Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

24. Discriminatory words and linguistic taboos

0. Introductory notes by the editors

It is sociolinguistically of interest that linguistic taboos seem to proliferate in a society as modernized and rationalistic as Japan. In Western society, although taboos on sex and excretion seem to have weakened somewhat, linguistic expressions for sexual and racial matters are nonetheless problematical. In Japan the most serious linguistic taboo problems are related to pre-modern social ranks. It is dangerous in the mass media to use a word even related to this phenomenon. Books outlining words and expressions prohibited for use in the media have been published repeatedly.

A working group led by Dr. Sibata once examined the possibility of scientifically studying discriminatory word but had to abandon the plan because they could not be sure that the study could be executed in a purely objective manner.

This paper first appeared under a different title (without reference to ‘discriminatory words’) in a newspaper. The author’s objective attitude toward this precarious problem is clearly displayed in this paper.


1. Taboos attached to words

Apparently, in Bangladesh, civilities such as ‘Thank you’ and ‘Good-bye’ are not used very much. Although they are given in the dictionary, evidently their use is infrequent. This is not because the people of Bangladesh do not feel gratitude, or the sorrow of parting. Rather the opposite is closer to the truth. By uttering the words ‘Thank you’, the feeling of gratitude is lost with the words. By saying ‘Good-bye’, you are giving rise to the fear that you will never meet again.

Here we see one form of linguistic taboo. This kind of taboo exists not only in Bangladesh but in present day Japan as well. It may not be found in words like “Thank you’, or ‘Good-bye’ as it is in Bangladesh, and the words may be avoided for different reasons, but there are words which are not used because we are conscious of some social restraint. And it appears that recently these have been increasing rapidly.


2. Changes in discriminatory words

Together with post-war changes in values have come changes in language. However, unlike social systems, words do not lend themselves easily to rapid change, and since words have a character which is difficult for human beings to grasp, even though if there has been a change, it has not been sufficient to shake the foundations of Japanese. Some people may argue that there has been a drastic change in the written script, but that is different. Unlike the spoken word,

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