Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is That What We Have Decided To Call It?

A few weeks ago, in comments to my post on my unhappiness with the Kurokawa Report and its farcical release problems, I was mocked for asserting:
The rule of thumb is when katakana eigo is used for a new term, it is with the goal of letting elites to speak to other elites, excluding the common run of humanity. This is doubly so in this case where the transliterated English term is used to purportedly explain the kanji+kana term.
This was in reference of the report's usage of the English word "mindset," transliterated into Japanese (maindosetto) and then used as the explanation of a perfectly good Japanese term (omoikomi).

A commenter replied:
As a native Japanese speaker I don't think Kurokawa is "talking to elites" by using katakana. (Where did you get this idea after all? It's sooooo outdated a notion, like in the 1980s.)
It is true I am not a native speaker. As a consequence I do not get an automatic pass on the validity/dubiousness of my ideas. I have to present evidence.

Such as the Prime Minister's testimony in the Diet yesterday:

"There are, as we had in our little debate earlier regarding the mai namba, many different related points. Or, that we have to quickly set up of the People's Consultative Body and such things -- these too exist. Yes, the fundamental reforms of the pension and social welfare systems, but aside from those, bills other than the fundamental reforms, various other big bills are left, such as the special bond issuance bill. For this and bills like it, I believe it my responsibility to see them through."
What caught my attention here, aside from the bald inference "You think I am going to call a snap election after the passage of fundamental reforms of the pension and social welfare system? Keep dreaming...." was the mai namba.

Now I am a native speaker of English, so I know that mai namba is a transliteration of "my number." Since I am not always on top of the latest euphemism, I confess I had a moment's confusion. Then I thought, "Oh wait, if I wanted to keep folks from getting riled up about their being assigned a tax identification number (zeikin kanren mibun shomei bango) and were not confident enough even to semi-cloak it in a social welfare gauze (shakai hosho -- zei bango*), would refer to it with friendly, personal-sounding and foreign-language moniker. 'It's My Number. Mine. Just for me! Yippee!'"

So, perhaps mine is not a sooooo oudated notion after all...

As for what the assignment of a mai namba will do to improve the government's ability to claw taxes from out of the populace, contact Richard Katz.


* The current technical term for the number.


Ryutaro Uchiyama said...

Thank you for pointing this out. I wholeheartedly agree. This is an illness that's slowly debilitating public communication in Japan. Is it not acceptable to coin words in kanji anymore? I'm no uyoku--I recognize that kanji can have cumbersome, at times authoritarian, connotations that do not neatly match the sleek, weightless aesthetic of today. But it would still be a hell of a lot better than pumping into circulation katakana eigo that at times amount to little more than handwaves gracefully generated from the muscles of one's throat.

Is this cultural tendency rooted in feelings of guilt and mild dread towards a dimly emerging self-awareness of our cultural insularity? and of its potential to suffocate in a globalized world? If that is the case (which I agree it is perhaps not), let me tell you, senpai, that your fancy words will not be of any help. Yametekure!

Troy said...

still kinda dubious. . .

"my numba" is the official term for this, no?

Makes sense they'd refer to such a computer-connected term with a wasei loanword.

Same reason NTT earlier chose the term for its product, actually.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Yes,but is his number up?


MTC said...

Troy -

Thank you for the wonderful reference!

The point still stands, however. The offical or press kanji terms make quite clear what the My Number is for -- while the use of loan words gives no clue about the functions of managing your social benefits and assigning you a tax ID number.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

Beautifully succint.

"My Car" = a good thing

"My Home" = a good thing

"My Number" has got to be a good thing too, right?

Martin J Frid said...

Since having a number for each an every one of us is a foreign concept (US social security number, Swedish personnummer, etc.) why should it not be katakana? It is a foreign concept, after all.

Hoofin said...

It sounds like tax or social insurance protesting. People have had numbers associated with their names throughout the 20th century. I can't think of the number (heh heh) of numbers that I was issued while I was in Japan.

Anonymous said...

You claim to watch Japanese television and read Japanese newspapers. I don't see how that could be true. There is exhaustive and critical coverage of the My Number proposal, and it's made very clear, right up front, in all coverage, exactly what it is. If there is any confusion, it's in the first two seconds of initially seeing the word.

Read Japanese advertisements. Look at shop names. Read a Japanese novel. The number of such coinages in government prose is much smaller.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

You write: "If there is any confusion, it's in the first two seconds of initially seeing the word."

Why should there be even two seconds of confusion? Why camouflage the true meaning of the term with a foreign neologism giving no hint as to what the function of mai namba is?

Putting a wall in between words and their meanings is bad form, especially when adults from all walks of life, not just those fluent in English, should, as democracy demands, know what is being done in their name.

You write: "Read Japanese advertisements. Look at shop names. Read a Japanese novel. The number of such coinages in government prose is much smaller."

Why should their be any such coinages in government prose? Advertisements are intended to induce to you to buy what you do not need. Shop names try to be cute or exotic but oft end up just weird or embarassing. Novels try to be just that, novel. Novelists also hope to foster an intimacy between the reader and the written word, in part through the use of magical language that the reader needs special knowledge to decode.

The language of government should lucid, succinct and truthful to the point of being boring.

John Campbell said...

Sticking bland, attractive names on proposals that will draw opposition has long been a standard political strategy around the world. It isn't even new for this issue--a similar proposal in the early 1980s was called グリーンカード and actually passed the Diet--but it was withdrawn after a great public protest (partly generated by banks asking everybody who came in the door to sign a petition). But the strategy goes beyond just the name. The administration has done a pretty good job at emphasizing that the number is needed to ascertain the income of poor people so a refund of the shouhizei hike can be determined. True, one can learn from news stories that it will also be possible to find the assets of rich people in all their bank accounts (or at least, of the less clever rich people) but the first point seems to prevail in the way the issue is usually framed. Just an impression,

Not making Japan adopt a social security number is probably the biggest blunder of the US occupation. It has crippled the ability of the government to have a rational tax policy (not to mention screwing up the pension system too). It is the best example, among so many, of Japan as a weak state.

MTC said...

Dr. Campbell -

Thank you for the history lesson.

As for the U.S. Occupation not assigning social security numbers to folks, I would think that the paranoia aroused by just the announcement of such a numbering system -- arising among the Communists, the Soka Gakkai following, ex-soldiers and the like -- would have led to civil unrest.