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An alleyway in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo [Photo: Matteo Colombo]

On the love of bread-headed superheroes

Or: Who put the J in J-Pop?

In 1853, after 220 years of isolation, Japan opened its doors to the world. Since the end of Sakoku or its “closed country” policy, Japan has blossomed into one of the greatest exporters of cultural phenomena and is arguably one of the preeminent pop-culture superpowers on the planet. From Godzilla to Pokémon, Mario and Hello Kitty to Doraemon and J-pop, from consumer electronics to cars, Japan is a massive exporter of hardware and ‘soft’-culture. Even Japanese words like anime, bokeh, bonsai, cosplay, emoji, futon, honcho, karaoke, kimono, sumo, tofu, tsunami, tycoon, typhoon and zen, to name but a few, have made permanent impressions on foreign lexicons.

First contact

In the year 2,000, or precisely 147 years after Commodore Perry’s four Black Ships appeared in Tokyo Bay, belching black smoke and threats, I arrived at Kansai International Airport, albeit more quietly and less consequentially. Prior to this, pretty much my only exposure to the country was limited to a handful of remote and crude stereotypes. Japan had made my first Walkman and my father’s red Subaru GL 4WD—terribly exotic in the English countryside, in the 1980s.

But neither of these products, however magical or exotic, induced me to settle in Japan. Instead, as is so often the case in life, a random, chance event changed the trajectory of my life. A Mancunian friend, a doctor and physicist gifted me a copy of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a short novel by Yukio Mishima. About 200 Japanese novels later and I was hooked—on the literature and the country.

Some speak of culture shock when first arriving in Japan, and although I never experienced it, the language was its most challenging aspect. It led to countless faux pas followed by moments of profound embarrassment, when I wished I had had immediate access to Doraemon’s dokodemo door; but on the whole, despite my linguistic ineptitude, it was a profoundly rich and enlightening experience—even if I was using shampoo as shower gel and fabric softener instead of washing liquid for the best part of my first year.

At first, Japanese appears inscrutable. Its writing system is arguably the most difficult to learn in the world. It comprises four scripts. First, in the Japanese scripts hierarchy, and the most difficult to learn, are kanji (originally from China), then there are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana (in use since the eighth and ninth centuries) and finally romaji, the use of the Latin alphabet to romanize Japanese.

And, if that isn’t enough, then, you can add the informal kaomoji or Japanese emoticons, from the simple cute smiling face (.❛ᴗ❛.) to the considerably more elaborate surprised spider (/╲/\╭[☉﹏☉]╮/\╱\).

Doraemon and friends exiting the dokodemo (anywhere) door, which permits travel to . . . anywhere. [Photo: Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum, 2013.]

Adopt, adapt, assimilate

In Japan, loan words from countries other than China are known as gairaigo, and although Japanese still uses gairaigo from languages other than English, like, for example tempura (originally from Portuguese), the majority of loan words are from English, with most of those added since the end of World War Two. The proliferation and assimilation of English loanwords has often been a topic of scholarly study and debate. For brevity’s sake, the continued popularity of thousands of English loanwords in Japanese can be broadly explained by three main factors:

First is simplicity or ease of adoption. Owing to Japanese kana, its syllabaries, English words are very easily transliterated into Japanese. Once you learn Japanese kana, hiragana and katakana, easily learned within a week, then just about any English word can easily be reproduced. Thus, for example, typography becomes タイポ グ ラ フ ィ (Ta/i/po/gu/ra/fi). As there is no “gr” sound in Japanese its closest neighbor in Japanese, the syllable gu (グ) syllable is used.

Second, as lexical-gap fillers; that is when a word does not have an equivalent, one is imported. Many technological terms have been adopted this way; for example, sofuto wea (ソフトウェア) for “software.”

Third, for effect or emphasis. English loan words are used in advertising to lend products an air of prestige or sophistication. The meaning of those words may not be understood, but people recognize them as English, and that association makes products seem modern or exotic. English words are also used in a euphemistic or softening sense; for example, ローン (loan) is frequently used in place of the Japanese words for loan (shakkin 借金 or kashitsuke 貸し付け) because the English does not carry the negative connotations or perceived financial impoverishment of the Japanese equivalents.

Similarly, for taboo or embarrassing topics, one might prefer English words; for example, the common use of the English word kiss (kisu). Of course, Japanese has a perfectly acceptable word of its own for kiss. But for many, especially the younger generation, the Japanese せっぷん (seppun) typically sounds a little too formal, like something your grandparents would do.

My favorite aspect of Japanese loanwords is how they are transformed. For example, a convenience store in Japanese is shortened to konbini (コンビニ). With no v-sound in Japanese, the b-substitution makes it peculiarly Japanese. To this day, I always think of those stores as konbini. And pasokon (パソコン), is the abbreviation of “personal computer.”

Bread-headed superheroes

Couldn’t the Japanese simply jettison their scripts entirely and romanize the entire language, as even some Japanese were proposing during the Meiji era (1868–1912)? Indeed, they could. But then, Japan is a highly educated, very literate society and its incredibly complex writing system has not proven to be a hindrance. Indeed, it is a vital part of what it means to be Japanese; it is woven into the Japanese national psyche.

The combinations of scripts through centuries of use have given rise to myriad nuances that would be lost entirely if Japan abandoned kanji and kana in favor of Latin. As Steven Roger Fisher wrote in The History of Writing: “Writing systems and scripts are not simple tools but cornerstones of society.” The Japanese willingness to adopt English words reflects a quietly optimistic pragmatism, a thoroughly Japanese trait. It does not fear that lexical assimilation will dilute or adulterate their cultural traditions. Instead they, on the whole, see it as an opportunity to augment and enrich it.

Many childhood crazes of the past 30 years originated in Japan—in part because of this willingness to adopt and adapt. And who better to personify this optimistic pragmatism than the superhero of anime fame, Anpanman? Made of bean-paste filled bread, his head is a target for his innumerable foes, but Uncle Jam is always on hand to bake him a new one. With perseverance and sacrifice, good will always wins out. The world could do with more bread-headed superheroes like Anpanman.

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