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Reflections on Yoshino Akira's Nobel Prize Win and the Role of Katakana in Japan
  - NHK E-Tele "SNS Eigojutsu" #NobelPrize (aired 2019/12/06) | LANGUAGE & EDUCATION #040
Photo: ©RendezVous
2023/03/06 #040

Reflections on Yoshino Akira's Nobel Prize Win and the Role of Katakana in Japan
- NHK E-Tele "SNS Eigojutsu" #NobelPrize (aired 2019/12/06)

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Translator / Interpreter / TV commentator


1.About #NobelPrize, the Theme of our Latest Episode

The theme for the December 6th episode of Sekai e Hasshin! SNS Eigojutsu on NHK was #NobelPrize. Ahead of the Nobel Prize award ceremony on December 10th, we featured tweets about Asahi Kasei Honorary Fellow Dr. Akira Yoshino and the other 2019 laureates.

Most of the tweets we featured on this episode were congratulatory messages directed toward the laureates. In terms of English language study, my hope is that our viewers were able to pick up on different ways to express congrats and talk about scientific achievements. Some of those terms include “revolutionized" from the sentence “Yoshino-san’s contribution to the development of lithium-ion batteries has revolutionized technology", and “groundbreaking research".

In this article, I’d like to go into more detail about some of the English we featured on this episode.

2.Revolutionary Terminology

If there’s anything about the English language that I can say with complete certainty, it’s that there is no shortage of adjectival expressions that describe how new and game-changing a new invention or technology is. Here are some of the more commonly used ones, along with their Japanese translations.


Revolution in Japanese is kakumei (革命) or kakushin (革新). A revolutionary breakthrough is kakushin-teki na dai-hatsumei (革新的な大発明) and a revolutionary idea is kakki-teki na aidea (画期的なアイディア). The American Revolutionary War is Amerika Kakumei Sensou (アメリカ革命戦争).


Groundbreaking refers to “the act or ceremony of breaking ground for a new construction project”, and is also an adjective that refers to something that pioneers a new field or endeavor. Japanese equivalents are kakki-teki na (画期的な), kakushin-teki na (革新的な), and kusawake-teki na (草分け的な). A groundbreaking film is kakushin-teki na eiga (革新的な映画), while a groundbreaking new technology is kakki-teki na shin-gijutsu (画期的な新技術).


To innovate is to create or introduce something new, especially something that changes something previously established. The adjective innovative in Japanese is kakushin-teki na (革新的な), but the katakana inobeishon (イノベーション) is also used all too frequently in the marketing for IT companies and car manufacturers.


To be cutting-edge or on the cutting-edge is to be on the forefront of a field or endeavor. Japanese equivalents are saisentan no (最先端の) and saizensen no (最前線の). Synonyms include leading-edge. To have an edge over a rival is to be slightly better than them, to hold the advantage.


This expression refers to something that is at the forefront of what is possible using the technology or techniques available today. A state-of-the-art medical facility is saisentan no iryou shisetsu (最先端の医療施設) in Japanese.


The Japanese equivalent of pioneer is senkusha (先駆者) or kusawake-teki sonzai (草分け的存在). A pioneering company is senku-teki kaisha (先駆的会社), a pioneering scientist is kusawake-teki na kagakusha (草分け的な科学者), and a pioneering gene therapy is senku-teki na idenshi ryouhou (先駆的な遺伝子療法).


Blaze in this context means to “mark a tree by painting or notching or by chipping away a piece of the bark to indicate a trail or boundary”. Trailblazing can be translated into Japanese as senku-teki na (先駆的な) or kaitakusha-teki na (開拓者的な). A trailblazer is known as a senkusha (先駆者), kaitakusha (開拓者), or daiichininsha (第一人者).


An epoch is “the beginning of a distinctive period in the history of anything”. An epoch-making event is kakki-teki na dekigoto (画期的な出来事), while epoch-making research is kakki-teki na kenkyu (画期的な研究). Synonyms include epochal and era-defining. The Japanese also seem to really like the expression epoch-maker.


A landmark is “a prominent or conspicuous object on land that serves as a guide...a distinguishing landscape feature marking a site or location”. It is sometimes used as an attributive noun, as in landmark trial or landmark paper.


Monument is a noun that is translated as kinenhi (記念碑) in Japanese. The adjective monumental is translated as kinenhi-teki na (記念碑的な), rekishi-teki na (歴史的な), kyodai na (巨大な), idai na (偉大な), fukyuu no (不朽の). It was a monumental victory (rekishi-teki na shouri 歴史的な勝利) when Japan’s national rugby team defeated Scotland in October 2019 to progress to the final eight of the Rugby World Cup for the first time.


