Cultural Conundrums / Extraordinary orthography: Katakana’s multifaceted expressiveness

Japanese people, in my experience, have a skewed understanding of how non-Japanese learners encounter the Japanese writing system. Every time the subject of learning to read and write arises, a Japanese person invariably says, “It must be difficult because there’s kanji, hiragana and katakana.” The statement is often accompanied by a counting gesture, emphasizing the threefold challenge. But the struggle lies not in the existence of three writing systems, but in the fact that one of them, kanji, is an unwieldy monster, requiring years of devotion to master sufficiently, for Japanese and non-Japanese alike. Hiragana and katakana can be learned in a few days or hours even.

And yet recently, after almost 40 years in Japan, I’ve found myself more often briefly stumped by long sequences of katakana, rather than kanji. Like a child learning to read English, I painstakingly pronounce each one, hoping that their total will somehow reveal a recognizable word. Sometimes the resultant word is not one I’d have expected, adding to the impenetrability. Learners of Japanese are typically taught that katakana is used for foreign loan words, but it takes center stage in many other instances as well. Three researchers reveal just how acrobatic katakana is.

Naoko Hosokawa, a researcher on the relationship between language and national identity, emphasizes the role of katakana not just in expressing foreign words, but in expressing Japanese names as a means of viewing the name — and the holder of the name — as a member of the international community, transcending national bounds. The names of famous Japanese people like Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Haruki Murakami and Hideki Matsui are often preceded by “sekai no” (world-class), followed by a katakana rendition of their names, and when the family and given names are both used, they are often presented in the Western order. The katakana is often wrapped in quotation marks or parentheses to further demonstrate how special and removed from daily life the grandees are.

These names have in effect been plucked from the mundane confines of kanji and released into the world at large via katakana. However, not everyone is granted this distinction. Hosokawa notes that one 2017 newspaper excerpt states, “It is Yoshitomo Tsutsugo that the Major League Baseball experts expect to be the successor of Hideki Matsui,” but only Matsui gets the katakana treatment, with Yamamoto’s name written in kanji. He may be Matsui’s successor, yet he’s not kakatana status quite yet.

Other words that have been co-opted by the international community similarly take on katakana orthography, like “emoji,” “omotenashi” and “mottainai” to express the expansion of the scope of relevance. More somberly, names of Japanese places that were sites of tragic occurrences are similarly represented in katakana, such as Fukushima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These places are no longer merely geographical locations but rather are imbued with profound significance, and the use of katakana indicates this layered meaning. Hosokawa suggests that through katakana, names, concepts and places are “de-semanticized” and “re-semanticized.”

Sociolinguist Yumiko Cochrane has further shown how katakana can distinguish between two related meanings of a Japanese word, as well as draw attention to the speaker. Cochrane examined how “kusuri” (illegal drug/pharmaceutical medicine) and “arigato” (thank you) were written in news and magazine articles as well as columns on the online new site Yahoo! Japan over four years ending in April 2018. Either kanji or hiragana were the dominant way of writing both words, but the choice to use katakana occasionally did not appear random.

There were 82 articles that expressed “kusuri” as katakana, compared to 1,884 that wrote it in kanji, and just 39 that used hiragana. Of those using katakana, 74% were related to illegal drugs, not pharmaceutical medicine. The katakana added a murky property to the word, nudging readers to heightened awareness of the specific meaning in play.

Sixty-two articles wrote “arigato” using katakana, many fewer than the 11, 631 articles that used hiragana, and about half the frequency of the 133 articles that wrote “arigato” in kanji. Katakana was mainly used in quotes from non-native speakers of Japanese, 69% in direct quotes, and 5% in indirect citations of utterances, acting as a de facto accent or nationality indicator. Only 8% were used in the quote of a native Japanese speaker, and Cochrane points out that these were special cases, for example, the words of a 5-year-old or the transcription of a voice on radio airwaves during World War II, effectively non-standard communications.

Taking a different tack, applied Japanese linguist Wesley Robertson made an in-depth study of the use of katakana representing “I” in the nine main volumes of the manga “Bunny Drop,” from 2006-2011. A first-person pronoun is used by teenage males 111 times, and for 110 (99%) of these it is written in katakana. Conversely, of the 430 first-person pronouns used by adult men in the manga, 414 (96%) are written in kanji.

While the use of katakana vs. kanji to some degree relates to the particular pronoun used — “boku” or “ore” — Robertson notes that one character, Daikichi, and his father are both adults, so their pronouns are written in kanji, but Daikichi uses “ore” and his father “boku.” He further observes that in the 4% of cases in which an adult male’s pronoun is written in katakana, the character has behaved in a puerile or garish way. In contrast to the male first-person pronouns, 316 out of 321, or 98%, of the female characters’ first-person pronouns are written in hiragana and the remainder in kanji, with no katakana employed, even when they similarly behave immaturely or brashly. At least for Bunny Drop’s creator, Yumi Unita, katakana appears to index a specifically male attitude or manifestation.

Katakana functions as turbo-charged italics, amplifying the special quality of what it expresses. I still don’t agree with the assessment that learning to read and write Japanese is especially troublesome because of its three writing systems, but I’ll certainly assent to any assertion that the Japanese writing system is marvelous in its capability of adding a palpable frisson as deemed appropriate through its third orthography.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.