Japanese language and the influences of computer-mediated communication: how people feel about their language use
This study investigates how Japanese young people feel about their language use, for example, its accuracy and appropriateness. Extensive exposure to Japanese mobile phone email (Keitai-mail) as computer-mediated communication (CMC) may differ in terms of standard language use and grammar. Therefore, this study investigates how CMC affects language use in young people. The results show that Japanese native speakers feel that the advanced part of the Japanese language, such as the polite form (Keigo) and/or kanji (Chinese characters), is difficult. They are also concerned that the dictionary installed on their mobile device will affect their language abilities in both positive and negative ways. Some participants try to read print works in an effort to uphold their literacy standard.
KeywordsComputer mediated communication (CMC) Japanese studies Standard Appropriateness
This study aims to investigate how Japanese young people use language in computer-mediated communication (CMC), particularly how they feel this communication mode deepens understanding and how people have adapted to this relatively new communication method within a particular cultural framework. This study, therefore, approaches this question to determine how young Japanese people, as representatives of frequent users of smart phones in a basically monolingual culture, have changed the cognitive sense in their language uses and communication.
Mobile phones or Keitai are a tool that people always have with them, anywhere and at any time (Hayashi 2007); they provide a communication space where users, especially teenagers, can achieve freedom from social restrictions (Ito and Okabe 2005). Moreover, Keitai-mail has been used as an alternative to phone calls, especially by women (Tsuji 2003): women send and receive Keitai-mail more often than men (Kurosumi and Fukada 2005). A major reason the Japanese frequently use Keitai-mail is that it is a medium that enables people to communicate without restrictions of time and space (Sasaki and Ishikawa 2006). People also use Keitai-mail in situations when they cannot make a phone call, such as when they are on a train or in a public place. Moreover, as Keitai-mail is electronic text information, there are advantages in that people can store their message or send the same message to many people at the same time (Uchida 2004). These advantages accelerate the use of Keitai-mail in Japanese life.
The Bunkachō (Agency for Cultural Affairs) annually investigates language attitudes based on issues that have been prominently discussed during that particular year, and these reports show that Japanese people have been consistently interested in their language use across the years (2004, 2007, 2012). At the same time, most respondents expressed the view that Japanese is used in an inappropriate manner (called ‘midare’) every year this question was asked (2000, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2015). Generally, people try to use different language and expressions based on place and interlocutor (2005, 2006, 2015, 2017) and are very careful about this (1998, 2005). Many people respect their language (2002), as shown by their responses. Language use and its appropriateness are an issue for many people, not only for language specialists but also for nonspecialists or ordinary people. For many people, difficulties and midare are reported in relation to the following aspects of Japanese: Kanji, Keigo, Gairaigo (loan words) and Katakana words, and the language use of young people, including Wakamono-kotoba. Therefore, it will be valuable to investigate how people consider their language practices, including Keitai-mail; moreover, this can elucidate users’ sense of feeling differently in face-to-face communication and CMC.
As the starting point for a discussion of Keitai-mail, this section provides general background information on the Japanese language. This section also contains some general remarks about two aspects of Japanese pertinent to this study, namely, the writing system and the system of honorifics. The Japanese writing system consists of Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, Arabic numerals, and Romaji (or the Alphabet). Only the first three of these are official scripts, but the other two are widely used as well.
There are two types of Katakana words used today: those in long-term use, which would cause inconvenience if they were no longer used, and those used temporarily over a certain period of time. Recently, the latter has been the main factor in the tremendous increase in the numbers of Katakana words in Japanese (Sugishima 2006). In addition, Katakana is sometimes used today to write words that are not usually written in that script for purposes of emphasis in Japanese (Crystal 2003).
Kanji are logographic symbols originating in China. They can be transliterated into Hiragana in order to show Japanese pronunciation: for example, the word ‘I’ is ‘watashi’, written as 私 in Kanji and わたし in Hiragana. The alphabet, or Romaji, is also used in the Japanese writing system, although it is not an official script. One letter is used to represent each consonant and each vowel, and a Japanese syllable can thus be written in two letters (some compound syllables consist of three letters). Japanese people may choose to write their names (e.g., Taro. Hanako) or other proper names (e.g., Tokyo, Osaka) in Romaji. [Obata (2001) in some detail categorizes the usage of the alphabet in Japanese into 10 categories]. Japanese is written with a combination of the scripts described above.
