I spent most of my time in Japan regarding Engrish as a ridiculous phenomenon, a national joke that I was in on and the actual nation wasn’t, and probably also symptomatic of some more serious problems (how serious can you take English education in Japan seriously when the new nationwide social welfare system is called “My Number”?). Little did I know, I was painting with too broad a brush. There certainly is some Engrish that shows just how little regard there is in Japan for English as a language. Hidden among all the nonsense T-shirts though there is some Engrish that represents genuine attempts at communication, some with English speakers and some tailored to Japanese speakers. This post represents an attempt at describing those types of Engrish and separating the noise from what real signal exists.
What follows is a 3-way classification scheme for Engrish. If you don’t know what Engrish is, welcome to the Internet!
Decorative Engrish (Pure Engrish)
This is the big one, the first one you’ll notice on landing and the one you’ll see on practically every T-shirt from the time you arrive until the time you leave.
For example, the other day at the supermarket (called Potato, whose slogan is “Welcome friends – I am POTATO”) I saw a portly 11- or 12-year-old boy wearing a baby blue T-shirt that said “Baby Doll” on it. Did he or his parents choose this message on purpose? Almost definitely not. Did the manufacturer even know what they were writing? Again, most likely not. The main characteristic of Decorative Engrish is precisely that no one displays it with the expectation that it will be read and understood, and therefore many examples of Decorative Engrish show signs of having been machine translated, chosen at random from a dictionary, or otherwise scrawled out quickly without editing or proofreading.
Other symptoms of Decorative Engrish include incongruously long and verbose messages, random words unconnected to each other grammatically or semantically, and prominent placement on things that don’t normally carry messages of any kind. In Japan, that category includes clothing, but rambling paragraphs of text on the sides of ladies’ handbags or splayed across shop windows are other common examples.
This phenomenon of “foreign writing as decoration” extends to non-English writing as well. Bakeries (called パティシエ patishie) use faux French for much of their signage and many of their products – don’t expect to see ラズベリー razuberii at a patishie; they’re called フランボワーズ furanbowaazu there. I once saw a middle-aged woman wearing a T-shirt with what looked like a message in Thai on it, and when I asked what it said she said she didn’t know and just likes “ethnic”-style clothes. For all we knew, it could have said “Crap your hands”.
A common mistake, both among newcomers to Japan and critics of those enjoying the Engrish phenomenon, is to assume that Decorative Engrish represents a genuine attempt at communication, and making fun of it is tantamount to mocking an immigrant’s foreign accent. However, Decorative Engrish is precisely the opposite of learner English, or interlanguage. Someone speaking with a foreign accent is attempting real communication after likely years of hard work and is facing constant pressure and likely discrimination from the proliferation of native speaker standards. Decorative Engrish is not an attempt to convey any message at all and usually skips the hard work of re-situating your message in a new system of symbols by dumping text into Google Translate or Weblio to create something that looks like English without any effort, for an audience that doesn’t know the difference. It conveys the messages “this is English” and “we are modern and internationally-minded” simply by nature of its encoding in the language of the Other.
The FAQ on the Engrish site addresses this type of Engrish and describes it in much the same terms I’ve used here, plus a bit of Native-Speakerism to excuse the poor state of English education in Japan. There is reason however because of the intentions behind Decorative Engrish, i.e. as pure internationalist token and not written language per se, to expect it to be rarer than Engrish which is designed actually to carry messages to other Japanese speakers. As we shall see down the page, that type of Engrish and not Decorative Engrish is by far the most common.
Quantitative prevalence of Decorative Engrish
To assess the rough relative prevalence of the 3 types of Engrish, I did a very informal survey of Engrish in Japan while doing 3 very routine activities: Buying groceries, driving, and walking around inside my house. I included in my tally of Engrish all text written in the Roman Alphabet using English or English-like words, but excluded:
- Katakana. Including katakana would have drastically increased the amount of Japanese Quasi-Pidgin English (described in the following section). Incidentally, the fact that Engrish occurs very often in katakana (a syllabary for writing loanwords, among other things) speaks to its status as a part of the Japanese linguistic landscape rather than that of English.
