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Review of  Loanwords in Japanese

Reviewer: Hiroshi Matsumoto
Book Title: Loanwords in Japanese
Book Author: Mark Irwin
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 24.1739

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This monograph aims to present a comprehensive and thoroughly descriptive analysis of loanwords in the Japanese language. The author examines Japanese loanwords from various angles encompassing history/historical linguistics, phonology, morphology, semantics, and orthography. The volume sheds light on Japanese people’s attitudes toward loanwords as well.

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” lays out this volume’s theoretical underpinnings. Academically, the book pertains to the research area of “lexical borrowing.” The area of lexical borrowing belongs to the larger umbrella of “language contact.” After this introductory information, the author explains the five vocabulary strata in Japanese -- (i) native, (ii) mimetic, (iii) Sino-Japanese, (iv) foreign, and (v) hybrid -- and examines the definition of the foreign stratum, which is also called “gairaigo.” The author defines “gairaigo” as “a foreign word which has undergone adaptation to Japanese phonology, has been borrowed into Japanese after the mid-16th century and whose meaning is, or has been, intelligible to the general speech community” (p. 10). The author clarifies the difference between “gairaigo” and “gaikokugo,” as the latter is a foreign word which has not yet undergone adaptation or whose meaning is still unintelligible to the general speech community. This chapter also shows the academic significance of the volume by providing the proportions of various lexical strata in Japanese over the past century. According to surveys examining the vocabulary used in various media (e.g. magazines, newspapers, school textbooks, pop song lyrics, and spoken words), the proportion of gairaigo vocabulary has risen consistently across most media since the first survey providing token data was conducted in 1906.

Chapter 2, “A history of Japanese loanwords,” examines the foreign stratum in Japanese from a historical point of view. According to his definition of “gairaigo,” the author shows three major phases of Japanese loanword history taking place “after the mid-16th century” (p. 23). The first phase deals with the Iberian (i.e. Portuguese and Spanish) borrowings taking place from the mid-16th to the mid 17th century. The widely comprehended loanwords from Portuguese include both religious and secular terminology, such as “kirišito” (now “kirisuto” for Christ), “paN” (for bread), “karuta” (for traditional playing cards), “kaQpa” (for raincoat), “teNpura'' (for deep-fried seafood or vegetables), “igirisu” (for England/UK), “oraNda” (for Holland), and “porutogaru” (for Portugal). The second phase refers to the Dutch borrowings from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century. During this 220-year period, the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to trade/have contact with Japan because of the Edo shogunate’s isolation policy. The chapter shows a comprehensive list of gairaigo examples from Dutch, such as “reNzu” (for lens), “karuki” (for bleaching powder), “korera” (for cholera), “mesu” (for scalpel), “biiru” (for beer), “gomu” (for rubber) “raNdoseru” (for backpack/satchel), and “sukoQpu” (for shovel/scoop). Dutch borrowings occurred mainly in two areas of vocabulary: medical/scientific and mercantile. The third phase is the Western borrowings occurring from the mid-19th century to present day. Propelled by the Meiji Restoration and following rapid westernization policies, many loanwords flooded the Japanese language. Main donor languages were initially those of the pre-World War I European Great Powers that the Meiji government modeled its national institutions after: Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. By the turn of the 20th century, however, English inexorably became, by far, the most powerful donor language due to the rise of American economic and political power. Again, this chapter shows a comprehensive list of gairaigo vocabulary from each donor language: from Russian, “uoQka” (for vodka), “ikura” (for salmon roe, although the original Russian word refers to fish roe in general), and “noruma” (for quota or allotted task); from French, “meetoru” (for metre), “zoboN” (for trousers), “saboru” (for skip/miss a class or work), “bifuteki” (for steak), “omurecu” (for omelette), “piimaN” (for green pepper), “jaNru” (for genre), “ečikeQto” (for etiquette), and “aNkeeto” (for questionnaire); from German, “arubaito” (for part-time job), “arerugii” (for allergy), “karute” (for doctor’s card/note), “uirusu” (for virus), “reNtogeN” (for x-ray), and “ryuQkusaQku (for rucksack/backpack); from English (the list shows the twenty most frequent gairaigo due to its enormous number), “taipu” (for type), “saizu” (for size), “šisutemu” (for system), and “biru” (for building). Chapter 2 concludes by succinctly showing East Asian borrowings from the mid-16th century, such as those from Chinese, Korean, and Ainu languages.

