Japan at a Loss for Words : More and More Young Japanese Have Trouble Expressing Themselves in Their Native Language

Article excerpt

If you want proof that the Japanese language is in decline, just watch a few parliamentary debates and press conferences on Japanese TV. You won't see politicians talking about what can be done to improve language skills among the country's youth. Rather, you'll see government officials misusing their own language. In one memorable 1997 press conference, the politician Koko Sato, who had been convicted in a payoff scandal, tried to redeem himself by saying that "it is better to forget the past." Unfortunately, Sato botched the old Sino-Japanese phrase he was trying to use, and ended telling the viewing public that "too much is as bad as too little."

Sato isn't the only politician with language issues. Recently, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi called himself a "bokya-hin," or a person lacking vocabulary. It seems he's governing a nation of such people. Last May a group of university deans announced the results of a survey showing that a majority of Japanese college students have difficulty expressing themselves fully and clearly in their own language. Throughout Japan, linguistic skills have been in a downward spiral for at least a decade. Young people who read less and watch more TV than ever before regularly stumble over old proverbs, miss the subtleties of polite expressions and even mistake one written character for another.

Japanese is considered one of the world's most difficult languages. Grammar is complicated, and the meanings of words are multifaceted. There are also three different kinds of written characters--ancient Chinese characters known as kanji, Japanese letters called hiragana and katakana, the characters used for foreign words. Many young people struggle with kanji, which are often used to express more sophisticated ideas. The language troubles may be a symptom of broader learning defecits: young people also lack familiarity with Western classics well known to their educated elders. One popular weekly TV show recently gave passers-by a fill-in-the-blanks quiz, in Japanese, on Caesar's famous last words. A 25-year-old woman completed the phrase as "You are cheerful, Brutus." A high-school boy wrote, "You are Brutus, right?" "The results are alarming," says Fumihiko Ono, the show's producer. "I'm shocked by how little they know."

Every school year, 67-year-old veteran high-school teacher Keigo Yoshizumi likes to give students a quiz of his own. …