- Messages whose meanings and locations I thought would be understandable and unmarked to English speakers unfamiliar with Japan. That is, I limited my counting to instances of Engrish, not English. In doing so I attempted to employ my sense of what is normal with reference to my home dialect and my understanding of other World Englishes.
(In counting examples of Engrish I often felt I was reactivating a part of my brain that had lain dormant for the past 10 years, reawakening my senses to levels of oddity I’d learned to ignore. Before attempting this survey, I only really noticed Engrish that was truly bizarre, failing to register products, shirts, and banners that were wrong but wrong in a very common way. In this sense this project may have traumatized me a bit, leaving me unable to process visual information in a normal way by re-unacclimating me to banal everyday Engrish.)
The tallies of Decorative Engrish in the 3 venues I checked were:
Shopping: 5 instances (all T-shirts)
There were a few instances that straddled types of Engrish as described here. I will explore these in subsequent sections.
As noted earlier, Decorative Engrish tended to appear in contexts that didn’t really call for any message at all. At the supermarket, these were all other shoppers’ T-shirts (example: “CREATIVITY”). At my house, they were as seen in the below pictures, extraneous and unnecessary messages meant as nothing besides symbolic inclusions of foreign language (none of the books whose covers are pictured here include any English inside).
Not all Engrish is Decorative Engrish – some non-standard English usage in Japan is the product of real efforts to communicate. The audience for this communication is not always English speakers, but rather other Japanese who share in an English-like language used mostly to convey simply promotional messages.
Japanese Quasi-Pidgin English, or Engrish as a Register of Japanese
Live in Japan for a while and you’ll start to see regularities in Engrish in certain contexts – “Let’s (n)”, for example, often appears prominently by itself on billboards or hanging above different departments in shopping malls, and other signs bearing messages like “Character Goods”, “Toilet”, and “Challenge the (n)” show up in places you might expect to see properly worded informational signs in Japanese. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that putting this message in English is still unnecessary and therefore partly for show, the message is intended to be understood and follows rules of syntax, however different from English as we know it.
It’s mostly unacknowledged for what it is, but a type of language exists between Japanese speakers which is composed of English loanwords, some English grammar, and its own conventions of usage. This meets most of the conditions in the formal definition of a pidgin, a simplified language to facilitate communication between non-native speakers. The for show aspect of this phenomenon arises because in the case of this pidgin English in Japan, the parties creating and receiving the message actually also share a native language, Japanese, and this pidgin therefore has as its origin something besides an organic need to communicate by mutual non-natives. What I have chosen to call Japanese Quasi-Pidgin English (hereafter JQPE) could be described as a special register of Japanese especially common in advertising and signage, or as a species of simplified English unique to certain contexts in Japan. Many Japanese indeed believe this to be English, much in the same way Americans believe when they say croissant they are really speaking French as opposed to a French loanword in English. The type of language that motivates signage like this needs to be seen as part of the Japanese linguistic landscape, not as fundamentally English but as fundamentally Japanese.
The existence of loanwords in Japanese is of course very well known, but in addition to being a widely known part of the modern Japanese lexicon many or most of them are part of the JQPE vocabulary as well. That means they can appear both in conversations otherwise conducted entirely in Japanese, and also with other JQPE words in complete JQPE sentences in messages that appear at first glance just to be English.
I’ll discuss the regularities evident in the images above just as a taste of what would be a very ambitious project – a full grammatical description of JQPE, which I will not undertake here or probably anywhere.
- “Japan Life Support” – “Life support” is a common collocation in JQPE, originating in translation of “life” as 生活 seikatsu, a word translatable as both “life” and “lifestyle”, as in “trendy lifestyle” or “the good life”. Hence the “support” being offered is facilitation of one or another lifestyle in the form of products and services. Other uses of “life support” I’ve seen include “car life support” (auto maintenance and accessories) and “healthy life support” (health services).