One further characteristic of Japanese relevant to this study is its complex system of honorifics called Keigo, literally translated as ‘words of respect’. Briefly, there are three categories of Keigo: (1) Sonkeigo (respectful language)—words or expressions with functions or meaning to respect interlocutors, (2) Kenjogo (humble language)—words or expressions to respect interlocutors by showing the humility of the speaker (so interlocutors’ position is seen as higher than that of the speakers), and (3) Teineigo (polite language)—basically using “desu” and “masu” postpositional particles, which function as markers of politeness. In a formal setting, people must use these honorifics properly so as not to be rude to their interlocutors.
Keigo are used basically with a person older than the speaker or with a person who has a higher position in society. They are also used when meeting someone for the first time (Bunkachō 1997, 2005; Kaneko 1994). In addition, Keigo is used not only to show respect to more senior interlocutors (or their equivalent) but also to maintain a distance from them (Horasawa 2000).
Keigo is regarded as difficult not only by young people but also by older people (Horasawa 2000). Miyata (2006) attributes this to the fact that Keigo formation processes for general nouns are only discussed as a tendency rather than being fully studied, and the functions of each type of Keigo involving nouns are not clearly categorized. Miyata (2006) also suggests that appropriateness of Keigo use requires both grammatical correctness and sociolinguistic acceptability. These discussions indicate that the appropriateness of Keigo use involves both the grammatical and sociocultural aspects of the Japanese language and that people need to put some effort into acquiring Keigo through a proper understanding of grammar together with practical experience.
Standard or common Japanese and language variation in Japanese
When discussing language use and change, a certain standard is needed as a referent to allow change to be measured. In Japanese, what is standard is difficult to express in simple terms. Standard Japanese (called Hyōjungo), regarded as the common language through which all people in Japan can communicate anywhere in the country, is used in textbooks, as well as on the radio, in newspapers, in magazines, and in other forms of media. Standard Japanese is based on the dialect of the Yamanote district of Tokyo (Gottlieb 2005) and is important for kokugo (national language) education because its purpose is to educate people to understand language correctly and be able to express themselves properly using the language (Imamura 2005).
Generally, the standard variation of a language has a prestige status and is considered to be culturally, politically and economically superior. It is regarded as correct, polite and beautiful, and people like it. Nonstandard variations are sometimes argued to be incorrect, boisterous and bad (Kawamura 1998). However, the Japanese case is not as simple as this. For example, Standard Japanese can be regarded as plain, cold and superficial, and while dialects can be regarded in a negative light, they are also regarded as beautiful, soft, polite and easy to use (Kawamura 1998). Therefore, some people respect their dialect, while others are ashamed of it (Ostheider 2006).
The language of the younger generation: Wakamono-kotoba
In addition to regional differences, people of different ages use different kinds of language. Young people in particular play a central role in coining new expressions. The language young people create and use is called Wakamono-kotoba (youth language). Wakamono-kotoba is a type of Shūdango (language in a community group), which is used by a particular social group (Yonekawa 2002). They use different expressions from those found in standard language, and these are defined as the language used by teenagers and those in their early twenties, not only by a particular group of people such as those with the same hobby but more widely. Even though some Wakamono-kotoba expressions are used by the older generation, they are still categorized as Wakamono-kotoba (Kuwamoto 2003).
Kuwamoto (2003) discusses the origin of Wakamono-kotoba and suggests Shūdango as a possible origin. He also argues for Sesōgo (language representing a society and its affairs) and Ryūkōgo (language popular at a particular time). Since Ryūkōgo represents the popular fashion of the time, its words are widely used and recognized in society but are destined to disappear when the fashion ends. While many vocabulary items found in Wakamono-kotoba at a particular time do disappear in a short while, some remain as part of the language of young people.