The adjective earthshaking is used to mean “of great importance”, but carries connotations that are similar to the Japanese kyouten douchi (驚天動地), literally, “something that surprises the heavens and moves the earth”. The expression is usually used in sentences like “The climate crisis will have earthshaking implications for future generations.”

These days new, revolutionary, innovative, and groundbreaking technologies have become a dime a dozen. A word to the wise for any readers out there who work in marketing: exercise caution and restraint.

3.The Katakana Trap

Lastly, I wanted to write about the problem of “katakana English" and how it affects how Japanese people pronounce English words. As our resident English teacher Torikai-sensei explained at the beginning of the program, the word Nobel in Nobel Prize is tricky to pronounce.

Nobel is usually written in katakana as ノーベル (no-beru). But students of English should be aware of three things: where the stress falls, the distinction between “b" and “v", and the issue of diphthongs.

In terms of stress, Nobel needs to be distinct from noble (as in “of high birth" or “outstanding"). While noble is pronounced NOH-bel, with the stress on the first syllable, Nobel is pronounced noh-BEL, with the stress on the second syllable. In Nobel Prize, all three syllables are usually given equal stress.

It’s also important to recognize the difference between Nobel and novel (the literary genre), as Japanese people tend to have difficulty distinguishing between “b"(ビー) and “v" (ヴィー). While love is often transliterated as ラブ (rabu), it is more accurately ラヴ (ravu), and likewise live (as in a live concert) should be ライヴ (raivu) rather than ライブ (raibu). Distinguishing between “l" and “r" is a topic for another day.

Nobel and noble also provide us an important lesson in how to pronounce diphthongs. Whether its ノーベル (no-beru) or ノーブル (no-buru), the word no is transliterated as ノー, with the long dash denoting that the vowel sound should be stretched out. But a diphthong is pronounced by gliding between two vowel sounds—not by stretching one out. However cumbersome, no is more accurately transliterated as ノォゥウ, and is certainly not pronounced ノウ (no-uu).

These subtle but key differences are lost in katakana transliteration. Japanese students of English should be weary of “katakana English".

Truth be told, this is a lesson that I should heed myself; I’ve been based in Japan and exposed to katakana English for 13, going on 14 years now. During the taping of this episode, I was so focused on getting Nobel right that I mistakenly read lithium-ion as pronounced in Japanese. Thankfully, I caught my mistake as the words were coming out of my mouth, and was able to do a retake immediately.

English words that start with “i" can also be tricky. The word icon (as in a religious work of art that commonly depicts Christ, Mary, saints, and angels, from the Greek wordεικών) is transliterated as イコン (ikon), apparently based on how the Greek letters ει have been pronounced since the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, partygoers from across Europe converge on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, which is pronounced eye-biza in English but is pronounced ih-biza in Spanish, and transliterated as イビザ in Japanese. Then there’s Iraq and Iran, which are correctly pronounced as ih-rack and ih-rahn by most English speakers. However, a certain demographic of Americans, most notably former President George W. Bush, are known for saying eye-rack and eye-rahn.

The long “i" is another dipthong. While it is usually transliterated as アイ, it would be more accurately written as アァィイ, and should never be pronounced アイ (ah-ih).

Side note, the retail corporate group Aeon Group (technically ÆON Group) is transliterated as it is pronounced: イオン (ee-on). Aeon is an alternate spelling of eon, which refers to an indefinitely long period of time.

For all these reasons and more, at Bilingual Web Magazine DIG TOKYO, it is our editorial policy to transliterate English and other foreign loanwords in Japanese not as they are conventionally written, but as they are pronounced (or at least, as closely as possible). For example, the word event is conventionally transliterated as イベント (ibento), but at DIG TOKYO we write イヴェント (ivento). Los Angeles becomes ロス・アンジェレス (losu angeresu), not ロサンゼルス (rosanzerusu).

Speaking of correct pronunciation, when Torikai-sensei emphasized in no uncertain terms that the word award is pronounced uh-wawrd and not ah-waado, I wanted to give her a standing ovation. She deserves the Teacher of the Year Award—no contest.

4.My Wardrobe for This Episode

Khaki suit by GlobalStyle

Khaki suit by GlobalStyle
Check out FASHION & SHOPPING #020 for more about this item.

Brown button-down shirt by Le Canon

Brown button-down shirt by Le Canon
Check out LANGUAGE & EDUCATION #028 for more about this item.

Beige socks by Tabio

Beige socks by Tabio
Check out LANGUAGE & EDUCATION #017 for more about this item.

Chukka boots by Red Wing

Chukka boots by Red Wing
Check out LANGUAGE & EDUCATION #004 for more about this item.

Black glasses by Zoff

Black glasses by Zoff
Check out FASHION & SHOPPING #006 for more about this item.


Reflections on Yoshino Akira's Nobel Prize Win and the Role of Katakana in Japan

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