Engrish Lessons

(Tokyo, Japan)
-English Lessons in Japan
Advertisement for an English school in Japan (courtesy of liquidindian)

Baby Blanket
A bed sheet in a children’s sheet set, elsewhere in Japan (courtesy of tarobot)

Bowling Alley
A bowling alley in Osaka (courtesy: petitshoo)

Throughout our time traveling across Japan, it was quite common for us to see English-usage slips and/or creative English-usages like these in signage, packaging, and advertising. At first what is often amusingly dismissed as bad English, is a bit more interesting if you dig down a bit. First, you have to consider the fact that the Japanese are pretty darn smart, run the world’s second largest economy, and practically invented the word “perfectionist.” So with all that going for them, what’s the deally yo?

The first thing I learned is that English in Japan is COOL. It adds the air of sophistication and the same air of “cool” or cosmopolitan flair as adding a bit of French or Italian to your product might once have done in the United States (before every bistro and cafe on every street corner was doing it). By sprinkling in a bit of English into your otherwise Japanese sign or even your business card, one can add a bit of international sophistication to whatever you are selling.

Secondly, as Canadian Writer Will Ferguson points out in Hitching Rides With Buddah, they’re not making the signs for foreigners like me.

“Harder to understand are the bizarre English slogans of American companies operating in Japan: ex: “I feel Coke!” I was bothered by this–after all, you’d think that if anyone would get it right it would be American companies–but then, one day, I realized these slogans were not aimed at me, but at Japanese consumers. And Japanese consumers have all studied basic English they can remember and recognize beginner phrases such as “I feel_____,” “I speak_____” and “I am______” That the actual slogans used make sense is not important. They instill a sense of cool cosmopolitan awareness in the consumer and in the product. Once I realized what they were doing these oddball phrases seemed less like a joke and more like a brilliant marketing ploy.”

The book further points out that despite the mandated 10+ years of English classes in Japanese school, the fundamental Japanese perfectionism leads to a “grammar-sharp and language-shy” population. We found that true, and despite this English education its often difficult to get more than a few simple sentences out of any randomly selected person on the streets, let alone directions to the bathroom.

But, I will admit, in some cases its not an attempt to add some “coolness” to a Japanese sign targeted at the “grammar-sharp, language-shy” Japanese people, its just a matter of no one checking the English in an expedited attempt to make a simple sign. In the case of an often-photographed sign we came across in one of Kyoto’s many temples (see below), you can see what can only be a sloppy translation job done by a guy who probably just wanted to get home for the day. I imagine it was well past 8pm (a normal end of the work day in Japan) and this guy had one last sign to translate. He started out eager, but then possibly bogged down in dictionaries, grammar guidebooks, as he was nearing the end of his day, he just sort of hastily translates it, starts to run out of room and lazily drifts off into an end-of-the-work-day haze.

Kyoto Temple Translation
(Photo courtesy of mrjorgen)

I could explain more, but I think you understand my hot communication, and so on…


3 Responses to “Engrish Lessons”

  1. liquidindian Says:

    Hey – thanks for using my picture.

    Another good example is the use of “Let’s ________”. In one disturbing case, I had a woman say to me, “Let’s toilet!”.

  2. Translator Says:

    When I was in Japan my university lecturer always used to say… ‘If you want to make water, make water over there’ and point at the toilet. Used to make me laugh every time! (great pictures btw)

  3. Fanny-Min Becker Says:

    Language, language!

    I was once using ‘polite’ HK Chinese in a restaurant in Mainland China. I went to the back kitchen and asked a guy there where I could find ‘a room to wash my hands’.

    ‘You can do it right here’, he pointed to the basin of water in front of him.

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