Moreover, Wakamono-kotoba is also created somehow naturally, based on the creativity of young people. There are some original creations in Wakamono-kotoba, but ‘some opportunities’ are needed for new vocabulary to be disseminated, and the media, such as TV and magazines, can do this (Kuwamoto 2003). However, an interesting phenomenon relating to this media effect is that not many people feel they are influenced by the media in terms of their language use (Senuma 2005, see p 315 for details).
Words used in a wide range of applications
Able to do morphological inflection
Change in meaning from original use of the word
Not too much secret jargon
Not the vocabulary based on the language of celebrities
However, in many cases, since the language used by popular celebrities is a reflection of the trend of the day, it is not retained for long-term use after the trend becomes obsolete.
Abbreviations (e.g., jukukō = juku no kōshi: cram school teacher)
Verbs from abbreviations of noun + ‘ru’ or ‘suru’ (e.g., raiburu = library + ‘ru’: going to the library)
Reduplication (e.g., sabosabosuru, from ‘saboru’ (skipping duty through laziness); the meaning of ‘sabosabosuru’ is ‘skipping a class’)
Peculiar emphases (e.g., oni no yō ni. ‘Oni’ is literally translated as ‘ogre’ and ‘oni no yō’ is ‘ogre-like’; thus,‘oni no yō ni’ means ‘very much’)
Inversion in a word (e.g., jo kano = kano jo: a girlfriend)
Roundabout euphemism (e.g., onakunari ni naru. Literally ‘die’, but here, it means ‘fail to make the grade’)
In addition, he mentions vocabulary used in media, in a particular club activity, expressing discomfort, and created by young people (Horasawa 2000). Wakamono-kotoba has such characteristics because, first, Wakamono-kotoba is intended to be used in creating communication that has a good rhythm, increasing the entertainment aspect of language use, and strengthening friendship by using the language of a young group (Murata 2005; Senuma 2005). Moreover, young people use Wakamono-kotoba as substitutes for negative words, which can soften the sound of a comment. The use of such substitutions is a positive politeness strategy among young people (Murata 2005). In terms of communication through Wakamono-kotoba, Murata (2005) points out that sufficient knowledge to be able to recall the original meaning of such Wakamono-kotoba is essential in order to understand it, and speakers and listeners, therefore, must share the same knowledge base for Wakamono-kotoba to succeed in communication.
One possible reason young people create and use such Wakamono-kotoba words is that they are sensitive to trends and are willing to use them to follow a trend. In addition, they also like the challenge, for the nonstandard and unique use of language fascinates them (Miyake 2002).
As stated above, many previous studies describe variations in language use in Japan, including some with a special focus on young people who tend to intentionally violate the standard rules of the language for rich communication. However, those found in CMC in Japan remain limited, even though some studies suggest the need to survey this particular topic. For example, some survey respondents also feel that electronic written communication devices are influential as external influences on language use. In addition to the attrition of Kanji ability, these devices lead to a loss of Japan’s language culture as well as to changes in the meaning of words. The devices also add new vocabulary, expressions and abbreviations (Bunkachō 2004). In this regard, this study aims to deepen our knowledge of how Japanese people feel or are actually influenced by CMC, as Keitai-mail as a frequently used device is a major communication tool.
The participants in this study are Japanese people aged between 18 and 30. There are 60 participants in the study, and the proportion of male to female is 1:1. This means that each participant group has 30 members, all of the same gender, since gender is a key factor in differentiating language use, as shown in previous studies.
Participants were recruited in major Japanese cities through the researcher’s personal connections and their networks, the major criterion being that they use Keitai in a general way, i.e., they use Keitai-mail and phone calls for general communication for business, school or private matters. Aside from that criterion, participants were not selected on the basis of social status, such as occupation.
The data collection was conducted from May 2009 to January 2010. Once the participants agreed to take part in the study, the researcher visited a place of the participants’ choice (such as their home or a cafe near their home). During the session, the participants were asked to answer a questionnaire about their perceptions of communication via Keitai (including perceptions of Keitai-mail communication; details in the next section).