- “Sand & Beer” – サンドイッチ sandoicchi “sandwich” is abbreviated down to サンド sando, and this sign reflects retrofitting that abbreviation with English spelling conventions. Other common abbreviations of this type include スーパー suupaa “supermarket”and ビル biru “building”.
- “Scene Free scooter Let’s 5” – “Let’s” is one piece of English grammar that everyone seems to remember from junior high school, and is usually translated しよう shiyou. As I’ve talked about before, shiyou doesn’t need another verb for grammaticality; it can stick on any old noun or stand on its own. JQPE uses of “let’s” reflect regular transfer of these properties of shiyou. “Scene” means more or less what it means in English, but “free” has quite a different meaning in JQPE – something more like “available to all” or “all-purpose”. “Free size” means one-size-fits-all, “free drink” means “all-you-can-drink (after you pay)”, and the area of the dog park we go to not reserved for only small dogs is simply marked with a sign reading “FREE”. Hence “Scene Free scooter” is a versatile scooter for all different types of places.
- “Homo milk / Straight tea” – I guess “homo” here means “homogenized”, but I’ve never seen that before. “Straight”, on the other hand, has entered the common vocabulary of drinks in Japan from the more specific context of bars. “Straight” can be found on the labels of all sorts of juices meaning “not from concentrate”. Again, this is a regular property of this word in Japanese contexts.
The characteristic of JQPE that sets it apart from other types of Engrish is that it is intended to be understood as-is by Japanese people. It overlaps with English as a first language and English as a Lingua Franca, but its presence should not be taken as a sign of fluency in English any more than Austrian actors saying hasta la vista should be taken as a sign of Spanish ability.
Also, those taking mirth in or criticizing the taking of mirth in the Engrish phenomenon should remember that making fun of JQPE is not the same as making fun of English mistakes. If you accept my categorization of JQPE as either a pidgin language or a register of Japanese, it’s not really English in the first place nor are its idiosyncracies “mistakes”, and there is nothing to make fun of besides the fact that it exists at all (I discussed this in a previous post).
Quantitative prevalence of JQPE
JQPE was by far the most common type of Engrish in all 3 contexts I searched. In distinguishing JQPE from Decorative Engrish I mostly considered the comprehensibility of the building blocks of the utterance I was looking at: If a brand of beer for example was called “Style Free”, composed of two well-known loanwords, I counted it as JQPE. I also counted portmanteaus (very common in Japanese native vocabulary as well) of well-known loanwords as JQPE, counting on advertisers to compose their brand names from mostly familiar vocabulary. Words and phrases which were either too long or not well-known were counted toward Decorative Engrish instead.
The tallies for JQPE were:
Shopping: 11 instances
Recall that the respective values for Decorative Engrish were 5, 0, and 3. I didn’t see a single obvious example of Decorative Engrish while out in my car, although I saw 21 instances of JQPE, the funniest of which a purple building whose sign read “Lavender Bill”.
The last type of Engrish is the one that really should be taken seriously, although I have elected to give it a borderline-offensive name.
Engrish as a Ringua Franca
There are times, however rare, where Engrish actually seems to be really trying to say something to people who don’t speak Japanese.
The signs around tourist areas that say 「危険の為立入禁止」 kiken no tame tachiiri kinshi used to have English translations under them reading “Do not enter for danger”, although these seem to have been fixed in recent years, to my chagrin. The cash registers of a great many stores in Japan carry small signs saying “No Exchange” in English. You might think that means you can’t return clothes or other items you’ve bought, but then underneath it says 両替はできません ryougae wa dekimasen “We cannot exchange currency”. Apparently bringing in counterfeit foreign currency and exchanging it for real yen was a scam back in the day. This site has examples and explains the phenomenon well.
