One of the best things about Japan is the fact that so many items have these charming English slogans on them. One of the most maddening things is that often there are charming English slogans but no useful information in English such as instructions for use or even a clue to what the product might be. Nevertheless, it makes for an amusing and informative diversion when you are spending time in a society where you are, for the most part, unable to read or understand much of anything. Depending on your personality or even your mood, you may find this incredibly peaceful or maddening. My anonymous friend loves it…he loves being left in peace and being able to focus on his thoughts and pursuits with minimal interruption from society at large. I deeply suspect he understands, and could likely speak, Japanese much better than he lets on. Because I used to be fairly fluent in Japanese, I found it frustrating at first but I eventually relaxed and found the absence of constant messaging to be a good thing. I was less tired and had energy to read and write more, perhaps motivated by a lack of interaction in daily life? I think my experience is a good illustration of the effect of information overload in today’s relentless global 24/7 society. Kind of unexpected to experience being ‘unplugged’ in Tokyo.
Back to the English words and phrases on items ranging from toilet paper (“fresh and heavenly softness with relaxation”) to laundry soap (“lemon for your fresh cloths”) to clothing (“smart baby and stylish”). I often wonder who gets to write these little sayings? Do they have complete editorial freedom? How does one get these jobs? Is the author chosen by default because they are the best/only English speaker in the company? Or is there some sort of computer program or online word bank they use? (“enter product here for a list of suitable English words and phrases”) Are they subtly mocking us? (Unlikely) Where does this fascination with English come from? They could definitely use an editor if I could ever figure out where to apply for the job 😉 I do think the usage and understanding of English has definitely improved as there are far fewer instances of truly butchered syntax and word choice than there were when I first came to Tokyo. Indeed, my favourite experience of the misuse of English happened when I was in Tokyo in the 90s. I saw a expensively-dressed young woman in her twenties wearing a fitted long-sleeved T-shirt with ‘Fucking Shit’ embroidered in an elegant script. Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of non-conformists in this socio-economic bracket particularly shopping the streets of Ginza. I think things are coming full circle now as our society has developed a fascination with characters from other languages and the internet is full of instances of Westerners getting tattoos that they think mean ‘peace’ or ‘love’ that actually mean nothing of the sort.
Whatever the sociological or cultural reasons behind it, I for one, appreciate these little homilies found on countless items in Japan. It gives me something to read that is easy. I can read hiragana (phonetic alphabet for Japanese words) but it is a time-consuming trial and often if I manage to actually decode the word, I rarely can remember the meaning as I’ve forgotten most of my vocabulary. Think back to kindergarten or Grade 1 when you weren’t completely sure which letter made which sound and you’ll have an idea of my reading level in Japanese. It’s hard. No wonder Karis was so tired when she came home from Kindergarten!