There’s a fine line between kindly simplifying the Japanese language and offensively dumbing it down for foreign readers.

Japan is currently lying in wait for the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis, which is threatening to be the strongest typhoon of the season. Currently classed as a violent typhoonthe highest classification on the typhoon scale — forecasters are hoping that the storm may weaken slightly as it approaches the mainland, but nobody is taking any chances with its potential to do extensive damage, especially in light of the problems caused by last month’s strong typhoon.

With safety at the forefront of everybody’s minds, news and weather agencies have been sending out updates and alerts to the public on Twitter, and on 9 October the national broadcaster, NHK, sent out an alert addressed to a specific subset of the public: foreigners.

The tweet reads:

“To all foreigners. Typhoon number 19 looks set to approach West to North Japan on 12-13 October. Typhoon number 19 is large and very strong. Please be careful.”

While there’s nothing wrong with the message, which has been sent out in the interests of protecting foreigners in Japan, some people are taking issue with the way the message has been written. Instead of using regular Japanese, which incorporates complex kanji characters, the message has been simplified to be written entirely in hiragana, the fundamental syllabary first learnt at the beginner stage of studying the language.

In its everyday usage, Japanese is generally never written out solely in hiragana, and some took offence to what they felt was a dumbing-down of the language for foreigners. Others mentioned that an all-hiragana message is much more confusing to read and comprehend than kanji, especially as it’s never written out this way.

Some admonished the public broadcaster for not writing the message in English instead, while others piped up to remind them that not all foreigners speak English, making a simplified Japanese message useful.

Others commended NHK for providing an easy-to-understand alternative to the many other kanji-filled Japanese messages about the typhoon on the Internet.

Some saw the benefit of simplified Japanese notices, which can even be useful for native-born readers of the language with learning difficulties, but the fact that this message was specifically addressed to “gaikokujin” (“foreigners”) became a sore point.

So, given the many different opinions on the topic, why did NHK choose to write their message in hiragana? Well, included in the tweet is a link to a NHK news site called “News Web Easy”, which contains “News written in easy Japanese”. On this site, news articles are published in regular Japanese — with kanji — but they also include kana (hiragana written in smaller font above the kanji) to make it easier to read for beginners.

Unfortunately, there’s no option to include kana above kanji characters on Twitter, and the limited character space would make writing the kana in brackets after the kanji, which is sometimes done in a class context, more problematic.

While people argued over NHK’s all-hiragana message, there’s actually a valid reason behind their decision to use the simplified language option. “Yasashii Japanese“, as it’s known, which translates to “Easy Japanese“, is a means of providing essential information to foreigners in Japan that came about following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. At this time, it became apparent that there needed to be a way to accurately convey information in the event of a disaster or emergency for people who don’t fully understand Japanese and English.

Easy Japanese is also being promoted on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Council for Multilingual Measures in Preparation for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games site. According to the site, this style of communication is “simpler than ordinary Japanese and easy to understand for foreigners“.

The need for simplified Japanese notices became evident after the Ministry of Justice conducted a survey in 2016 that found only 44 percent of foreign residents understand English, but 62.6 percent understand Japanese. With Japanese being the more widely understood language amongst foreign residents, a simpler type of Japanese was adopted to accommodate all levels of Japanese language ability, as a common way of conveying information to foreigners.

In addition to all this, if machine translations are used by people with a basic level of Japanese reading comprehension, the result of the machine translation can then be cross-checked with the easy Japanese version so that the reader can more fully understand what’s being said.

All in all, no matter where you stand on the debate over NHK’s “Easy Japanese” tweet, it’s clearly evident that there are plenty of tweets offering information on Typhoon Hagibis right now in English and ordinary Japanese. For those who don’t speak English but have a grasp of Japanese, however, there may be less information directly available from Japan sources, and that’s largely who NHK’s tweet will likely resonate with.

Still, no matter where you’re from or where you stand in terms of Japanese language ability, the most important thing is that you stay up to date with the progress of the storm and stay safe as Typhoon Hagibis approaches. And whatever you do, don’t be that person who calls up for a pizza in the middle of a typhoon, endangering the lives of pizza delivery drivers like this one who battled Typhoon Jebi in Osaka.

Featured image: Twitter/@nhk_news
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[ Read in Japanese ]