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.
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:
- Speak concisely
- Speak in complete sentences
- 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!