Do Japanese Tend to Think There’s One Standard English?
Do Japanese Canadians Speak One of Many Kinds of English?
Whether we speak English or Japanese, the language we use daily, strictly speaking, differs from one person to another. In linguistics, they use the word idiolect to mean the language and speech pattern of one individual (its antonym is dialect, meaning language spoken in one geographical region). Language is an important part of our sense of self-identity, so one cannot casually tell someone your English (Japanese) is like this or like that without risking offense to his/her sense of self-esteem.
Be that as it may, for one who has been living off language—writing, speaking (interpreting) and in recent years teaching (i.e. more learning)—starting with part-time English-teaching jobs back in high school days, language to this day remains a fascinating subject, not unlike the pleasure a collector of watches or guitars might derive from admiring and touching a collection of finely-crafted timepieces.
I’d like to take a brief look at what the English language might mean for people in Japan and for Nikkei people. The hook, so to speak, is a recent decision by Uniqlo Co Ltd, the giant low-cost apparel retail chain in Japan, to make English its official working language, in order to boost its global operations. As the move followed similar earlier decisions by two other corporate giants, Nissan and Rakuten, it reignited the sputtering controversy over the adoption of English issue which goes back to a proposal mooted by the government a decade ago. Many of the arguments I have looked at, both pro and con, are somewhat hackneyed, but my over-riding impression is that one key question of What kind of English? has not been adequately explored.
One critic of moves to adopt English, writer Hideaki Matsunaga said it was a misconception (kanchigai) to think that the language of the United States and Britain was global and other languages including Japanese were local. Its better to emphasize the learning of second and third languages to promote multi-lingualization rather than to adopt English, Mr Matsunaga argued. The view that learning English is tantamount to being obsequious to Britain and the US has been around for a long time in Japan. But in this day and age, when English has been the most widely used language of international business for over half a century probably, I would have to say rejecting it that way is rather narrow-minded as well as impractical.
It might be a national trait, but many Japanese seem to feel insecure unless they have something they can call correct standard English that they can work toward. In my opinion, global English should have enough scope and latitude to cover everything from the standard English of Britain and the US (the real McCoy?) to the simplified, rough-hewn English that, for instance, a Slovakian, a Brazilian, a Thai and a Japanese might rely on for substantial communication at work or in a business situation.
In North America alone, many kinds of English are spoken, from the way some Chinese or Latino folks speak to the ways Italian or Jewish Americans tend to speak, with varying degrees of closeness to standard English. There is also the Southern drawl and the way many African Americans tend to speak. Overseas, there are also countries and territories like the Philippines, Guam, Marshall Islands on the Pacific side and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean that are, or used to be, governed by the US.
Then there are also more than 50 countries which used to be colonies and territories of the British Empire that once extended to parts of all five continents. Apart from countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where British emigrants settled, there are former colonies including Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Pakistan and others in Asia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and so on in Africa and countries around the Caribbean. In these countries, English is either the official language or a widely-used second language. Allowing for local variances from standard English including regional accents and vocabulary, people don’t think of English, which they can pick up, as hardship, so they don’t feel any resistance to English as the global language of business either.
To gauge how well English is understood among people in general, news reporters often cite taxi drivers. In these former British colonies, they usually understand destinations and might even be able to chit chat in English. As a matter of interest, in Singapore, where I lived for 16 years before moving to Canada 13 years ago, English was understood by all taxi drivers and shop clerks, whereas in Hong Kong, it is conventional wisdom that many taxi drivers only understand Cantonese.
Why the difference between the two former British colonies? Maybe because the former developed as a the crossroads of trade in Southeast Asia, while the latter, along with Shanghai, has long thrived as a key port city on the coast of mainland China.
There is a group of languages collectively referred to as pidgin that evolved in port cities in Asia, on the Pacific rim and elsewhere, where the locals serving and doing business with foreign merchants, seamen, sailors and so on developed a simplified form of English for basic conversation. Each of them a functioning language in its own right linguistically, a quick check reveals that varieties of pidgin number nearly 50, including Chinese-type, Japanese-type, Maori-type and even Nigerian-type. In the case of Japan, there is old pidgin, the simplified English that evolved in Yokohama and Kobe, ports that began receiving many foreign merchant ships after the Meiji Restoration. Then there is also new pigeon that evolved between the GIs who were stationed in Japan after World War II and Japanese people working in industries serving them.
One unique and fascinating pidgin is the one Hawaiians use. Its vocabulary is largely English but many words of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog and Portuguese origin are also used. It is a variant of English that evolved among immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal (mostly the Azores), the Philippines, Spain and so on, who arrived in droves during the 19th century. By the early 20th century, there was a second generation who spoke pidgin as their first language. Native Kanaka words are used for animal and plant names for instance, like ahi for tuna. The men call each other brada or bra (for brother), and they swap jokes about haole (white man) struggling with pidgin.
They also make fun of each other’s racial traits all the time. It is a lively language expressing the esprit of outgoing Hawaiians.
After the war in the Pacific erupted with the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor about 70 years ago, Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans in North America were forcibly interned, while Nikkeijin in Hawaii were not. The latter were also given an opportunity to serve in the US Army. One of my best friends in the old days, who has since passed away, was a Japanese American from Hawaii. He used to tell me about differences between the somewhat reserved mainland Japanese Americans and the more extrovert Hawaiian Japanese Americans. Arising from their respective historical background and living environment, these differences appear in their language (English), including the use or non-use of pidgin.
Now we come to the English of the Nikkei people in Canada and the US. If I may comment based on my limited experiences and knowledge, it is as close as one can get to standard English. Having inherited a national trait of placing high value on diligence, and having had to work hard to be accepted into North American society at large after enduring the hardships and humiliation of forced internment, it is perhaps to be expected that they speak English normally. By as close as one can get, I meant, for instance, that their vocabulary would contain more Japanese words than standard English. I also wonder whether such Japanese words as gaman (endure) and shikataganai (it cannot be helped) that were oft spoken during the years of extreme hardship have been passed down to the gosei and rokusei generations.
Also, whether it is a strictly linguistic characteristic or not, the Nikkeijin compared to Americans in general, if not Canadians, seem to speak more politely. By that I mean I have never come across a Japanese Canadian or Japanese American swearing loudly and behaving boorishly in public in almost 20 years of life in North America.
After Japan, through her high economic growth period, joined the ranks of advanced nations and after the US and Canadian governments officially apologized and made some compensation in the late 1980s for their suffering in the past, Japanese North Americans have been able to live their lives without worrying too much about prejudice against Japanese culture for some time now. I wonder how many Japanese words still remain in their English, and whether new words have been adopted. There must be many readers who have first-hand knowledge.
By seizing the opportunity of this mini-trend in Japan toward the adoption of English led by the corporate sector, I wonder if it would be possible to somehow strengthen linguistic ties between the Japanese in Japan, who tend to aspire toward standard English, and Japanese Canadians, who speak standard English and also understand the sentiments and culture of Japanese people better than North Americans in general. It’s just an idea, but it would be nice.