"And the greatest Japanese export to China is…"

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That's the headline of an article in today's shanghaiist.

What is the greatest Japanese export to China?  Language!

As anti-Japanese protests and riots swirl across China (over some tiny, rocky, contested islands in the middle of the sea between Taiwan and Okinawa), Xu Wenguang, program director of CCTV 1, made this remarkable statement:

To all those people calling for the boycott of Japanese products and those using this opportunity to attack the property of your own countrymen. You need to know that the biggest Japanese export to China isn't cars, or television sets or manga. It's language. About 70% of social science terms used in Chinese today came from Japanese — 'society', 'economics', 'philosophy', 'environment', 'arts', 'medicine', 'law', 'rights', and yes, even 'protest'. If you love this country, then strive to help this country gain respect from others instead of using cheap means of displaying your intolerance.

`Hūyù dǐzhì Rì huò, shènzhì jiè jī dǎzá tóngbāo cáiwù de rén, xū zhīdào, Rìběn chūkǒu dào Zhōngguó zuìduō de bùshì qìchē, diànshì, hé dòngmàn, ér shì cíhuì. Xiàndài Hànyǔ 70%de shèkē cíhuì láizì Rìyǔ, pìrú: shèhuì , jīngjì, zhéxué, huánjìng, yìshù, yīxué, fǎlǜ, rénquán…bāokuò “kàngyì”. Ài zìjǐ de guójiā, jiù nǔlì ràng zhège guójiā yíngdé biérén de zūnzhòng yǔ jìngwèi, ér bùshì yòng liánjià de fènnù zhèngmíng zìjǐ de piānxiá.'

「呼吁抵制日货,甚至借机打砸同胞财物的人,需知道,日本出口到中国最多的不是汽车、电视和动漫,而是词汇。现代汉语70%的社科词汇来自日语, 譬如:社会、经济、哲学、环境、艺术、医学、法律、人权…包括“抗议”。爱自己的国家,就努力让这个国家赢得别人的尊重与敬畏,而不是用廉价的愤 怒证明自己的偏狭。」

In my Language Log posts and elsewhere, I've often pointed out the Japanese origins of many key words in modern Chinese intellectual, cultural, and scientific discourse.  See, for example, "Two Papers on Sinolinguistics:  1. A Hypothesis Concerning the Origin of the Term fanqie ('Countertomy'); 2. East Asian Round-Trip Words," Sino-Platonic Papers, 34 (October, 1992).

Xu Wenguang deserves our respect, not only for encouraging his fellow countrymen to adopt a more civilized approach when expressing their grievances, but for recognizing that intangible things of tremendous importance can be imported as well as tangible ones, and that the greatest of these just might be language.

[A tip of the hat to Neil Schmid]


  1. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    Thank you, Victor, for another interesting article.

    Well, I guess I should acknowledge Xu Wenguang's refreshing pronouncement, as a Japanese citizen – no matter how old and insignificant I am.
    For well over a thousand years until the Meiji period (and even beyond that), Japan learned, borrowed, appropriated, imitated and emulated, adopted and adapted the Chinese language. All those compound words Mr. Xu quoted as Japanese exports to China were created with Chinese characters translating Western languages. Did Mr. Xu think of that?
    When Japan began its modernization, no one knew how to translate Western words and concepts. They wracked their brains to come up with appropriate equivalent words – since they had no word for the concept, they had no concept for the word. They had to create words, then examine the content and meaning of the concept.

    In a way we are still doing it. Today I was in the office of an ophthalmologist – we were talking about the floaters (vitreous debris in the eye) – I was telling her how shocked and worried I was when I first became aware of them when I was about 45 – I thought some foreign objects invaded my retina. I told her a Japanese doctor told me it was a symptom of aging, a very natural phenomenon, and told me the name of the symptom. 飛蚊症 (Hibunsho) Literally it means symptom of flying mosquitoes. My ophthalmologist laughed and said, "That's exactly what it is, in Latin Muscae volitantes (from the Latin, meaning "flying flies") but in Greek – (she mentioned the Greek name but I am sorry I cannot remember it) – it means flying mosquito!"
    Aha, the Japanese took the Greek name literally and made up the word in the Meiji period.
    So the Japanese were indebted to the Chinese, Koreans, Greeks, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese – any number of foreigners to formulate and construct both linguistic culture and pragmatic civilization in its modernization history (which started back in the 5th 6th century). That's how mankind has gained both teleological and epistemological approach to things.