The researcher stayed with them during the study in case they had any questions, but the participants were instructed that the researcher would not see any information they provided during the sessions other than in cases where the participants themselves requested it; this was because of privacy matters and issues of bias arising through researcher-participants interactions. The sessions were held in an informal atmosphere [i.e., the participants were not told to seriously concentrate on their work (e.g., to keep silent throughout the session or refrain from making a phone call even when receiving one) as other studies might require] in order to obtain their natural responses in a relaxed mood.
The questionnaire was organized as follows. The first section asked how participants became familiar with Keitai and how they evaluate them based on the usability of Keitai functions, including the text input system. The second section asked how participants access the Internet via Keitai, and the third investigated how participants use Keitai as a text communication medium. The fourth section aimed to discover how participants create texts on Keitai: for example, how they use abbreviations, Kanji, emoticons, or special expressions in Keitai-mail. The fifth section consisted of questions investigating participants’ concerns about the Japanese language: whether they feel that they, or even the Japanese people as a whole, use appropriate Japanese. The sixth section sought to discover the influence of media on language use through questions asking participants to list media they frequently encounter, including TV shows, magazines, newspapers, and PC Internet sites. The last part of the questionnaire collected personal information, including participants’ age, gender, occupation, place of birth and current place of residence.
Each section consisted of an exchange of questions and answers, scale evaluation questions, multiple-choice questions (some questions in ‘all that apply’ style), and open-ended questions. Most at first were closed questions in order to reveal what participants think of matters related to Keitai and language use. Closed questions result in answers that reflect respondents’ natural perceptions. Next, participants answered open-ended questions asking why they answered the closed questions the way they did. This was a self-investigation process intended to clarify their actions and perceptions more concretely, which further elucidated the conscious and unconscious use of language or expressions in Keitai-mail through concurrent analysis of the discourse from their Keitai. In addition to these questions, other types of open-ended questions explored the original source of their language use. This paper gathers results that relate to the research question of this paper. Moreover, the discussion includes the interpretations of a field survey based on not only previous literature prior to the field study but also a post hoc retrospect of data relating to newer references.
Results and discussion
This section analyses the results of the questionnaire to determine what other social properties, particularly young people’s perspectives on the Japanese language, influence Keitai-mail.
Sense of appropriateness
It can be seen that young people, particularly women, notice the inappropriate use of Japanese on a daily basis and that they have some sense of attention to the appropriateness of the Japanese language use. With regard to their own usage, compared to Fig. 1, the results shown in Fig. 2 are, in general, more moderate. While male participants generally feel they use appropriate language, female participants perceive more problems in their language use. Some people also consider their own lack of ability with the Japanese language as a cause of inappropriate use of language; e.g., limited vocabulary, lack of conciseness and poor choice of expressions.
Keigo (polite language)
Cross-gender language (e.g., women using men’s language)
Too much application of long vowel articulation in the final syllable of words (私as/wa ta shi i/, the last/i/is unnecessary)
Keigo is a major area of Japanese language where people pay attention to appropriateness. Many participants discussed the problems of Keigo use by themselves and others in communication. In particular, they regarded it as problem that younger people, particularly teenagers, cannot or do not use Keigo in situations where they should. At the same time, participants themselves noticed their own problems with Keigo use in talking with older people.
Keigo is context-dependent: people should know when they must use Keigo in talking with whom and on what occasions. Keigo is currently used in basically two contexts: in discussions with seniors and in business and other formal situations. The first issue with Keigo is language ability itself: young people do not have a strong confidence in their ability to use Keigo appropriately. The second is people’s lack of any sense that they need to use Keigo when required. This is a society-related language issue: young people’s nonuse of Keigo is a reflection of changes in Japanese society, where seniority structures have become weaker and where a greater number of friendly communications occur even though the interlocutors are seniors.
Kanji also accounts for a major part of the difficulty in the Japanese language. Some people voiced the opinion that the dissemination of word processing digital devices, including Keitai, affects their Kanji ability since they do not need to know how to write the target Kanji when inputting it on a digital screen if they know certain other information about it, such as its pronunciation. The fact that they cannot write Kanji unaided gives them a sense of a problem in language use and of a bad influence on the appropriate use of Japanese.