The point is, incorrect English though these are, they are genuine attempts at communication, not mere decoration and not part of a for-show pidgin by Japanese for Japanese. I have elected to call it Engrish as a Ringua Franca (ERF), basically International English plus humorous mistakes. In my experience and as will be shown below this is the rarest form of Engrish owing to the limited number of venues one really needs printed messages to be read by non-Japanese speakers.
I won’t delve deeply into the sources of the errors here, but most of them stem from poor (often machine) translation and/or spelling. The “wind” in the “break wind and push button” sign for instance is a misspelling of “window”, stemming from the fact that “wind” rendered in katakana is ウインド uindo whereas “window” is ウインドウ uindou, easily confused. Another common source of errors is the writers assuming that JQPE and English loanwords are used the same and mean the same things in actual English and using them as-is in English messages, like the “Reform” signs I saw when Tokyo Station was being renovated a few years ago (リフォーム rifoomu in Japanese is renovation).
(Incidentally, most kanji (hanzi) tattoos one sees in the US which are often compared to the Engrish phenomenon are some form of bad translation. They are certainly not a pidgin Chinese or Japanese understood by Americans, and because there is some attempt to link meaning to form, they are not purely decorative.)
ERF comprises examples of Engrish that one perhaps ought to feel bad for making fun of – since they do represent real, and really unsuccessful, good old college tries at English. However, because they appear in contexts where the information being presented is actually important, they are also in the most urgent need of correction. If someone really doesn’t know what to do to inflate a life boat, or even just mistakenly thinks a store has a no-returns policy, it’s a lot worse than smirking at “Crap your hands”. ERF doesn’t display Japan’s ideologies of the symbolic value of English as clearly as Decorative Engrish or JQPE, but it does clearly show the critical shortcomings of its education system where foreign languages are concerned.
There is a hint of decorativeness in ERF when it occurs in contexts it would seem unnecessary. Here, it may also exist as a form of showing off to fellow Japanese, that this store/hotel/etc. is so famous that it needs translated signs in English for its numerous foreign visitors. What separates this ostentatious ERF with pure Decorative Engrish is that it still carries some kind of message which makes sense (or tries to) in context. A sign at a hotel in rural Japan saying “Please take advantage of the maid” would be ERF, although no one is likely to need it, while a sign in a similar hotel bearing a full page of incoherent text would be Decorative Engrish.
Quantitative prevalence of ERF
ERF was absent or rare in all the contexts I looked. It should probably be said that I live in a part of Japan that is not well-traveled by tourists, and these numbers would doubtlessly go up if I had made this survey in Kyoto or Narita.
The tallies for ERF were:
Driving: 1 (a badly translated sign for a local theme park)
One ambiguous case was a sign at the supermarket reading “TOILET”, with an arrow pointing as you would expect toward the bathrooms. I included this as JQPE rather than ERF simply because トイレ toire is the standard Japanese expression for this facility (not 便所 benjo as I learned in Japanese class way back when), I happen to know that these signs are standard across Japan, and there was no accompanying Japanese for the 99% of their customers who can’t read English.
Because I wasn’t counting instances of successful English use, I also didn’t include in my ERF tally a few street signs with correct expressions along the lines of “Wildlife Protection Area” or “Maximum speed 20 km”.
So there were a few cases of good and informative signage in English that was probably really intended for English speakers to read, and very little Engrish. Almost no Engrish in my suburban area of Japan is for the purpose most people probably assume all Engrish is for: communication with English speakers. Purely aesthetic Engrish and Engrish for communication with fellow Japanese speakers were much more common.
Engrish is a big enough phenomenon to warrant study. I hope I have convinced you that not all forms of Engrish are the same, indeed that not all of them are even the mistakes they appear to be. I put together a little graph to show the distinctions a bit more clearly.
Whoops, left in the red underlines. Anyway, here are some pie charts summarizing the relative prevalence of the 3 types of Engrish.
By all means, continue to enjoy Engrish, but do so with the understanding that it is a more complex phenomenon than “Japanese people can’t speak English but keep putting it on everything”. Sometimes it’s fairly healthy second language use, and other times it’s not really second language use at all.