Of Place and Wind 9: The ephemerality of Japanese language

Tetsuya Kaida dives into the beauty and complexity of the Japanese language.

When talking and laughing in front of the convenience store, standing astride their bicycles, on the way back from cram school,

When sitting enveloped in the steam of the open-air bath at the super sentō, feeling a little shy,
When two young women in their twenties spend hours on end facing each other at the nail salon,
When trying out a game on PlayStation seated on the sofa at a friend’s house’,
On a train in the eerie calm of the late afternoon, before the rush hour, when you can sit next to each other,
Or when texting someone on the cell phone, an indispensable element of both socializing scenes and moments of solitude…

A closer look at any single page in the everyday life of young people anywhere in Japan will reveal an amazing number of words that you cannot find in the dictionary, coming into being one after another.

Thus, to talk about something that is sort of disgusting (kimochiwarui) and yet pretty (kawaii) you have the new hybrid adjective ‘kimokawa’. If you can’t take a hint (kuuki o yomenai), you abbreviate: ‘KY’. To show that you’re laughing (warau) you just type: ’w’. That you’re laughing hard: www; That you’re laughing your head off: wwwwww. Not to mention the never-ending list of new vocabulary items for ‘funny’: warosu, terawarosu, barosu, barosshu.

Where do all these new words and characters come from and where are they heading to?


The sites where high-school girls chat and post their stories are brimming with seeds of new words. So are the cell phones that occupy a vital place in their lives. While some words fade away after having served an ephemeral purpose, others are widely circulated among friends and site users. New words spring into existence from certain states of mind, enhancing the atmosphere of the place. I keep referring to ‘words’, but actually this language encompasses symbols, emoticons and mood letters such as the ‘w’ above. Driven by the whims of fate, some of them will pass from the site to the cell phone or from the cell phone to the site. Others will lose their life once they are disclosed to the forbidden outside world.

The life of words is fragile and fleeting, as if the nature of the small and private places where they germinate were incompatible with places that are large and boisterous.

I must confess that the mechanism of the birth and growth of words still holds many enigmas for me. Www…

The Japanese word for ‘word’ is comprised of two characters which translate literally into ‘the leaves of speech’. Just like the countless leaves of giant trees, they are nourished by the land and the sky to become saucers that receive the blessings of nature, before they finally scatter and return to the ground. It is to this fundamental principle of the natural world that words are compared.

After entering Japan from neighboring China many centuries ago, Chinese characters underwent a slow process of change, while also providing the basis for the parallel development of two syllabaries called ‘hiragana’ and ‘katakana’. As a result, we now use three different writing systems, but also numbers, the Latin alphabet, standard symbols and a variety of other letters, constantly switching between them as needed.

I can easily relate to the feelings of foreigners who learn Japanese and complain about how difficult it is. Add to this the existence of the New Word Creation Club kept up and going twenty-four hours a day by the high-school girls and an understanding of this difficulty will start to emerge. Recently, text messages have even become inspiration for novels, dramas and films.

Quite apart from this arena of linguistic creativity, new words and new uses of existing words that reflect changing social conditions are also produced in the worlds of business, media and publishing. Some of them gain tremendous popularity, becoming ‘vogue words’. There is even a Grand Prix for the best vogue word of the year.

The following are just a few of the new words used in 2009 to refer to men and women with new lifestyles.

- A man who is cooperative, family-oriented and kind, but has little interest in women and sex is a ‘herbivorous man’ (sōshoku danshi).
- A woman who approaches men and takes an active role in relationships is a ‘carnivorous woman’ (nikushoku joshi)
- A man who is masculine but has girly ideas, likings and hobbies is a ‘maiden man’ (otomen).
- A young woman who is careful about what she eats, is interested in agriculture and grows her own rice is an ‘ag-girl’ (nōgyaru).
- A woman who starts from movies and games, then goes on to read the original book that inspired them and ends up being an expert in history is a ‘history woman’ (rekionna).
- A man who enjoys preparing his own lunchbox in the morning is a ‘lunchbox man’ (bentō danshi).
- A young woman who passionately collects Buddhist statues is a ‘Buddhist-statue girl’ (Butsuzō gaaru) and if her favorite Buddhist figure is Ashura, the deity of war, she is called an Ashura-er (ashuraa).

I wonder if there is any other country that brings forth such a continuous stream of words as Japan does. Something similar must be happening among young people in most countries. Nevertheless, I believe that linguistic production of such breadth and variety is typical of Japan and its language. (Far from being based on any deep research on the subject, this conclusion merely reflects my own assumptions and biases).

The question is, what causes this phenomenon? Perhaps the answer lies in a special sensitivity of young Japanese people to the atmosphere, air, mood and, in general, to the ‘energy’ of different kinds of ‘places’, as well as to trends, transitions, shifts and other flows. In this sense, it would not be an exaggeration to consider young Japanese women in their late teens ‘the most sensitive group on earth’. Because for them this sensitivity is intricately part and parcel of everyday living. The settings that friends or lovers share, the settings of internet sites and chat rooms, of matchmaking parties, comedy shows, public baths, convenience store fronts… Each of these ‘places’ has its own ‘energy’ that connects moments together, inviting people to surrender themselves to its flow.

Words arise from the energy flow of places. This is my conclusion, although it may sound a bit like feng shui.

The Japanese poets of the past first wrote what are known as ‘long poems’ (chōka), after which the poetic form evolved into ‘short poems’ (tanka). When tanka was further dissected into witty, playful fragments, the haiku was born.

“An ancient pond. A frog jumps in – The sound of water’”
“A dewdrop world – A dewdrop world it is indeed, and yet, and yet…”

What do you make of them? Such verses give a strong sense of the energy flow of places.

I would like to offer a poem, as a token of gratitude to the Japanese language.

“Since words Are the leaves of speech They float away’.

Ooops. There is no seasonal word. This might not work. Www.

As I wrote at the beginning, there are several brilliant non-Japanese working in my team. Every time I overhear their conversations, I cannot help but think that they belong to that category of linguistic magicians who can switch between several languages at will, seeming to adopt different characters as they flip back and forth between English and Japanese, for example. When they speak Japanese they give an impression of gentleness, reserve and careful consideration of the other person’s feelings. In contrast, their English conversations sound logical and argumentative, as if they were constantly engaging in some form of debate, clearly expressing their wishes and intentions. It is not only a change in attitude: the atmosphere that the interaction brings forth is completely different. The words themselves are perhaps a product of that atmosphere.

It is said that the Japanese language is rich in vowels that express emotions. This might be regarded as a proof that Japanese people are more concerned with communicating feelings and intuitions than logical reasoning. For example, Japanese tend to avoid giving a clear-cut yes or no answer, preferring instead subtle nuances and vague expressions like “Hmmm, right?” (and so many other notoriously untranslatable phrases), which softly communicate emotions without full verbalization.

In passing, I would like to mention that I perceive the Japanese spoken in Kyoto as being uniquely warm and kind. There is no way I can picture two women in kimonos quarreling in the Kyoto dialect. An outrageous suggestion for those engaged in the daily strifes at the United Nations: there would be no fighting in this world if everybody spoke the Kyoto dialect. Are you serious? No way! (laugh)

The dimension of the Japanese language that even the linguistic magicians in my team cannot fully command is the abovementioned cell phone language. To see them suddenly turn into avid users of emoticons would be ridiculous, and absolutely out of their character.

Love transcends words.

But words might have the power to captivate the heart even more than love does.

It seems someone just sent a text message full of emoticons to my cell phone. This one is not from them (laugh).

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)


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