    There is no need for the Chinese to get upset about the Chinese import of Japanese words. We’ve been doing it for 2000 years. So sometimes A exports objects and culture to B, C, D, other times B exports the same to A, C, D, in some years C exports to …. Etc.
    It’s a cycle. And very often the imported things will be exactly “intangible things of tremendous importance.”

  2. Naif said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    No language is a stand alone system. In any given language, various concepts in religion, art, medicine, and administration can be easily traced back to another language. However, some words are not easily traced back. Ironically, the more a language is dependent on foreign borrowed words, the more dominant it is. 90% of terms in medicine come from Greek, yet the dead Greeks did not have the slightest idea about today's medical advances. It's not where you get your words from. It's what you do with them.

  3. ALton Hall said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    Great piece, had never thought of that and did not know. But isn;t it also true that 90 percent of Japanese kanji were imported from China, so it's a two way street, and Japanese culture is basically a creole culture based on Chinese culture long ago. no?

  4. Peter said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    @ALtonHall Most all of the kanji were imported from China, but I don't think that justifies the conclusion that "Japanese is basically a creole culture".

  5. languagehat said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    All those compound words Mr. Xu quoted as Japanese exports to China were created with Chinese characters translating Western languages. Did Mr. Xu think of that?

    Of course he knows that perfectly well. He's trying to counteract his countrymen's tendency to look down on Japan. Context is important.

  6. Sun said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    I wonder why Xu uses the term 敬畏 (jìngwèi) and why Prof. Mair leaves it out in translation.

    敬畏 (jìngwèi) is usually translated as awe, fear or reverence. It's often seen in religious context. It's an attitude toward authority or greater power, especially sacred ones.

    For some strange reason, in the entry on 敬畏 (jìngwèi) in Baidu's encyclopedia, there is a long essay on how 敬畏 (jìngwèi) conflicts with modernity and the rational spirit as an attitude based on authority.

    I guess Xu uses the term 敬畏 (jìngwèi) to appeal to the nationalism of his addressees

    However, after doing a Google search, I found that Xu's third sentence is often omitted when he is quoted.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 2:07 pm


    You are right to point out that the translation omits jìngwèi 敬畏 ("awe, fear, reverence"). Actually, although I did the pinyin transcription of Xu's statement, the English translation was taken from the shanghaiist. Perhaps they omitted jìngwèi 敬畏 ("awe, fear, reverence") because they thought it was too much like zūnzhòng 尊重 ("respect, esteem, value") which precedes it. But I agree with you that its omission is significant, especially because jìngwèi 敬畏 ("awe, fear, reverence") is of a different order from zūnzhòng 尊重 ("respect, esteem, value"), since it includes the idea of not just respect, but fear and even awe.

  8. Alfred said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    Overall, the comment is not based on the historical facts and reality.

    Early Middle Japanese is the Japanese of the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. Early Middle Japanese sees a significant amount of Chinese influence on the language's phonology. Later on, Japanese also reintroduced Chinese again during Tang Dynasty (618 – 907).

    In fact, if you have a chance to visit Japan, you can see the traditional Chinese everywhere. So Mr. Xu Wenguang should know the most important export from China to Japan is Chinese character and culture. Here, it is a analogue: if the peoples in UK speak some words which American peoples do not know or do not use, can we say the UK export their language to US? China uses the words which Japan used only because they are Chinese character. Without Japan, Chinese people will translate it too. That happens now in wireless and internet technology. For example, the "cell phone" is translated to "Sou Ji" in Chinese. But in Japan, the "cell phone" is called "keitai denwa".

    Mr. Xu Wenguang should be shameful for his poor history knowledges about his mother culture.

