When it comes to weird Japanese English on a sign or a product we all have our own personal favourite. Mine may not be the worst example of the genre, or the funniest, but as it was one of my first – I spotted it as I gazed from the classroom window of my "eikaiwa" in my first week in Japan – I retain a special affection for it. It can still be seen, uncorrected, five minutes walk from Monzen Nakacho station. In fact if you find yourself thereabouts just look up, you can’t miss it. Welcome to "The Day Nice Hotel."
Just to be clear, the "Day Nice" is not a love hotel, but a proper, respectable, business hotel, part of the JAL empire. It has 13 floors, two restaurants and generally favourable reviews on Tripadvisor. The name is proudly displayed on big Hollywood style letters mounted on the top floor. Now I don’t know much about hotel construction but I’m guessing it was a considerable undertaking to plan, erect and furnish this establishment, involving a large number of, one presumes, reasonably intelligent people. So why on earth did it not occur to a single one of them to check that the name they had chosen made sense in English? The "Day Nice Hotel?" What on earth were they thinking of?
Japanese English often hilarious, usually baffling, occasionally disturbing, on signage and products is one of the enduring mysteries of this country. That a people whose shyness and fear of giving offence leaves them often reluctant to utter a word in English flourish seemingly random assemblages of the language on their products, bags, clothes, and even hotels, with no apparent regard to either accuracy or appropriacy, surely requires some explanation.
So what exactly is going on? The writer and voice actor Angus Waycott worked as an advertising copywriter in Tokyo in the 1980s and in his delightful book "Sliding Doors," offers an interesting outsider/insider’s take on how English logos and slogans are produced, and can go so horribly wrong. Waycott describes how he would submit ideas for a corporate slogan, see them accepted, and then mangled by the firm’s committee of alleged English speakers, who needed to justify their superior status by ‘improving’ on his efforts.
Their methodology for doing this was based on the assumption that individual words in sentences in English could be substituted with like for like grammatical replacements with no impact on the overall meaning. He dubs this the "Mechanical Theory" of foreign languages, which, compounded with those hardy perennials word order confusion, and subject object problems, etc, produced copy that would have given Don Draper a heart attack. Waycott’s favourites include such gems as, "For Spick and Clean Kitchen Life Today," "Coffee Communication" and "Beer’s new."
This, though, is surely only a partial explanation. Phonology is also important. English is, apparently, cool and has a fresh, modern sound that creates that seductive atmosphere beloved of the advertisers. Meaning is secondary at best. This is most starkly illustrated in Japanese band names, which use or invent English words and are, in effect marketing devices. Examples of this phenomenon include: Bump of Chicken, Ogre you Asshole, and my personal favourite – Flumpool (?).
Visually too English appears to have some advantages. Douglas Goldstein studied this subject for an academic paper and interviewed copywriters at Japan’s largest the ad agency Dentsu. The copywriters told him that kanji can look a bit "noisy," it "cluttered up the page," and that English had a "cleaner feel." As regards meaning they reported a desire for accuracy but conceded that English, "was chosen more for its decorative than its communicative function."
The grammatical/lexical errors and general strangeness may have a subtle marketing purpose too, and are perhaps not entirely due to carelessness, indifference, or inter-departmental meddling. Why should it be that I still remember the name of that unremarkable hotel after all these years? Weird English has a weird kind of power, and name recognition for an unexceptional product in a crowded marketplace is a significant achievement. In fact, I have a strange nostalgic fondness for the Day Nice and if I ever had the need I might even choose to stay there, just for old time’s sake, making sure to wish the staff a "Day Nice" as I left.
Of course all this might explain the commercial messages, but how about the information notices with an English translation? How to excuse poorly written English here? Again, all is not perhaps what it seems. The writer Keiichi Fukuda believes the real purpose of safety and information announcements and signs, of which there must be more in Japan than any other country, is not to advise us or keep us safe, but to provide employment in government departments. Take comfort then when you next spot the likes of, "It doesn’t become a pay collection excluding the life garbage" (Engrish.com) that your mother tongue has helped put food on a poor salaryman’s table.
One interesting aspect of this apparent, and widespread, corruption of the English language is how little offence it causes among the native English speakers in Tokyo. I’ve never felt an iota of proprietorial affront at the wholesale butchering of "my" language. Nor have I ever heard anyone else complain either. The general view seems to be that it is amusing and endearing, and perhaps even vaguely comforting for homesick foreigners.
But perhaps we are too tolerant. This is after all the language of Shakespeare who, though he would frequently play fast and loose with grammar and syntax, at least always did so beautifully, and with a worthy aim in mind, not just to sell kitchen appliances or pot noodles. Isn’t the brazen mangling of another country’s language, with the resultant atrocities emblazoned everywhere, not a little, er, rude? Should we be offended after all?
According to Waycott, the answer to this is no. For the concocters of these slogans no abuse or disrespect is intended. In fact, Japanese English, he attests, should not be thought of as English at all, but as a subdivision of Japanese. The foreignness of the words conveys not meaning, but conviction, and some exotic cache. And the intended audience is entirely Japanese. And that’s all there is to it.
In any case, this is hardly a one-way street. There is a long history of kanji being exploited for its novelty and aesthetic value, stretching from at least Van Gogh, no less, who used very bizarre looking faux kanji in some of his lesser known Japanese-influenced works. More recently, British clothing manufacturer Superdry, inspired by Engrish, have started adorning their wears with gibberish Japanese. And kanji tattoos remain as popular as ever, with meaning it seems barely considered - I once received an email from a friend in London, with a photo of his colleague’s shoulder and its kanji tattoo. He asked me if I could possibly translate it, as his colleague was "just curious."
Are things getting better? Possibly, and with the Olympics on the horizon, they probably should. But I have become so used to being confronted with botched English that I have grown to rather like it. If nothing else it gives you a sense of superiority (totally unmerited) and usefulness as you are reassured that your presence in Japan might still be necessary.
So it can come as a bit of a shock, and even a mild disappointment, when you come across some written English on a sign or poster that is perfectly correct. I was taken aback in a clinic recently when I spotted a small notice next to the reception desk featuring a picture of a well-known grooming tool with a cross through it, and a message in Japanese translated as follows in English: "The nail-clipper cannot be lent!"
I wasn’t sure which had puzzled me most, the unusual instruction, or the impressive use of grammar.
But how wonderfully Japanese, even when you get the message, you are still confused.© Japan Today