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Unlocking the mysteries of bizarre advertising English in Japan

The bizarre English you see virtually everywhere is simply baffling when you first come to Japan. It’s especially strange when you consider that even at the ticket counter at a tourist attraction they may not speak English, but English is splattered all over signs, t-shirts, magazines, shops and television.

Japanese ads
Image source

The abundance of advertising English is strange. But the actual English itself is so weird that you find yourself either scratching your head in wonder or laughing until tears are running down your chin. Japanese advertising English is the kind of stuff no English speaker could possibly come up with.

How to win the trust of English speakers

At first, you laugh. Then, you really start to wonder.

What got me wondering was a sign I saw at a major bank in Yokohama. The windows of the bank were covered with giant advertisements showing stern yet friendly bankers with English words at the bottom. The words were things like, ‘Reliability’ and ‘Flexibility’ – good qualities you’d want from a financial institution that’s going to handle your money.

But one made my jaw drop. It was a huge, prominently displayed sign overlooking a busy pedestrian area that showed a glasses-wearing, serious and sober banker-looking man crossing his arms and underneath in big letters – ‘Trustship.’

Now, I understand that maybe no one working at the bank speaks English competently. But here’s the thing. Not only is this major bank unwilling to pay a translator or even random native speaker for a tiny native check, which reflects badly on its business practices, but it’s not even thorough enough to check iffy words for a very visible sign in Google search to see if it exists.

(Note: It doesn’t. I just did a Google search and it turned up 0 exact matches).

Are these people are going to handle my money? I don’t think so. I just don’t feel any trustship with them.

The search for meaning in meaningless English

It’s pretty much common knowledge that Japanese advertisers use English decoratively. But ‘trustship’ made me wonder about that. I understand that the bank isn’t trying to lure foreign customers with its advertising English, but simply trying to look cool. But there’s some logic to it. After all, we have friendship, so why not trustship?

Milk bag
Care for some dairy? (Bag from a fashion store.)

Plus, if the bank wanted to use really cool purely decorative English, why something like bumfuzzle, paradiddle, diphthong or disestablishmentarianism? Way more impressive in my opinion.

I think the reason is that the twisted English you see in Japan (that’s not aimed at foreign people) actually does serve a communicative function. It serves as both decoration and communication, but it’s a limited kind of communication from people who don’t know English well to people who don’t know English well.

This bears out not only on signs like the one mentioned above, but everywhere you see English. The t-shirts Japanese kids and teens wear that are splattered mercilessly with English words and phrases in bright, shiny text often have some uplifting message about trying your best or being a truly wild person underneath all the nonsense. The words are clearly chosen for their meaning.

Check our English? Nah…

I’m not the only person who thinks this. I stumbled on a senior thesis from Carnegie Mellon University where the author argues the same thing in greater detail. While I back up my assertion with half-baked observations he actually provides data (as well as other sources that share this opinion).

Along with his studies, he has a chance to talk to copywriters at the world’s biggest ad agency, Dentsu, who tell him they use English because it looks cool, is more spacious and gives a certain atmosphere, but also because of the meaning (okay, perceived meaning). The paper also mentions that this giant ad agency has no in-house English editing and no formal outsourcing either, aside from copywriters sometimes asking English-speaking friends or acquaintances.

He also points out that the degree of meaning vs. decoration depends somewhat on the medium, which I’ve noticed as well. Advertising language tends to have the most meaning while t-shirts can get totally wacko (probably because they’re not meant to really be read).

A car for porn lovers

If you live in Japan long enough, you start to ignore the bizarre English and it just becomes part of the landscape. A really crazy one that would have your friends crying laughing only makes you smirk, and then you get on with things. You fail to understand the side-splitting laughter of your friends who visit.

But I really think someone should talk to Suzuki about naming its new mini-car ‘Hustler.’

Goldstein, Douglas. “The Use of English in Japanese Advertising.” Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University.

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