  9. Peter said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 10:54 pm


    1. Not sure where the analogy is going. Yes, England exported their language to America. That's why we speak English. Since then, I'm pretty sure we've exported some words back.

    2. No one is saying that the Japanese invented the characters and then China took them. In fact, no one is saying anything about characters at all. We're talking about 词汇 = vocabulary. Japanese borrowed a lot of Chinese words, but they ended up combining the constituent morphemes in some novel ways, especially when translating western technical and scientific concepts. When China first started modernizing, they borrowed those Japanese words back into Chinese, rather than invent their own. As you've pointed out, there are technical words which are totally Chinese in origin and differ from the Japanese (e.g., 手机). I really have no idea which of the above propositions you are objecting to.

  10. J.Quan said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

    Alfred, you should be ashamed of your poor comprehension of (and writing skills in) both English and Chinese. Please point out where Mr. Xu claimed that China did not export their writing system to Japan. Furthermore, Japanese phonology is not based on Chinese. Japan merely adapted the Chinese sounds of characters (at varying times) to its own phonetic system.

    If you wish to compare the translations of "cellphone", you should at least compare like with like. Shou3ji1 would be translated as セルフォン, or 携帯, words that would make hardly any sense in Chinese. The full translation of 携帯電話 would of course be 移动电话 or 手提电话.

    Other commenters are also missing the point, which I think may be due to an inaccuracy in the English translation – 词汇 is "vocabulary", not "language". I cannot think of any examples that demonstrate Japan exporting language to China, only vocabulary, unless Victor Mair can help out.

  11. Bob Violence said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

    Peter said this much more succinctly, but since I'd already written it out, I'll go ahead with it:

    Some (if not most) of the compounds Xu refers to existed in Classical Chinese, albeit with rather different meanings (e.g. 社會 "festal gathering around communal altar," per this earlier Mair piece). Some other Japanese coinages (e.g. 電話 "telephone") were nonexistent in Classical Chinese, and were formed by compounding Sinitic words/morphemes borrowed into Japanese centuries earlier. But both sets of words—the new compounds and the "revived" classical compounds with new meanings—were devised by Japanese writers for use in the modern Japanese language, not Classical Chinese or any other type of Chinese. Chinese writers were under no obligation to adopt them, and some did in fact propose "native" alternatives that failed to catch on (a few of which are discussed here).

    But the fact that the Japanese words were borrowed into Chinese, in such large numbers, testifies to the influence Japanese culture, science, etc. wielded over Chinese intellectual life at the time, much as the number of French/Norman loans in English testifies to the Norman influence in Britain. The fact that the Normans took much of their vocabulary from Latin (and not just those words descended naturally from Latin) doesn't somehow cancel that out, nor does the fact that the Japanese language is historically indebted to Chinese.

  12. Vasha said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

    Another round-trip journey: instant ramen, invented in Japan, sells extremely well in China now, but noodles probably came from China to Japan long ago.

  13. Alfred said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:02 am


    What I said is that Mr. Xu Wenguang is funny because he does not know his nation's history and does not respect his nationals. Who can tell me where the number 70% is from? From imagination?

    OK. China indeed imported some Chinese words from Japan because they learned the culture and science from the western Europe and US earlier than China. We respect these wonderful work by Japanese.

    We Chinese imported some words (again, 70%??) from Japan. Why can not Chinese peoples boycott Japanese products? Do not mention the Japanese invasion to China and to the US during the WWII . Today Japan is also trying to grab Diaoyu Island from China, like they did during WW II. If Mr. Xu Wenguang can not understand why Chinese people do not like Japanese products, he probably should go to Japan and never come back.

  14. Alfred said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    I feel terribly sorry that our beautiful Chinese character is used by you in this way. To be frankly, if you are a Chinese citizen(I doubt), I have this one for you:


    Please stay away from me.
    Thanks. Really. I appreciate it.

  15. Alfred said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    The problem of seventy percentages in Mr. Xu Wenguang's comments

    I am not sure where this number 70% is from. In fact, in 1822, A Chinese-English Dictionary edited by Robert Morrison (a British) in China has been released. Many social and natural science words have been imported into China.