The last three issues, relating to abbreviations, cross-gender language, and unnecessary articulation, are things that participants noticed in people younger than themselves, such as teenagers. Abbreviations make the meanings of words or sentences unclear or cause confusion for those other than the people who are in the know, and these abbreviations tend to be seen as a problem, since they are not in general use.
The second issue can sometimes be seen today; in particular, the use of men’s language by women is regarded as inappropriate (use of women’s language by men may not be regarded as a problem of language use in theory, provided the usage is grammatically correct, but people feel it is strange nonetheless). Social changes also help to explain this issue. The third issue can also be found in young people, and this characteristic appears very commonly in Keitai-mail. It is interesting that phenomena that occur in general Keitai-mail use are sometimes regarded as problems of language use if they occur in general conversation.
Whether the points above are regarded as problematic or not depends on people’s perspectives on language. Some think they are inappropriate; others put them down to the natural phenomenon of language change and therefore do not see them as a problem. One example of the perception of inappropriateness as being person-dependent is that inappropriate use of standard language is, in fact, a problem of language use, and therefore, how people view this reflects their own values. Those who do not think irregularity is inappropriate believe that language changes to become more efficient and that people seek effectiveness more than correctness: it is acceptable if the meaning is properly conveyed even though the language use is not completely accurate. On this point, some argue that the use of correct language requires concentration and that sometimes they unconsciously use language incorrectly.
From the discussion above, it can be seen that people’s sense of the correctness of language is based both on language itself and on more social norm-related properties. Keitai-mail shows frequent use of nonstandard language, and in a sense, Keitai-mail will further boost the direction of use of this type of language property. Social norms are also regarded as an important part of Japanese communication, and these too are a major influence. At the same time, Keitai-mail has its own unique politeness strategy, which sometimes clashes with polite language in general, such as decoration as a reflection of politeness; thus, Keitai-mail has a considerable impact on what is considered ‘polite’ in terms of language.
In addition to the aspects mentioned by participants, one aspect of Japanese today that this study highlights is words written in Katakana, either because they are loanwords from a foreign language or for the sake of emphasis in appearance; Katakana words are increasingly used in current Japanese, and this study investigates how young people feel about this phenomenon. Generally, they do not have a particularly negative impression of Katakana words and do not think the increase in Katakana words is a problem. However, they do feel that the overuse of Katakana words that are not widely used is a problem, since this interferes with comprehension of messages.
It was mentioned that overuse of Katakana words appears to be simply a reflection of too much dependency on their image as denoting intelligence and being ‘cool’, and this can be further explained by the fact that the image of western loanwords as superior still lingers to a certain extent today. From a social viewpoint, some participants pointed out that the increase in Katakana words is a natural outcome of increased globalization and international communication.
Japanese language and outside sources
Language use is influenced by external sources; current media have a great impact on it. Some participants suggested that TV has a strong impact on the inappropriate use of language. The media distribute new trends, including language, to listeners/viewers, and when popular comedians apply some irregularities to language for purposes of humor, listeners/viewers are quickly influenced.
As a new medium, the Internet is influential in the lives of Japanese young people. The sites the participants frequently browse can be categorized into several genres: search sites (e.g., Yahoo, Google), social network sites (e.g., Facebook, mixi), movie sites (e.g., YouTube), information sites (e.g., weather forecast, Google maps), shopping sites (e.g., Amazon, Rakuten) and blog sites both of friends and of famous people. Keitai has become a medium for watching Internet sites, and 47 participants (approximately 80%) indicated that to a certain extent they browse the Internet via Keitai and receive written-based information. At the same time, participants also pointed out that the small moji size on the small screen makes it difficult or uncomfortable to read content.
The graph shows that young people themselves do not feel their reading is as insufficient as the older generation has said. The questionnaire also asks how many books the participants read: on average, the male participants read 2.6 books per month and the female participants read 2.5 books in a month.
For their perspective on reading itself, many participants regarded reading as an important source for acquiring correct, accurate and even beautiful language. They mentioned that reading influences direct language skills such as reading, writing, the use of Kanji and expressions. In addition, some also suggested that reading nurtures the imagination and ability and cultivates knowledge.
The interesting thing here is that even though young people today are said to be a generation that rarely reads books and their actual amount of reading may be small, they nevertheless have a sense of the importance of reading regardless of their actual reading habits in terms of printed books.
