ALPHABET Ante Portas: HOW ENGLISH TEXT INVADES JAPANESE PUBLIC SPACE

By Backhaus, Peter | Visible Language, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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ALPHABET Ante Portas: HOW ENGLISH TEXT INVADES JAPANESE PUBLIC SPACE


Backhaus, Peter, Visible Language


ABSTRACT

This paper examines the prominence of written English on shop signs in Japan. Based on data from a larger empirical study into multilingual signs in Tokyo, the most common ways of using English and the roman alphabet on Japanese shops signs are identified. It is argued that the ambivalent nature of English loan words plays a key role in the ever growing visibility of English in Japanese public spaces. Focusing on one special type of sign - price lists outside hairdressers' - I will show how the use of English loan words entails the general use of English and the Roman alphabet, which in the long run results in signs completely functioning in English.

INTRODUCTION

About twenty years ago, Saint-Jacques (1987) in this journal published a paper that was titled "Bilingualism in Daily Life: The Roman Alphabet in the Japanese Writing System." Motivated in part by a discussion on the use of the roman alphabet published two years earlier in a special issue of the Japanese journal Gekkan Gengo (1985), Saint-Jacques observed a relatively sudden increase in the use of roman letters in Japan, the beginning of which he dates back to the early 1980s. One of the main points he makes is that 'the alphabet is in,' especially in the domain of commercial language usage (Saint-Jacques, 1987, 90, 97).

The aim of this paper is to follow up on Saint-Jacques' observations and see how things have developed since. On the basis of empirical data, I will discuss how the roman alphabet and the language that it most commonly represents, English, are integrated into Japanese text and context. In this respect, it is necessary to know that written Japanese is a combination of four scripts: 1) kanji, the Japanese adaptations of Chinese characters; 2) hiragana and 3) katakana, the two indigenously developed syllabary scripts also referred to as kana; and 4) the twenty-six letters of the English variety of the roman alphabet, called romaji in Japanese. The roman alphabet has traditionally been used for transliterating Japanese terms, usually place and person names or other proper nouns, and in internationally known abbreviations, acronyms, measurement units, etc. However, already Saint-Jacques observed a growing use of 'the alphabet'1 for the representation of loan words from Western languages. This second type of usage is of major interest in this paper, which focuses on language use on public signs.

The study of language on signs is now commonly referred to as linguistic landscape research (Landry & Bourhis, 1997; Gorter, 2006), but the topic already attracted scientific interest in Japan long before the term gained wider currency. An early survey was conducted by Masai (1972, 153-158), who in 1962 examined shop signs in the Shinjuku area of central Tokyo. His methodology was revived by Lim (1996) some three decades later. Comparing the findings of her survey to Masai's data, Lim observed a strong increase in the use of the alphabet. Similar studies into language on shop signs in Japan have been conducted by Miyazima (1995, 14-19), Oura (1997, 27-28), lnoue (2000, 16-20), Someya (2002, 2007), MacGregor (2003) and Sato (2003). The general tenor of these publications is that English and the alphabet are characteristic features of shop signs in Japan. They further emphasize that the use of English in the majority of cases serves a Japanese rather than a foreign target group.

The survey on which the observations in the present paper are based was conducted in Tokyo in spring 2003 (Backhaus, 2007). A total of 2444 multilingual signs were collected in twenty-eight survey areas in the center of the city. Employing this data, I will identify four common ways of using English and the alphabet on Japanese signs. I will argue that the ambivalent nature of English loan words plays a key role in the ever growing visibility of English in Japanese public spaces. Discussing in detail four signs found outside hairdressers, I will show how the use of English loan words entails the general use of English and the alphabet, and how in the long run, this results in signs completely functioning in English.

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ALPHABET Ante Portas: HOW ENGLISH TEXT INVADES JAPANESE PUBLIC SPACE
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