The Simple Life? A reflection on simplified Japanese (by Ed Griffiths)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Our guest blogger this week is a doctoral student in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University’s Department of Education. His research interests include communication strategy instruction, L2 interaction beyond the classroom, and linguistic risk-taking.

In 2016, I gave up a job in which I’d become increasingly jaded to fulfil my dream of travelling to Japan to learn Japanese. It was a brilliant, restorative experience. Suddenly being plunged into an atmosphere in which I could neither express myself nor read a single sentence was an energizing – at times daunting – experience, which felt like being reset. Yet if you’d asked me after 6 months intensive learning what my main problem with the language was, I’d have replied despairingly and without hesitation: “I can’t understand anything anyone says.” After two terms at a Tokyo language school, I’d made some progress with the production of language. We had followed a very P-P-P (present-practice-produce) method, in an order of acquisition which will be familiar to Japanese learners the world over, limping through the adventures of Mr. Schmitt in the Minna no Nihongo textbooks, starting each day’s lesson with kyou no pointo (today’s (grammar) point). And if it wasn’t in Minna no Nihongo, it wasn’t getting a look-in. I remember a teacher going off-piste one Friday afternoon and teaching us how to order a McDonalds… While I had no particular desire to travel halfway across the world to eat McDonalds, the pragmatic benefit of learning ‘one of these, two of these, to take away, pay in cash please…’ was a game changer in a world otherwise dominated by the arcane goings-on of Mr. Schmitt and his rag-tag bunch of colleagues finding their way through life in their textbook Japanese business world.

Meanwhile in the real world, life wasn’t quite going as sequenced in Minna no Nihongo. The two problems I was encountering could be best represented by two Ks – keigo and kanji. Keigo is the honorific language which indexes displays of humbleness or reverence, beautiful in intention if bothersome in form, with its finer points causing some confusion even to the Japanese. The problems of the second K – kanji – the characters of Chinese origin which carry the semantic weight in the majority of Japanese words are well documented. Suffice to say, that especially in these days of smart phone dominance, complex kanji also cause some problems for the Japanese (for some statistics behind the Japanese reporting difficulties with their own language, see Hashimoto, 2018, p. 120). Kanji are taught to foreigners in roughly the same order they are taught to Japanese children, an order which assumes mastery of a greater number than the average foreigner will go on to acquire. Has anyone ever looked at teaching kanji in order of sociopragmatic relevance, I wonder? Would the usefulness of learning Tokyo 東京 before bamboo forest 竹林 outweigh its greater complexity in terms of stroke order? In any event, on I ploughed with my Japanese, learning sufficient set pieces to blurt out what I wanted to say in order to get by, delighting every time I communicated my message and hoping that nothing requiring an answer would be said in return.

Around this time, I happened upon the concept of simple Japanese or yasashii nihongo (やさしい日本語). Features of yasashii nihongo (YN, for short) included the use of furigana (phonetic/moraic rendering of kanji in superscript above the character), an avoidance of keigo, and no Japanese more complicated than JLPT N3 level (see further Iori 2003, 2016). As I had read in this article, in Yanagawa, a town in Fukuoka prefecture noted for its historic canals, simple Japanese was being trialed as a language for tourist use. Badges saying ‘Simple Japanese, please’ were created to be worn by basic-Japanese-speaking visitors to the town. Surely this was the answer to my dreams? An opportunity to speak and be spoken to at a level I could understand, making use of my hours of study and avoiding the embarrassment of total communicative breakdown. YN became a topic I intended for further study, until, ironically, I decided my academic Japanese wasn’t up to reading the required literature and I parked it in the big drawer of things to revisit one day…

My latest visit to Japan in October 2019 coincided with the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis on Japanese soil – the strongest typhoon of the 2019 season and the most violent to make landfall on mainland Japan in at least a decade. As social media swirled with speculation about a possible direct hit on Tokyo, and I began to realise the severity of the situation when I found Tokyo’s normally indefatigable 7-Elevens closed, a tweet from the national broadcaster NHK caught my eye.

It reads ‘To all foreigners, it seems that typhoon number 19 will arrive in Western Japan and Northern Japan on the 12th or 13th. Typhoon number 19 is big and very strong. Please take care.’ The tweet is written in a variant of YN, that is to say that its vocabulary is simple, and honorific language is avoided. However, twitter cannot reproduce furigana (the superscript phonetic transliteration of kanji) so this test is written in hiragana (phonetic script) alone, which gives it the appearance of text written for very young children. Because long strings of hiragana are difficult to read, the tweet has had word breaks (not usually found in Japanese) inserted. Even so, these long hiragana sequences are still not easy if you are used to reading kanji. For example, the word for typhoon (taifuu) in kanji 台風 contains the kanji for wind, and thus is semantically easier to recognize than taifuu when written たいふう(ta – i – fu – u).

The reaction to the tweet was mixed… while some people supported the initiative, others asked why it wasn’t just in English? Surely the national broadcaster could manage that? People replied patiently that not all foreigners in Japan understand English. Others said that Google Translate can deal only with kanji and finds a hiragana-only approach difficult to translate. A number of ex-pat tweeters who could read advanced Japanese objected to being lumped together with non-Japanese speaking foreigners and complained about being patronized; sarcastic GIF responses began to appear.

A tweet from Japan Times journalist Magdalena Osumi pointed out that NHK later adapted their tweets to include a mixture of basic kanji and hiragana. [Full disclosure: although I have the N3 certificate thought to be the required level for YN, I’d forgotten the reading of 準備 (junbi: prepare) which is included in kanji below].

Others adopted a different approach. The Japanese educator Ako Suzuki took the opportunity to teach a group of typhoon related vocabulary scaffolded from the easy to the more difficult and given both in kanji and in Roman characters. Other bilingual speakers began to mediate by translating live Japanese feeds into English as rivers burst their banks and low-lying homes came under threat.

For an interested observer of simplified Japanese and the internationalization of Japan, it was an enlightening evening. I realised that a one-size-fits-all approach to simplified language was problematic. I saw Japan’s national broadcaster make several laudable attempts at addressing the international community. I was sad to see some advanced foreign speakers of Japanese so ready to criticise (even if with well-reasoned arguments) information being provided in a level of Japanese through which all learners will have passed at some stage. I was pleased to see acknowledgement that foreigners in Japan don’t all speak English. Ultimately, I was glad to see YN discussed for its pros and its cons in the limelight, albeit under difficult and tragic circumstances (though YN’s origins are firmly in post-disaster communication, see Iori 2016). If any speakers of Japanese more proficient than me have made it this far through the blog, and would like to work further together on a deeper analysis of this language episode, I’d be delighted to hear from you; as I would with any views on simplified language or other issues raised in this blog. Thank you for reading. 最後まで読んでくれてありがとうございます。


Hashimoto, K. (2018). Japanese Native Speakerism: Past, Present and Future. In S.A. Houghton, D. J. Rivers & K. Hashimoto (Eds.), Beyond Native-Speakerism: Current Explorations and Future Visions. Routledge.

Iori, I. (2003). Yasashii Nihongo no shikumi. Tokyo: Kuroshio Shuppan.

Iori, I. (2016). The Enterprise of Yasashii Nihongo: For a Sustainable Multicultural Society in Japan. 人文・自然研究, 10, 4–19.

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