Keitai-mail and Japanese language
Finally, in this section, participants’ views on the influence of Keitai-mail on the use of Japanese language and on people’s ability to write are discussed. Overall, the opinions vary along a continuum, from Keitai-mail influences being significant to having no influence at all on language ability. Many participants, however, think Keitai-mail does have an impact on language abilities to a certain extent. One major influence they pointed out is the ability to use Kanji. Since Japanese mobile phones have a Kanji prediction system in the text input, people can generate Kanji if they know how they are pronounced. This results in an inability to write Kanji by hand without a dictionary or even the loss of some Kanji they were able to write before without using such references. Therefore, their overall ability to use Kanji decreases, and this is problematic when they cannot use Keitai or other references for support.
Another possible influence is on overall ability in Japanese expression, which has decreased mainly for two reasons. First, the composition of Keitai-mail is simple and relatively straightforward in expression, and people, particularly younger people who use Keitai-mail from elementary or junior high school, have become used to communicating using these simple exchanges. Therefore, they have no opportunity to master the more complex language use that used to be learned in communication during the course of normal life: people’s linguistic ability remains at the Keitai-mail composition level.
Second, since Keitai-mail communication enables them to communicate conveniently on non-face-to-face occasions, this also decreases opportunities to talk in person. The language used in face-to-face and non-face-to-face communication, particularly spoken and written language, is different, and in general, communication in person requires greater consideration of interlocutors. In this sense, people who heavily depend on and become used to Keitai-mail communication alone may find their overall communication abilities limited.
Many regarded Keitai-mail as an influential communication medium in language use, particularly for younger people who have not yet mastered language ability to the standard levels set as educational goals. This is a strong indication that language use is influenced by this medium and that the language use and expressions found in Keitai-mail will be disseminated or may even replace standard Japanese usage.
The discussions above have been long debated regardless of the immediate expansion of IT-based communication media (through Bunkachō reports until 2017), and both traditional topics and newly emergent topics (such as new Katakana words) are complexly interrelated to give a sense to speakers of what ‘Kokugo’ is as their original language, what is correct or not, or what should be applied as a means of reasonable, convenient communication, taking into consideration globalization and a heavily IT-dependent society.
Like the findings shown above, the data show that the target users have a feeling that their heavy use of IT devices will alter their language and communication practices, even unconsciously, but at the same time, they also accept many aspects derived from IT devices as a part of their cultural and/or cognitive practices; in that sense, people are accustomed to using these communication channels with shared manners.
This study investigates how the Japanese feel about their language skills and expressions used in Keitai-mail. The results suggest that many participants feel Japanese is difficult and, in particular, that Keigo or such polite expressions are still not used with full confidence. In other words, they feel their language uses may be incorrect based on formal national language grammar. That is why casual practice using many dictionary functions may cause the decline of language skills in this era of CMC, and some educators are cautious. At the same time, not all but a certain number of people also use other media, including print books. In this way, people also have the opportunity to improve their literacy skills a great deal, and their concerns about the pitfalls of Keitai use prevent them from using accurate and situationally appropriate language. However, when new media have appeared, such arguments have occurred every time, but people have overcome them; thus Keitai-mail or similar advanced CMC can be used properly as history-set norms of this type of communication. In other words, how people familiarize themselves with language shifts during the evolution of technology has been an important topic for several decades. Future studies are recommended to further deepen our understanding of each type of new media for synchronic and diachronic language uses.
For example, conducting a comparative study between the young and old generations would allow one to describe the differences between those generations in terms of CMC influences in a more precise and dynamic way. Therefore, we also recommend extending this study in terms of the number of participants and their social status.
This paper is based on my Ph.D. dissertation. I would like to express my appreciation to Emeritus Professor Nanette Gottlieb, Dr. Yuriko Nagata and Dr. Michael Harrington.
This research project was supported by several scholarships and a research grant: The University of Queensland, the Faculty of Arts International Scholarship. Nanette Gottlieb’s Australian Professorial Fellowship, funded by the Australian Research Council. Tokyo Foundation.
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