakana so as to emulate the trendiness of a western name.
Alleviating Seriousness or Harshness
The kanji script is typically much more complex than the katakana script, so when a word that should conventionally be written in kanji is reduced to the simple katakana script, it literally does away with the serious, burdening look of the original word—interestingly enough, this visual difference has the same effect on its meaning as well.
The blog of a 20 year old female college student contains the following text under the headline “My college life”:
“Today school was until lunchtime.”
For a 20 year old girl who probably spends the better half of her day making an elaborate blog site intricately bordered with dancing Hello Kitty icons, school is probably not the most interesting place to be. Thus, by writing a mundane word like “school” in katakana, she does away with the serious, scholarly connotations of school and makes it appear to be a more playful and lighthearted ordeal.
Because of such visual effects of words written in katakana, many adversarial words are written in katakana for the same reasons. These are some complaints from girls about their relationships with guys:
“People who cannot be attentive to others are the worst.”
Channeru-no toriai-de kenka shimasu.
“We fight over the TV channels.”
As mentioned, this phenomenon is usually only found in informal discourse, like texts on the internet (such as blogs), advertisements, novels, manga, and magazines—and not in formal discourse (newspapers, journal articles, etc.) Since the knowledge of kanji reflects good education and is also necessary in academic and formal writing, the conscious decision not to use kanji and to replace it with the simpler katakana manifests the casual nature of the discourse in which these cases are found. Although the complaints above are to be taken seriously by all means (right, gentlemen?) this is a popular fun-read magazine. The use of complicated kanji seems almost out of place in pop culture, and results in the purposeful “dumbing down” of the Japanese language.
At first glance, it could seem as if the sole function of katakana is to write foreign words and to distinguish them from native Japanese words. But a quick read of a “Natural Lashes 101” article would show that the use of katakana extends well beyond the realm of “foreignness.” Of course, these categorizations I have created are not always clear cut and certainly not exhaustive of all the possibilities that this unique phenomenon may present. Although these functions of katakana is relatively contemporary, it nonetheless seems to be rooted in several historical factors, such as the creation of katakana being a direct result of an attempt to simplify the burdensome nature of kanji, and the westernization of Japan which fueled the Japanese intrigue for the western culture.
Particularly, this almost hasty attempt to westernize has created an influx and over-usage of loan words in contemporary Japanese discourse, revealing that many Japanese, especially many grandpas and grandmas, actually do not understand a lot of the loan words that they encounter in newspapers and other everyday reading. Initially, loan words were necessary because there was no Japanese equivalent, for example, the word terebi for “television.” However, today, many loan words which have a Japanese counterpart are slowly beginning to replace them. Now that even native Japanese words are increasingly written in katakana, perhaps a declining regard for kanji and a rising preference for the kana is an inevitability in the future of Japanese writing.
By Erica Hashiba
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