Yasashii Nihongo – help or hindrance?

Japan is seeing an increased influx of foreigners, both to work and visit for events such as the recent Rugby World Cup. In order to meet these needs, Japan has been working on ways to communicate important information for visitors. With a number of natural disasters like Typhoon Hagibis, やさしい日本語 or yasashii nihongo has been highlighted as an essential lifeline for non-fluent speakers of Japanese in Japan. 

Some places have used pins like these to encourage the use of yasashii nihongo (the left is for foreigners and the right is for Japanese people)

What is yasashii nihongo?

Yasashii Nihongo is a form of Japanese that caters to people who come to Japan but are not fluent in the language. Many people will try to learn some of the language before travelling or living in the country, but the Japanese language has a few hurdles which make the language difficult to understand even if you know the basics.

As it happens yasashii nihongo is a pun since it can be interpreted in two ways (regular readers will know that I appreciate a good Japanese pun!). The word やさしい has two separate kanji, which have separate meanings.

優しい Kind, gentle, nice

易しい Easy, simple, plain

The following Youtube video is aimed at Japanese people but is a nice introduction to yasashii nihongo: 

The benefits of simpler Japanese are obvious in emergency situations, but it can play a positive role when it comes to other areas such as the workplace, healthcare and tourism. As you might expect, local governments are playing a leading role in helping their new citizens live more comfortably.

As outlined in the video, the three main differences between standard and easy Japanese are:

  1. Speak concisely
  2. Speak in complete sentences
  3. Don’t use keigo/ honorific language (use polite desu-masu form instead)

Essentially, yasashii nihongo aims to convey information in the shortest, simplest way possible. 

Speaking in complete sentences with frequently used words eliminates the ambiguity that the Japanese language tends to have. In particular, the use of honorific language is a huge barrier for people learning Japanese – it is generally something you learn once you have a solid foundation in the language but is used in a lot of common situations.

Other ways to simplify Japanese often include:

  • Adding furigana to all kanji used 
  • Putting the most important information at the start of the sentence
  • Not using loanwords or onomatopoeia*
  • Avoiding double negatives
  • Only one piece of information per sentence

Japanese learners may already be familiar with NHK News Easy, which are newspaper style articles written in yasashii nihongo

Types of yasashii nihongo

Yasashii nihongo comes in many forms. You can see this in how different cities and prefectures in Japan publish official information for visitors.

On the one hand, the City of Yokohama writes using common kanji with furigana, and defines more difficult words in brackets.

In contrast, some prefectures only use hiragana with spaces between words, such as in this tweet from Nagano prefecture:

Why is it controversial?

The truth is, one version of yasashii nihongo does not fit all, which has caused some debate in the wake of typhoon Hagibis.

Some groups will find certain types of yasashii nihongo easier to understand. For example, the use of loanwords written in katakana might seem like a good idea – however some loanwords are false friends* or pronounced so differently in Japanese that it would not be easily understood. On the other hand, heavy use of kanji would help someone with knowledge of Chinese, but would likely be a disadvantage to others.

Similarly, depending on your current language level, certain types of yasashii nihongo may feel more difficult to read than others. Having spaces between words might really help newcomers to Japanese, but more experienced learners may find that the spaces disrupt their flow of reading.

In my opinion, any form of Japanese that avoids keigo and ambiguous language would make a huge difference for learners. However just looking at the examples I found above, there is so much variation in what is considered ‘easy’ that some yasashii texts might be just as difficult as standard Japanese! 

After the typhoon, I saw a lot of people online who were annoyed at some prefectures’ use of all hiragana. I found this strange, since ultimately in emergency situations, information needs to be made as simple as possible so that it benefits the greatest number of people.

What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Yasashii Nihongo – help or hindrance?”

  1. I’m torn on the yasashii nihongo issue. I saw some useful and some not so useful information floating around during the typhoon. I agree that being clear, concise, and to the point is important. I think that of the two examples you posted, the Yokohama example was much easier to follow. Part of the reason is the kanji. Even if you don’t know the exact meaning of the word, if you know different kanji you can often guess the general meaning of a sentence. The furigana makes it easy to look up words if you have a dictionary or ask about them if you don’t.

    I think the people who were annoyed may have been responding to the hiragana messages that had no spaces. This made it difficult to follow them. It also depends on the reader’s Japanese ability (as you pointed out). It is impossible to make everyone happy, but I am glad to see that some effort is going into making these announcements more accessible. Different towns/cities have facebook pages as well. My city has an English speakers page (but has members who post in a variety of languages – it’s not an official page, but created and run by foreign residents) and always posts important and disaster information in a variety of languages. Over the past few years, there has defiantly been more information available.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I’m glad that there are more options out there at prefecture and city/town level – together with the internet I think most people can get the information they need quite quickly in an emergency situation.

      I agree hiragana without spaces would be difficult for anyone to read – I hope that the rule going forward is hiragana with spaces, or kanji/kana with furigana readings

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