Chapter 3, “Phonology,” provides an extensive and purely descriptive account of Japanese loanword phonology. First, the author shows both traditional and contemporary phonemic systems in standard Japanese. Based on his definition of “gairaigo” as having “undergone adaptation to Japanese phonology” (p. 10), the author outlines gairaigo phonological adaptation processes in Japanese while presuming the foreign word sources to be mainly orthographic rather than auditory. The Japanese archipelago has no land borders with other countries, and therefore, historically, borrowing in Japan has occurred mainly without much direct auditory contact. More specifically, this chapter describes gairaigo phonological adaptation processes by dividing them into two major strategies: (i) phonetic substitution (i.e. a speaker replaces a sound in a donor language with one in her/his native language); and (ii) epenthesis (i.e. a speaker inserts additional phonemes). Examples of (i) include: /f/ --> /h/ (Dutch “koffie” becomes “koohii”), /v/ --> /b/ (English “veteran” becomes “beteraN”), /θ/ --> /s/ (English “marathon” becomes “marasoN”), and /ð/ --> /z/ (English “leather” becomes “rezaa”). As for (ii), both vowel epenthesis and mora obstruent epenthesis examples are shown. Then, a third and rather minor strategy occurring in gairaigo adaptation is added: (iii) deletion, which takes place in auditory sources. Furthermore, suprasegmental issues, such as pitch accents, are examined. Finally, mora-clipping processes are depicted, while dividing them into: (a) back-clipping (i.e. “čokoreeto” --> “čoko”), (b) fore-clipping (i.e. “puraQtohoomu” --> “hoomu”), and (c) mid-clipping (i.e. “eNtaateemeNto” --> “eNtame”).

In Chapter 4, “Morphology, morphophonology and semantics,” the author deals with three areas of Japanese loanword studies. As for the areas of (a) morphology and (b) morphophonology, Irwin examines elements related to the structure of various loanwords, such as (1) morphemes, (2) morphological reduction, and (3) compound phenomena. Regarding (1), morphemes, more specifically, this chapter deals with such topics as: (1-i) a part of speech, that is, many gairaigo functioning as nouns and verbs (e.g. “anauNsu”/“anauNsu suru” and “puropoozu”/“puropoozu suru”); and (1-ii) prefixes and suffixes attached to gairaigo (i.e. “amerika-sei” and “furaNsu-šiki”). Regarding (2), morphological reduction, the author depicts various patterns where donor words are shorn of their native morphology, such as plurals, past participles, and possessives: “rediifaasuto” (from “ladies first”), “sarariimaN” (from “salaried man”), and “”bareNtainNdee” (from “Valentine’s Day”). With respect to (3), compound phenomena, this chapter presents the issues of: (3-i) compound reduction (including both [3-i-i] compound clipping: “waapuro” deriving from “waado” + “puroseQsaa” and “jiipaN” from “jiiNzu” + “paNcu”, and [3-i-ii] ellipsis: “suupaa” from “suupa” + “maakeQto” and “paato” from “paato” + “taimu”); and (3-ii) sequential voicing, such as “amagaQpa” from “ama” + “kaQpa”. Finally, this chapter examines the area of (c), loanword semantics. The author examines the issues of homophony, semantic shift (i.e. “ikura” referring to “salmon roe” deriving from the Russian word signifying “fish roe,” and “”kaNniNgu” referring to “cheating on an examination” originally coming from the English word “cunning”), and “semantic ally remodeled” (or “SR”) gairaigo compounds, also called “waseieigo,” (e.g. “gasoriNsutaNdo,” “wookumaN,” and “haroowaaku”).

