Japan’s Strange Love Affair With Western Words

IMG_6101 Hysteric Glamour

One encounters scrambled English around the world. The most typical example is a sign that is intended to communicate information to English-speaking travelers, but which is rendered more-or-less unintelligible, or at least funny, by inept translation. These afford a slightly guilty pleasure, but our amusement is derived from the earnest efforts of someone who is probably knows far more English than we have troubled to learn of their language. While funny, scrambled translations don’t offer any deep insight into another culture.

Something stranger and more interesting is happening in Japan, however. Of course one sees the occasional scrambled translation, as well as perfectly correct usage. But much more frequently one sees western words — or at least letters — used in a completely different way. Nearly every stylish shop has a western name, and often one or more additional western catch phrases. These sometimes make sense, but often make little or no sense in the ostensible language. They are not, however, defective translations, since the audience is Japanese, not English or French speaking. The creators of these brands and slogans could not care less what they mean in the ostensible language; their sole purpose is to make an attractive impression on their Japanese patrons.

On my first visit to Japan I found these twisted uses of English or French upsetting, and even disorienting. One’s brain automatically tries to “make sense” of writing that appears to be in a familiar language. In Japan this effort often produces puzzlement, or complete failure. The sense-making system eventually becomes fatigued by so much meaningless input. That, at least is how I explained how I reacted on my first stay here. This time, four years later, I had steeled myself in advance not to expend too much energy trying to parse the pseudo-English that surrounds one here. I continue to find the phenomenon fascinating, but I’m happy to report that it no longer upsets me as it initially did.

My approach now is to give the text a light once-over for actual meaning. Sometimes it will make normal sense! Then to consider — as best I can from outside the culture — how the phrase might look and sound to a Japanese speaker who has a nodding acquaintance with the ostensible language. It seems clear, especially with regard to fashion, that foreign words and phrases carry a cachet of sophistication, whether or not actually used correctly.

One distant parallel, going in the other direction, is college kids getting a tattoo in Chinese or Japanese characters, even though they have only a dim idea of what it actually means (or if it means anything). The meaning doesn’t really matter; they get the tattoo because they like how it looks, and what it says about their embrace of Asian culture to friends who also won’t be able to read them. In both cases the elements of the foreign language are being re-purposed as design elements, not employed to communicate any specific meaning.

We don’t see widespread use of Chinese or Japanese characters in western commerce, because westerners typically can’t read them at all. While they may impart an exotic aura to certain brands of tea or perfume, in most cases they would just be mystifying. While most Japanese speak limited English, they would know what the letters sound like, and would be familiar with many common words. This creates the necessary conditions for the astonishing proliferation of western lettering in Japanese commerce.

I’ve come to distinguish several overlapping categories of how English and French are used here. The most anodyne uses words correctly, just in an odd way, perhaps saying something that we would blush to express so directly. The second category mashes words together, mangles apostrophes and/or grammar, but is still basically intelligible. A third category uses words purely for their look and sound, with no discernible “meaning.”

Here are some examples of Japanese Shops Using English (or French)


Author: Robert Mack

My training is in science, law and technology. I blog about happy subjects such as travel and desperately worrisome subjects such as Ebola and Trump.

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