I had a session with my language instructor the other day where I learned a few interesting insights into the language and culture that go well beyond speaking the language (I am awful at it as I travel in and out of Japan too often).
If you wonder about the Japanese accent when they speak English it is not because of their ability to say a word, it is because of how the Japanese approach language. In their culture, there are a fixed number of language sounds (a little over 100). If you learn those sounds, you can speak any word in Japanese, which technically makes the language simpler to learn. This is very different than English which has an infinite and always changing range of sounds. These are the only “sounds” in Japanese:
Therefore the Japanese take new words and attempt to fit them into the above patterns. For example: Australia fit into Japanese sounds becomes “Osutoraria” as those are sounds that match up to the above. The interesting thing about this is that when Japanese are speaking English (they learn it in Junior high), it also accentuates or exaggerates their accent as they attempt to “fit” the new word into their known language sounds.
It also explains why you will hear English words littered through a conversation as there is simply no way to fit the Japanese language sounds into certain words, so they remain English.
Forget about trying to read the language, it is a combination of 3 languages (Hiragana, Katakana and Chinese) which takes children 10+ years to learn and has 10’s of thousands of characters. Not going to happen for this westerner.
I hear that when you get out of Tokyo the English disappears. But I have noticed that all of the cars in Japan have an English name and no Japanese characters to be found. Find that odd. This taxi is a Toyota “comfort” .. apt name for a taxi. You will also note the bumper sticker (English) and the sticker in the window on the right side says “Thank-you Japan” (English). Odd.
I find it interesting that English is so prevalent in Japan. When speaking with someone on the topic a few weeks ago they suggested that it is due to the post WWII occupation by the United States. That may play a part in it, but I would wager that commerce also plays a big part and the universal nature of English as the language of business (I still remember being shocked to see English signs in Prague).
The other day I was walking down the street and noticed that almost all of the T-shirts were in English. In stores most of the songs are in English. Both of these make sense as commercialization would drives those products.
But it is the odd intermixed English in everyday life that does not make sense to me. The only logical reason I can come up with is because the Japanese language does not have a word for that place/thing. A simple example, sitting outside a surf shop last week having lunch and we noticed this in the window:
The question in my mind; why would the writer use the word ‘newsletter’ when all of the articles are in Japanese?
There are many other examples. For instance, I was in a very Japanese area of Tokyo and drove by an industrial shop that was filled with used equipment – what look liked machine shop equipment; compressors and such. The sign over the shop said “Used Machines” with no Japanese characters to be seen. I doubt that the use of English was driven by the shop owner’s desire to drive the expat banker clientele.