In Chapter 5, “Orthography,” the author underscores the diachronic instability, or acute historical change of gairaigo orthography, and explicates how it changed over time. First, the author shows that modern Japanese is written with various scripts: Chinese characters, two syllabaries (i.e. hiragana and katakana), the Roman alphabet, Arabic numerals, and a range of punctuation marks and typographical symbols. Irwin explains how hiragana and katakana evolved from kanji characters (named phonograms) that were based on their phonetic values. For example, ancient Japanese “kumwo” (cloud) could also be written with two phonograms. The number of strokes in these phonograms gradually decreased and resulted in hiragana and katakana beginning in the 9th century. Then, he shows how the three major scripts of the modern Japanese language (i.e. kanji, hiragana, and katakana) are used with a good deal of functional differentiations now. In contrast with modern Japanese, Irwin explicates how dramatically the loanword orthography changed historically/diachronically. During the Iberian borrowing phase (i.e. mid-16th to mid-17th century), most loanwords were written in hiragana, while some were in kanji. Though they did not invent it, Jesuit missionaries during this phase were the first to use, in print, the diacritic “handakuten,” placed on the h-row kana to indicate /p/. During the Dutch borrowing phase (i.e. mid-17th to mid-19th century), on the contrary, katakana was the main script to write loanwords. During the Western borrowing period, research shows that approximately 50-80% of all gairaigo were written in kanji. However, it was Monbushō (1955) who determined the general directions and rules for post-War gairaigo orthography and that such words be written in katakana. Finally, the National Institute for Japanese Language (NINJAL, 1984) analyzed more contemporary loanword spelling practice and showed how divorced the contemporary reality was from Monbushō (1955).

Chapter 6, “Attitudes to loanwords,” examines various studies that have surveyed people’s attitudes toward loanwords, such as BBK (2000), BBK (2003), BBK (2008), and NINJAL (2004a). Two major results are revealed. First, comprehension of loanwords, especially more recent ones, tends to become weaker with advancing age. Secondly, although some people consider loanwords as a threat to their Japanese culture and tradition in a linguistically imperialistic light, there are still many other people who accept them as essential in a more advanced and democratic society. Then, the author shows that public perceptions still tend to be negative toward the use of many difficult-to-understand loanwords in government office literature, despite various agencies’ efforts to improve them.


My evaluation examines the following elements regarding this monograph:

(1) Main goal and significance;
(2) Scope (how thoroughly the intended scope is covered), including the quality of each chapter;
(3) Sequencing and organization (whether the chapters are sequenced and organized in a natural way);
(4) Overall quality.

The main goal of this monograph is to present a comprehensive and purely descriptive analysis of Japanese loanwords. The author sheds light on Japanese loanwords in a systematic way and from various angles, such as historical, phonological, morphological, and orthographic. Judging from the amount of information included, this monograph really seems to be “the product of a great deal of labor,” as the author writes (p. XIX in the acknowledgements section). This volume significantly contributes to the progress of Japanese linguistics research in the 21st century. Like other academic studies, Japanese linguistics research also has to address many topics closely pertinent to the needs of our rapidly changing world. This monograph by Irwin demonstrates a great deal of significance in this time of acute globalization and constant language contact. However, there may still be a few inaccuracies or room for further scrutiny, especially concerning whether each of the listed words should be regarded as a “gairaigo” or “gaikokugo.” In Table 1.2 (p. 12), for instance, /howaitodee/ (for the semantically remodeled compound “White Day”) and /tere/ (for “telephone” or “telephone number”) are treated as “gaikokugo.” On the contrary, the author deals with /tere/ as “gairaigo” in Table 5.4 (p. 187). In addition, Table 5.4, entitled “Orthographic practice for the 20 most frequent gairaigo in magazines (extracted from NINJAL 2006a),” shows only 18 loanwords, not 20.

