Sunday, December 15, 2013

Memories of Japan: "Engrish"

Today is Sunday, December 15, 2013.

There is a language spoken in Japan that is unique in the world.  Like a lot of other foreigners in Japan, I called it "Engrish." This is not the same as my native tongue.  It is the English language as only the Japanese speak and write it. 

When I was in Japan, I had a collection of T-shirts and sweatshirts that had funny English on them. I also saw plenty of funny signs in English, as well as some questionable English on packages of various food items.  I didn't actually mean to start the collection of T-shirts, but I would be shopping and come across one with English written all over it.  I would naturally read the English and invariably I would start to laugh.  Then everybody would stare, and I always felt that I had to buy the item after that.  It went on for years: See.  Read.  Laugh.  Buy.  Then I would take the items home and store them.  I never wore any of them except one pink sweatshirt that said "naughty girl" on it.  I wore that at home.  When I left Japan, I should have taken pictures of all of the shirts before I threw them away.  

Since I wasn't a tourist for the vast majority of my time in Japan, I wasn't carrying a camera all the time.  When I was carrying one, I also had to worry about film and batteries for the flash. (Remember those?) It's so  much easier, now, to just whip out your cell phone and take a digital picture, and I'm grateful to the more recent tourists who have uploaded their photos online.

Since all textbooks for schools in Japan had to be approved by the Ministry of Education, they all had pretty much the same types of lessons in them, and a lot of mistakes were perpetrated that way.  I had people argue with me about what was correct in English, because they had learned something different in school, and their textbook couldn't possibly be wrong.  Well, I'm here to tell you, there were some mistakes in those textbooks.  I like to call them the Japanese National Mistakes, because everyone makes them.  What kinds of mistakes?  Well, some of them seemed like small points, but as an example, many Japanese told me that "You'd better..." sounds much more polite than "You should...."   If you are a native English speaker, you will probably sense that it's the other way around.  Anyway, that's what happens when  you have a system of governmental approvals.  Instead of correcting future editions of a book, nobody says anything because the government approved it, so everything inside must be correct. 

I know what it's like to make mistakes and be laughed at. God knows, I made enough mistakes of my own.  I'd tell you what they were, but they would not be funny in translation.  Trust me. I just want you to know that although I am going to present here some funny English for you to laugh at, I do have enough of a sense of humility to know that the Japanese are not the only ones who butcher foreign languages.  Maybe not quite so blatantly, but we do make some pretty spectacular faux pas. 

I recall asking someone why Japanese had this thing about wearing clothing with English all over it, especially considering what some of it said.  The answer I got was that most Japanese see it as a kind of design, and that made sense to me, because I could feature Americans wearing shirts that have big, beautiful kanji characters on them and not especially caring what they mean.  

Still, I was shocked to see a sweet young lady sit down across from me in the train wearing a smart skirt and white sleeveless top that had the word "shit" written neatly over her heart.   I wanted to ask her if she knew what it meant, but was too embarrassed to do so.  Another young lady had a T-shirt that had "FEEL FREE" written right over her boobs.  I sure wish I'd taken a picture. 

There was a grocery store that specialized in food items for "foreigners," that had signs in English.  The doors were marked "Entrance" and "Exitrance."  I can't remember anymore whether that was in Osaka or Tokyo.  And then, there was the coffee shop called GOD.  I can't remember exactly where that was, either.  

Here, then, are photographs that some astute tourists have taken as memories of their time in Japan.  Enjoy. 

The first set are T-shirts with English on them.  It's not just one or two words, it's often whole sentences, in various typefaces.  Mostly gibberish, with a few unintended sexual innuendos here and there.  These may appear small, so you may have to click on them to get the "big picture."  I have grouped some photos into collages.

The "nutsack" one is my favorite.  Everybody should have one, don't you think?

Here are some signs in English.
These are my all-time favorites.  I really do believe that today is under construction.

Signs in the toilet.... 
Restaurant signs.  I must say, they seem much more eager to serve foreigners than they used to be.

And finally, some funny signs on food items or in food advertising.
I hope you have enjoyed the "Engrish."  As you can see, as an English teacher in Japan, I had my work cut out for me.  :-)

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