Having taught English in Japan for about 10 of the past 30 years, 20 of which I worked as an engineer and manager in international business for companies based in the US, I can say there is never a dull moment. Just look around you at how many misuses of English there are. I am still at a loss as to why there are so many mistakes given that almost everyone studies English for at least 6 years. The sentences in which the mistakes are found are often very simple and certainly much simpler than those being studied by Japanese high school students. Just this morning I had an interesting experience. At the bus stop there was a stylish young woman wearing a very nice sweater that had the sentence “YOU STYLE IS VERY COOL!” printed on it in large bold outline letters. Everytime I see
this kind of thing I have the same questions.
- What was the designer thinking when he chose the English sentence or words? Did he make the error on purpose or by accident?
- When the young women bought the sweater, did she recognize the mistake and decide to buy it anyway because she thought it was cute?
- Does she have any concern that wearing something with such an obvious mistake might reflect badly on her or does it just fit the image she wants to portray? Would she wear it in the U.S. or the U.K. etc.?
I will ask some of my young women students about it to see what they think. Of course I know that English or any language other than Japanese on clothing in Japan is, for the most part, just decoration, after all English is not the operative language in Japan except in case of the “for sale”, “50% off “, “open” and “close” signs. Also, other than those who have studied English for many years or lived abroad, people mostly pay no attention to its correctness or incorrectness. Unfortunately, one step outside of Japan and the image that it presents is interpreted very differently. English is the defacto international language and those mistakes would be noticed and not ignored. My students understand better what I am talking about when I remind them of the T-shirts and caps etc. in the US with KANJI characters on them. They have all noticed many mistakes on those which caused them to laugh.
I ask myself what this means for me. It is a difficult question, but I guess it is just a very clear sign that, despite everyone studying English for 6-10 years, Japan is still the land of opportunity for English teachers and English school owners. We have an excellent opportunity to help many students make the important step from not really caring if such things are correct, to actually making a personal choice to choose clothes with correct English instead and suggest that to others. I think there is a very very long road ahead of us but we and our students will get there sooner or later.
By the way, if you are looking for a present for a friend with a baby or a young child, you might want to drop by Starvations which is located in the Hankyu Railways terminal building in Osaka Umeda. They have some truly excellent baby and children’s clothes. It is my favorite shop for buying clothes for my friends and relaltive’s children. But if you are going to take the present back to an English-speaking country, you should ask the store staff to refrain from putting the Starvations sticker on the package. I am not sure why they chose such a depressing name for the store, but perhaps they just thought they were making a new word by joining the bright word “Star” and an abbreviation of the word “innovations”. In any case it would have been a good idea to check an English dictionary to find out the meaning before they decided on this name. Well, I guess I am lucky that their lack of attention to this gave me something to write about and I really do love their clothing!
We are lucky to live in such a wonderful, safe and peaceful country where we have the precious opportunity to really help our students to become fully capable users of English and also discerning customers. What could be better than this?
All so true Al. Have you seen this site? engrish.com ?
Al Bartle says
Yes, I have seen it. Since I wrote this post I got a few comments from students and friends. Last night I and a Japanese friend, who had spent 3 years in NZ, discussed the possibility that “people who wear English in Japan mostly do not speak it and will never speak it and those who do not wear it often can speak it fairly well or will someday become able to speak it.” I hope this is not true but it does seem to be in most cases. What do you think? In any case we have a lot of work to do to raise the awareness of our students that they are English ambassadors and should try to set a good example by refusing to buy strange English apparel.
Al, SSE Okamoto
Yes Sir again I agree…Most, if not all of our students, and those that attend other schools surely know better and are careful about their apparel…If you ever get up to Tokyo, and you wanna see it all, I recommend (if you can stand it), walking through Harajuku….Shops lined up with such clothing with English words, phrases, sentences, etc., that don’t make much sense or could be considered offensive…Come with an open mind…Last time I was there (December) I was surely the oldest person in town! Don’t care about that though, just an observation… I am sure there are such places in Osaka and Kobe as well…jim
Al Bartle says
No doubt about it sir. It is interesting and my Japanese friend even said some mistakes might be on purpose to get attention although most of the attention will come from native speakers and not Japanese which could be the intention. I even sometimes wonder if some foreigners do not help the Japanese designers to make some of the strange English on apparel. I hope not but you never know. Anyway, maybe we need to promote a brand of Apparel with correct and non-offensive English. I see a potential business there and I wager to guess that 80% of what is out there now is either incorrect or offensive. Food for thought! Enjoy Japan! It is a great place to live and work.
Al, SSE Okamoto
Great article. I will recommend all my students read it and we can discuss it in class. It is something that nearly every foreigner I know thinks about when they come to Japan. I have thought that it might be a good business if we at Smith’s school offer our proofreading skills for shop advertisements and restaurants. Cute mistakes are one thing, but poor spelling, rude expressions and absolutely unintelligible sentences can really ruin an otherwise great restaurant in the eyes of foreigners. I guess that their customer base is Japanese so few notice the mistakes but still, it is a shame. A few minutes work is all that is needed to impress all their customers.
Thanks for taking the time to write the article.
Al Bartle says
Thanks. I am having my students read and discuss it in Class too. The idea to offer proofreading to shops and designers is good. It cannot hurt and why not make the English correct, right?