Regarding the scope, the contents of this volume are rich in the areas of history, phonology, and orthography, but on the other hand, relatively lean in semantics and attitudes to loanwords. The area of semantics deserves one full chapter, however, it is merely one of the four sections included in Chapter 4. There are only four pages dedicated to it (pp. 153-157) in this volume. As a point of comparison, in his volume about general Japanese linguistics, Shibatani (2001) dedicates seven pages to discussing the topic of loanwords and approximately two pages to addressing semantics-related issues.

In addition, the last chapter about people’s attitudes toward loanwords appears as the weakest in Irwin’s monograph. If the author had intended to explore a sociolinguistic approach to the study of Japanese loanwords through Chapter 6, then he might have considered shedding light on, for instance, “Wakamono-kotoba” (young people’s language) and the role of loanwords in it. Furthermore, Irwin’s definition of Japanese loanwords as “borrowed into Japanese after the mid-16th century” (p. 10) might require further discussion. For instance, Miller (1967) extensively discusses Sanskrit loanwords that entered the Japanese language during ancient times. He shows not only Buddhist words, but also commonly-used everyday words in modern Japanese, such as “kawara” (ceramic roof tile) and “sara” (plate).

Regarding sequencing and organization, many chapters seem naturally sequenced and their contents are developed in a logical way. Again, the contents of Chapter 1 (Introduction), Chapter 2 (A history of Japanese loanwords), Chapter 3 (Phonology), and Chapter 5 (Orthography) seem well written and demonstrate very natural and logical progressions from one chapter to another. The contents of Chapter 6 (Attitudes toward loanwords) seem a bit disconnected from other chapters. One may question why the author wanted to include this chapter because, in general, the very final chapter should give readers a lasting and strong impression about the entire volume and its significance. On the contrary, the contents of this chapter are not as clear and well-organized as other chapters, and thus, it may give many readers a sense of incompleteness.

As a whole, this monograph attests to the author’s hard work, providing a great amount of detailed analyses regarding Japanese loanwords. Target audiences of readers, such as graduate students and researchers in the area of Japanese linguistics, will surely be inspired by the many useful insights of this volume. Readers will be greatly intrigued, especially by Chapters 2 (A history of Japanese loanwords) and Chapter 3 (Phonology), as they demonstrate the author’s extremely detailed and painstaking linguistic analyses. In spite of some shortcomings and room for further clarity, “Loanwords in Japanese” provides useful and timely knowledge to many readers in the midst of this rapidly changing 21st century world.


BBK (= Bunkachō Bunka Kokugoka) (2000). Kokugo ni kansuru yoronchōsa heisei 12-nen 1-gatsu. Tokyo: Ōkurasho Insatsukyoku.

BBK (2003). Kokugo ni kansuru yoronchōsa heisei 14-nen 11/12-gatsu. Tokyo: Ōkurasho Insatsukyoku.

BBK (2008). Kokugo ni kansuru yoronchōsa heisei 20-nen 3-gatsu. Tokyo: Gyōsei.

Miller, R. A. (1967). The Japanese language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Monbushō (1955). Gairaigo no hyōki. Tokyo: Meiji Tosho.

NINJAL (= Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo; National Institute for the Japanese Language) (1984). Hōkoku 79; Zasshi 90-shu shiryō no gairaigohyōki. Tokyo: Shūei Shuppan.

NINJAL (2004a). Gairaigo ni kansuru ishiki chōsa. Tokyo: Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo.

NINJAL (2006a). Gendai Zasshi 2,000,000-ji gengo chōsa goihyō kōkaiban, ver. 1.0.

Shibatani, M. (2001). The language of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hiroshi Matsumoto is Associate Professor of Japanese language and linguistics at Soka University of America, California. His research interests include (1) Japanese lexicon (especially, loanwords and mimetic words), (2) various errors and idiosyncratic features (among native and non-native speakers of Japanese), and (3) salient linguistic characteristics of authentic Japanese language materials such as movies, animations, newspapers, novels, and essays.