    From 1855-1610, Qing Dynasty also organized many Chinese scholars to translate many books from the western Europe and US. In fact,at that time, many Japanese dictionaries are just copies of Chinese scholars' books. Overall, before 1895, Japan still had no money and enough scholars to learn the western cultures and sciences. They just did the things they were and are good at: copy something from China or the western.

    Only due to the civil wars in China and invasion of Japan and Russia, China lost her credits for the translation of western literature. If somebody need, I can show more evidence about this.

    For example, in 1627, Ming Dynasty, 原罪”、“采取”、“处置”、“救世主”、“造物主”、“公法”、“文科”、“理科”、“法科”、“法学”、“地球”、“大西洋”、“热带” , all these words have been imported into China.

    Mr. Xu Wenguang should be shameful for his illiteracy.

  16. Alfred said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    A correction: From 1855-1610 should be From 1855-1910.
    Sorry for the typo.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:32 am


    You are exactly right. The translation of cíhuì 词汇 as "language" is wrong; it should be "vocabulary".

    As for whether or not there are examples of Japan exporting *language* to China, I have just gotten up and my mind's still foggy, so I'll have to wait till I'm fully awake before I attempt to answer that one.

  18. IrvingDog said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    This whole discussion, which I have been reading with a mix of interest and horror (not an interesting mix, BTW), needs to be elevated. There is far too much politics mixed in with genuine linguistics. Whatever Mr. Xu said and whatever political views those words may have revealed, we need to get away from language like "proud" and "ashamed" and such silliness. There are times and places for such stuff, just not here.
    One interesting avenue in assessing Japanese language imports of the Meiji period is to look at all the different terms that arose most in early-to-mid-Meiji and were ultimately rejected either later in Japan or in China–and why. If memory serves, some tried out 社會 for "government"–maybe it was 政府 for society; I don't have my notes handy. As "Naif" noted early in this string, no language/culture is a "stand-alone system," but inevitably and even against it's will, will on occasion be influenced from afar. If you don't believe me, listen to your children talking to their friends and ask yourself: "Where in heaven's name did they learnt to speak like that?"

  19. Matt Anderson said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    Some Chinese words (especially slang) derive from the pronunciation (not kanji) of Japanese words – but that's still just vocabulary, though the writing system isn't an intermediary; I can't think of any non-lexical examples of Japan exporting language to China at the moment.

    I know there are considerably less slangy examples, but the ones that come to mind are yī​jí​bàng 一級棒 (the characters could literally be understood as writing 'first class great' or something along those lines) for the Japanese word ichiban いちばん (一番) 'number one, best' and ōu​ba​sāng 歐巴桑 for obasan おばさん (小母さん) or obāsan おばあさん (お婆さん) (there are varying ways of writing these words in kanji) 'an older woman.'

  20. Andy Averill said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    Aren't there a lot of different paths for a Japanese word to have entered Chinese? Any time from 1931 to 1945, for example, when Japan controlled a large part of the mainland. Or even during the nineteenth century, when some Chinese students went to school in Japan, to catch up with the latest modern thinking. How recent are the words on this list?

  21. OT said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    Completely off-topic (sorry about that):

    Pinyin news blog has been hacked…

  22. Bob Violence said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    The site was hacked months ago in a manner that broke the text encoding on the blog, so all pinyin and Chinese characters displayed as garbage text. As far as I know it was never repaired, though I only checked once every couple of weeks after it became clear the problem wasn't going to be fixed quickly. Of course it's a shame to lose the rest of the blog, and I hope it comes back soon. At least the rest of the site seems to be unaffected.

  23. OT said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 3:01 am

    Thanks for the info, Bob. It is certainly a shame…

  24. Seneschal said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 1:19 am


    Remember that instant ramen was invented by the founder of Nissin Foods, Mr. Momofuku Ando, 安藤 百福, who was actually born Taiwanese of Han origin in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. His birth name was 吳百福 and immigrated to Japan to found the company that made Top Ramen.

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momofuku_Ando

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