I am a linguistics teacher in Japan and the overuse of katakana in Japan makes it difficult for Japanese students to easily learn English or other western languages. This is not just some random question but one formed after years of experience in teaching Japanese students and understanding their difficulties with learning a number of subjects. I am in no way suggesting the eradication of katakana but merely taking away their status of foreign representation. I still believe katakana is important for historical study and pop-culture. I intend to write a book on katakana but I should first try to understand my argument from all sides.

1. What are some ways in which katakana is beneficial to Japanese people?

2. What are some ways in which katakana proves detrimental?

Just a simple list would be sufficient, any and all help would be much appreciated.

  • 1
    Are you asking about katakana in general, or only in the context of learning foreign languages including English? Obviously kana are the best existing way to describe the Japanese sound system. And are you an English teacher or a professional linguist? I think linguists should be able to answer this question by themselves.
    – naruto
    Feb 7, 2018 at 9:29
  • 2
    You want to take "away their status of foreign representation," and you also say "Katakana that is used to represent Japanese words is not the proper usage." Well, in your opinion, what is katakana supposed to represent, then? I think both roles are important...
    – naruto
    Feb 7, 2018 at 12:38
  • 2
    Katakana that is used to represent Japanese words is not the proper usage is not entirely true. Katakana is often presently used to represent foreign words, but it also has other uses and has had other uses in the Japanese language. For instance, in handwriting, people use it to write kanji they can't remember or don't have time write properly.
    – virmaior
    Feb 7, 2018 at 13:17
  • 3
    You are right that some Japanese learning English and other languages confuse 外来語 (gairaigo) with the words themselves in the foreign languages, but this isn' the fault of the katakana specifically since katakana is merely a system for Japanese orthography that happens to be used for writing foreign words inter alia.
    – virmaior
    Feb 7, 2018 at 13:19
  • 4
    Every learner of a second language makes mistakes involving using their first language's sounds, rules, or structures initially. To me, it makes no sense to change the first language to help with teaching the second languages. The teaching methods should be changed, not the first language. This isn't unique to Japanese > English learners and isn't the "fault" of katakana, even if people use the term "katakana English" to refer to the problem. But at the end of the day, my feeling is this question of changing katakana is primarily opinion based. Not something this SE is intended for.
    – Leebo
    Feb 8, 2018 at 2:07

1 Answer 1


First of all, please keep in mind that transliterating English-origin words is only one of the many roles of katakana. I strongly disagree with this statement:

Katakana that is used to represent Japanese words is not the proper usage.

Katakana was invented long before Japanese people encountered western civilizations, and it's been an essential part of Japanese orthography for more than 1000 years. Even if I had to stop using western-origin loanwords altogether, I would still need katakana for many reasons. Countless Japanese-origin words are normally written in katakana, and they include onomatopoeia and slang words. It's not "overuse"; it's just how katakana works.

What are some ways in which katakana is beneficial to Japanese people?

It can help us remember which word is of western origin :-) Of course that's only one of the reasons. Having two similar sets of phonetic symbols is redundant in theory, but it helps us read things smoother, and it's especially true for a language that doesn't use spaces to separate words. I believe you also understand the merit of having two "cases" in English character set.

What are some ways in which katakana proves detrimental?

The knowledge of your mother tongue will almost always work detrimentally when you learn a new foreign language. It's advised not to use katakana if you want to seriously master English pronunciation, and vice versa. Definitely we must not overuse katakana in this regard, but of course this is not a problem specific to katakana.

Katakana is currently being used in Japanese popular culture and is used in a lot of internet slang. The use however confuses many Japanese especially students into thinking that those foreign words represented in katakana are actually from Japanese origin. I have had students who even think 'Good Bye' or 'bye bye' is originally Japanese. This is a problem when it comes to learning English.

Admittedly, there are a few obscure cases because katakana is not exclusively for western-origin words. Few people remember the origin of words like ジゴロ, ヤクザ or バンカラ. Today virtually everyone understands オタク, イケメン and リケジョ are not western loanwords, but some people may forget their etymology after 50 years.

That being said, abandoning katakana will make the situation much worse. Many Japanese people no longer remember that たばこ and てんぷら are originally western words, and that's because they are often written in hiragana these days. But almost all Japanese adults know バイバイ is an English-origin term, and that's because it's still usually written in katakana. English has no equivalent of katakana, and thus English speakers have forgotten the etymology of many words they use (examples).

Katakana is not perfect, but having it is better than abandoning it, IMHO.

  • 1
    In everything I have said I have never mentioned abandoning it, so I believe you have built your answer without properly understanding my intent. When Japanese words are written in katakana it is because they have become so via popular culture, once it becomes common to do so it continues (otaku and ikemen both words of popular culture not traditional culture). Feb 8, 2018 at 1:47
  • Words like tobacco, tempura, and even beer, were adopted and given kanji characters to represent them and were not primarily written in hiragana at the time. Tobacco (煙草), tempura (天ぷら), beer (麦酒), there are periods in which Japanese language undergoes change, that is what I am primarily talking about in reference to a new change. Katakana went from a traditional historical method to after World War II a popular way to express sub-cultures, and become the representative of foreign language influx. There are even more variables but I will leave it as I have said it for now. Feb 8, 2018 at 2:01
  • @BlackCable 1) Chinese and Korean have no katakana, and they are no exceptions of victims of "foreign language influx". Are Chinese, Korean or English speakers better at remembering etymology thanks to having only one writing system? 2) It's true that katakana has been used to write both slang and foreign words, and what's wrong about that? You have been clearly saying both usages are improper. 3) Do western people coin less slang words because they don't use katakana? 4) Can English speakers master correct pronunciations of Korean rapidly if they use Latin alphabet instead of katakana?
    – naruto
    Feb 8, 2018 at 3:52
  • In a general sense, your arguments are perfectly valid. The Chinese and Korean learning of English is not even comparable to Japanese, the languages are not closely related. Chinese is more similar to English in linguistic structure. The Chinese and Korean English language curriculums are much better and focus more on western phonetics. There are too many problems with American education especially in regards to foreign language so the method is incomparable. Thank you though I appreciate your criticism of the points I try to put forth. Feb 8, 2018 at 6:19
  • @BlackCable I totally agree that English education in Japan is incredibly bad :D As Leebo said, I doubt trying to change katakana would help, though.
    – naruto
    Feb 8, 2018 at 6:49

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