Saturday 24 July 2010


I've just arrived back from a 3-week holiday in Japan (more of which can be read about here). One thing that struck me on my travels was the curious relationship that the country has with the English language. The bookshops have metres and metres of shelves devoted to English-language learning, yet English seems to be an enigma to most of its population. Just some examples of the bizarre use of English I spotted en route were Jolly Pasta (an Italian restaurant); Stationery Life (an office equipment store - good job it wasn't stationary); and Human & Heart (a dating agency). Another oddball phrase I saw on an advertising hoarding was “Now, life is living you”. Grammatically correct, but what’s it supposed to mean?

I spent another day T-shirt spotting and espied various bizarre texts emblazoned across the wearers' fronts. How about Eat More Buck, Never Ending Estate or Keep Frying Sail? My absolute favourite however, was a t-shirt worn by an attractive, well-endowed woman in her twenties with the words Busty Magic (sorry, no photos).

Along the way, I read a highly insightful travelogue of Japan by Will Ferguson, a Canadian writer who is best known for his humorous critique of Canadian history and culture. Before he became a successful writer he spent several years in Japan as an English teacher. In Hokkaido Highway Blues, he details his experiences hitchhiking across Japan, with many amusing asides on Japanese culture and society. One chapter is given over to his observations on Englese - this is the Japanese version of Dunglish - which explains the fascinating love-affair they have with the English language much more succintly than I could ever do:

[In Niigata] the weather was markedly cooler than it had been, and I found that even layering myself in T-shirts was not enough to stave off the creeping dank and cold. In search of warmer garb, I threaded my way into the rabbit hutch of retail shops that spread in tunneled corridors beneath Niigata Station. It took a while just to find something that fit, and even then I had to settle for a hooded pullover with arms that were five inches too short, giving me that long-limbed gorilla look that women find so endearing. Fortunately, as a sort of bonus, the pullover had a bold message across the back, written in Japanese-English, or "Englese" as it is sometimes known. The message had a definite rap-music rhythm to it and over the course of the next few weeks, whenever I was alone in front of a mirror, I took to rappin' it out loudly (with the proper angry, urban-street-gang scowly face and postures of course). It went like this:
Piece by Piece
We Can't be Born Special
by my power present international!
Produce Selection Since 1976
Hit It!

This is one of the most surreal aspects of life in Japan: seeing your language reduced to decoration, removed from any context or meaning, rendered into LSD musings. The Japanese approach to language—and most everything else, now that I think about it—is relentlessly deconstructionist. Everything is reduced to the bare elements and then reconstructed. It is less a form of mimicry and more one of reinterpretation. This works great with cars, cameras, and clocks, but is less effective with something as organic as language.
My students in Japan were determined to reduce English to mathematical dictums that could then be reassembled. One student, who was a diligent pupil but refused to speak English with me in class, said with perfect sincerity, "It's just that I hate to make mistakes. So, first I will become fluent in English and
then I will speak it." When I tried to explain to him that learning a language was a process and that making mistakes was a necessary, even desirable aspect of it, he politely dismissed my suggestions as being eccentric. Learn by making mistakes? Ridiculous.
The result is a nation of grammar-sharp, language-shy people. And the primary victim in all of this is the English language itself. When I ran into one of my high school students in a T-shirt that read ENJOY MY BROTHER! I challenged him to explain the phrase. It was a wager, really, because I promised him ten thousand yen if he could do it. This young man was our top student, destined for one of Japan's finest universities, and he took up the challenge with confidence. "
Enjoy is the verb," he said, "my is a possessive pronoun and brother is the object. The subject is understood to be you, which makes the sentence a command phrase. The exclamation mark adds urgency." He then held out his hand for the money. "But what does it mean?" I said. He looked at me, utterly baffled, and said "Enjoy is the verb, my is a possessive pronoun, brother is the—" Needless to say, I didn't pay him the ten thousand yen and he is still bitter about it. In his mind, he did explain it and all I did was welsh on a bet.
The idea that a sentence can have a meaning that is greater than the sum of its parts is hard to get across in Japan. My neighbor's wife had a favorite shirt that said LUSTY TOY, which I could never bring myself to explain to her.
(For all I knew it was true. Maybe she
was a lusty toy and proud of it. Who knows?)
Corporate Japan, with millions of dollars in resources at its fingertips, still can't come up with brand names that make any sense. English has a definite cachet in Japan, much like French once did in America, hence the irresistible urge to add a sprinkling of English on everything, from pop cans to political posters. Some of the most celebrated examples of Japanese brand names include a sports drinks named
Sweat; powdered coffee cream called Creap; round, chocolate plugs labeled, disturbingly, Colon; and a soft drink dubbed Calpis, a name that always suggests bovine urine to me. (I sent a package of Calpis to my friend Calvin Climie, an Ottawa-based animator, along with the note: "What a brilliant move, Call Marketing your own urine! You'll make a fortune. As long as you have access to tap water, the supply will never dry up.")
A lady friend of mine from Britain once showed me the tiny instruction pamphlet that came with a box of Japanese feminine hygiene products. The instructions were in Japanese, but even here the company had thought it necessary to jazz things up a bit with a display of English. At the top of the page was the stirring motto:
Let's All Enjoy Tampon Life!
Harder to understand are the bizarre English slogans of American companies operating in Japan:
I feel Coke! Speak Lark! (a cigarette company) and I am Slims! (Virginia Slims). 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 that these slogans were not aimed at me, but at Japanese consumers. And Japanese consumers have all studied basic English and they can remember and recognize beginner phrases such as "I feel______," "I speak______" and "I am______" That the actual slogans used make little 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. This is also why so many mottoes use the command phrase "Let's all enjoy______" and variations of it. This is not because it is common English (how often do you ever use the phrase "let's all enjoy" in a normal English conversation?), but because it is common textbook English, in much the same way that "This is a pen!" is such a popular English greeting in Japan.
Entire books have been written about Japanese-English. Some of it is bizarre, some of it is almost logical in a nonlinear, Japanese sort of way, and a few are even poetic. I met an American fellow once whose greatest treasure was a small antique tea box. On the back, in English, was a list of the benefits to be gained from a cup. The list was as follows:
The Advantage of Tea
(A)  on auxiliary the memory of writingses-say
(B)  in increasing the prevailness of poetry
(C)  For lossing the fret of mind
(D)  By Assisting the discourse of gentility.
(E)  With refreshing the spirit of heart
(F)  On Digesting the prevention of stomach
(G)  To growing the sperm of body
(H)  In exempting the sadness of lone,
(I)   For Driving the evilness of lone

Naturally, I immediately tried to buy the tea box from the American, but he wouldn't relent, no matter how much yen I waved in his face. It was a beautiful box as well, decorated in dragons and faded gold kanji and elaborate patterns. It still had the faint scent of tea. And who among us, in drinking a cup of Japanese tea, has not felt an increase in the prevailness of poetry? Or the prevention of stomach? And who, in turn, has not sensed the sadness of lone being exempted?