Was there really online “controversy” over NHK’s simplified typhoon warnings?

Climate change and an influx of migrants from the Global South are two major issues that Reiwa Japan faces. Areas that Typhoon Hagibis made its threatening presence felt included the Tohoku region, an area still looking to recover fully from the 2011 earthquake, and the swanky suburb of Musashi-kosugi, now known for high-rise apartments prone to flooding and blackouts.

During the typhoon, SoraNews24, a site that basically writes up an aggregate of Japanese Twitter, published the following story:

Typhoon warning from NHK Japan “to all foreigners” causes controversy online

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

The warning that the website accused NHK of “offensively dumbing down” for foreign readers was a tweet from NHK News that read:

たいふう19ごう が 12にち~13にち に にしにほん~きたにほんの ちかくに きそうです。 たいふう19ごう は おおきくて とても つよいです。 き を つけて ください。

The SoraNews24 article goes on to say:

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.

(emphasis in original)

Indeed, NHK News’ tweet would normally read something like this:

台風19号が12日〜13日に西日本〜北日本の近くにきそうです。台風19号は大きくてとても強いです。気をつけてください。

Typhoon 19 is expected to come to Western to Northern Japan on the 12th to 13th [of October]. Typhoon 19 is big and very strong. Please be careful.

So did NHK do something “offensive”?

Following Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer is no, because the vast majority of the (English-language) tweets that SoraNews24 decided to quote were actually positive.

The gut-reaction conclusion to draw would be that NHK News’ behavior was only offensive just for non-Japanese readers to have a laugh at.

But to properly answer this question, we have to look at what these people were complaining about in the first place. Which involves a bit of language nerding-out.

1. Writing everything in hiragana

According to SoraNews24, one person said that an “all-hiragana message is much more confusing to read and comprehend than kanji, especially as it’s never written out this way”. The following was the reason given:

So it’s true that there’s a lot of homonyms in Japanese, which makes puns fun to learn. And it’s also true that entire novels written exclusively in hiragana are probably a nightmare to read, because brains with exposure to how hiragana, katakana, and kanji work together process information faster.

Here’s an example a Georgetown University professor used on me in my first year of learning Japanese that you can use to compare:

ははは、ははははははといいます。

母は、ハハハハハハと言います。

The first example is really jarring because two-thirds of the sentence uses the same character. The second example shows why hiragana, katakana, and kanji go hand in hand in written Japanese.

  • The kanji conveys meaning, so 母 (はは) means mother, and 言 means ‘word’ (here, in the context of 言う, to speak).
  • The katakana here acts as an onomatopoeic device, so hahahaha (ハハハハハハ) is the sound that the mother is making.
  • Finally, the hiragana act as a grammar connector, or what my professor would call ‘particles’. So は (pronounced wa in this situation) identifies the mother, and と goes with 言う to quote what the mother is saying.

(Of course, everything is contextual, so katakana isn’t always onomatopoeic. It can also, for example, be used for foreign loanwords.)

So at so-called “high levels” of Japanese, all of the above happens in a blur. Even though there are only so many hiragana combinations, your brain is able to pick out which hiragana go together so that you understand the information in front of you.

In fact, you can witness this demonstration if you start typing Japanese on your very own home computer or smartphone.

Like this! How meta.

However, computer systems aren’t perfect at hearing context, as can be seen in this attempt at automatic captions for a NHK News report on YouTube:

The AI confused “noon” (正午 /しょうご / shougo) with “competition” (勝負 /しょうぶ / shoubu) from the video’s audio track. Also, sorry for the flattering screencap.

In the context of the short NHK tweet, however, I don’t think the homonym problem arises at all. First, the sentences are short, so there’s less room for confusion. Second, the person who took offense at the all-hiragana message appears to have forgotten that since Japanese works contextually, hiragana must come in sets, which is why NHK added spaces in between the words in its tweet. (Admittedly, the spaces aren’t that noticeable on a screen).

So とても would go with つよい to mean ‘very strong’ (rather than と手持つ良い which is meaningless) and き would be 気 rather than 木 (tree) because it goes with を つけて ください (to be careful).

2. Not writing it in English (or Chinese, or Korean)

There were a LOT of responses to NHK News’ tweet, so here are a few more I want to dissect for language-learning purposes.

Assuming that NHK News wrote the notice to residents (as opposed to tourists) who live and work in Japan long-term, there are three problems with the assumption that writing in someone’s native language would be more helpful.

First, if you aren’t proficient in someone else’s native language, you risk miscommunication or leaving out details that you intended to communicate. (Of course, NHK probably has the resources to hire native translators.) So, using this person’s example, “big wind coming soon, very danger” doesn’t really make much sense to an English speaker. A deadly typhoon is much more serious than a blustery day.

Second, do residents even speak the language you would have wanted NHK News to translate to? Chinese is a possibility, but probably not English if:

Labor ministry data released in January [2019] showed the number of foreign workers in Japan rising by 181,000 on the year to a record 1.46 million at the end of October, with 29.7% of these in the manufacturing sector. China and Vietnam were the two top countries of origin, accounting for 389,000 and 316,000, respectively.

Nikkei Asian Review, April 13, 2019

Third, people systematically underestimate the level of Japanese proficiency long-term non-Japanese residents are required to have just to survive to work, find a place to stay, pay taxes, receive healthcare, and so on. So writing something in Japanese would probably be the more efficient way to communicate.

As the SoraNews24 article itself admits:

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.

3. Addressing people as “gaikokujin”

This is something that I want to address in detail at some point in the future on this blog. Just as U.S. presidential candidates walk on eggshells when they decide to use Spanish to address voters, the word “gaikokujin” is an ugly Pandora’s box of citizenship, exclusion, belonging, and what it means to be Japanese.

But I think NHK News deserves credit for knowing that long-term non-Japanese residents know, and need to know, some level of Japanese language proficiency to survive in Japan, and acknowledges such by making this tweet.

4. Not using Google Translate

I think I can summarily dismiss this complaint by saying that in any emergency situation, the last thing someone would be doing would be to copy and paste a tweet into Google Translate and see what it spits out.

Why on earth would Google Translate be used as a standard for whether a notice written for second-language learners is actually useful for second-language learners?

5. Not following Japanese language learning principles

This last point is actually something I would agree with.

The grammar structures that NHK News chose to use in its tweet (in my opinion) aren’t the most easy to understand. Nor are they typical grammar structures that a language student would use at the beginner level.

It’s hard to nitpick such a short extract. But, for example, きそうだ is a modification of くる (to come) to mean “expected to come”, as in the typhoon is expected to come. Weather forecasts commonly use this phrase (to say what’s going to happen in the near future). But I definitely don’t remember learning this in my first semester of Japanese.

So if someone is expected to know and use this grammar structure, they would definitely be able to know all of the kanji that goes with the tweet.

The better way to phrase NHK News’ tweet would be to break the information up into extremely short, and extremely simple sentences, like the example above.

台風19号がきます。
Typhoon 19 is coming.

12日から13日にきます。
It will come from the 12th to the 13th [of October].

強い風、大雨に、気をつけてください。
Please be careful of strong winds and heavy rain.

So, in gist: was the tweet offensive? Not really. But NHK News could do better.