But a potential problem is lurking in its proposed revision.
The Genetics Society of Japan, as you might expect, spends a lot of time discussing dominant and recessive genes. That doesn’t mean its members like those terms, though, and the organization has announced that it will no longer be using the traditional Japanese terms for “dominant” and “recessive,” citing a need to replace them in order to prevent misunderstandings about, and prejudice against, those in the latter group.
In Japanese, the word for dominant is yusei, which is written in kanji like this.
Recessive, on the other hand, is ressei, and written with these characters.
The problem with these terms, according to the GSJ, lies in the other vocabulary their respective first kanji show up in. 優 is the leading character in the verb sugureru (優れる), which means “to be better/superior/preferable.” Meanwhile, 劣 is found at the beginning of otoro (劣る), a verb that’s the opposite of sugureru and means “to be inferior.”
▼ Dominant and superior (left column) vs. recessive and inferior (right)
The GSJ contends that because of these overlapping kanji, laymen can become confused and arrive at the incorrect conclusion that dominant genes or genetic traits are preferable to recessive ones, and thus view people with recessive genes or traits as being less capable than others.
Because of that, the GSJ has revised its internal terminology standards. 優性/yusei/dominant has been replaced with 顕性/akirasei/overt, with 顕 having the meaning of “exposure” or “clarity.” The chosen replacement for 劣性/ressei/recessive is 潜性/sensei/latent, with 潜 representing the condition of latency or being hidden.
GSJ president and University of Tokyo professor Takehiko Kobayashi said that the organization plans to submit a petition to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to have the new terms replace existing ones in textbooks and educational materials. The GSJ will also be releasing a compiled collection of a number of proposed genetics terminology revisions commercially, for 2,800 yen (US$25), sometime later this month.
However, it’s debatable how necessary the change is. The 優 from 優性/dominant also shows up in 優しい/yasashii/kind-hearted, yet Japanese culture has no widely held perception of people with dominant genes being more caring or considerate than people of any other genotype. In the case of long-established compound-kanji vocabulary, native speakers don’t necessarily have their image of the word colored by its kanji components, in much the same way as English speakers don’t get a sense of repetition from the word “respect,” despite its origins lying in the concept of “looking back/repeatedly (hence the “re-“) at someone in admiration.”
There’s also the fact that while 潜性/sensei means “latent,” the kanji 潜 also shows up in the verb 潜む/hisomu, which means “to be hidden,” or, in more sinister contexts, “to lurk.” That’s something which isn’t likely to leave the best impression on people who get caught up on etymology, and may end up being a major sticking point in the GSJ’s bid to have its proposed terms become the new standard.
Follow Casey om Twitter, where he wonders how much trouble would have been averted if Metal Gear Solid’s Liquid Snake understood that recessive genes aren’t bad.