Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Japan: "Engrish" and Francophilia

I had been warned, before going to Japan, about Japanese people's fondness for T-shirts printed with random and bizarre English phrases. (I had also been warned not to buy any T-shirts with Japanese writing on them, as it was a good chance that they actually said "I am a stupid American.") And yep, it's for real. I can't remember all the examples that I saw, but I think the funniest one had to be a young woman in a shirt that said "Skinny Boys, Baggy Girls."

Then there are the signs that employ mangled or poorly translated English. Though sometimes this mixture of Japanese grammar and English vocabulary can give the language an odd vitality. (The same way that the mixture of Hindi and English gives vitality to the novels of Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy.) I was quite taken with a sign on an auto-repair shop that said "Assist Your Carlife." Maybe no native English speaker would ever say this, but we understand what it means, and it's jaunty and concise.

This sign is just hilarious on multiple levels (I'm juvenile, so sue me):

And I also giggled when I saw the name of this café:

But, to get a little more serious and indulge in some Sociology 101, this Patisserie Tooth Tooth sign points at some key features of Japanese culture. First, it's very cutesy (kawaii). Second, I wasn't expecting this, but the Japanese are extremely Francophilic.

There are tons of pseudo-French cafes and patisseries in Japan--I even discovered the "Kobe School of Patisserie" while on a walk! I became a big fan of a chain called "Vie de France," which I loved because they had an English-language menu and served lemonade (which I needed on those humid Japan afternoons). Their pastries were an odd mix of French and Japanese flavors: brioche dough with mango filling, or pâte feuilletée with red bean paste. I also drank a lot of iced café au lait (said aisu kohi o le) while in Japan. I'm convinced that Japanese coffee is weaker than American or European--it never once gave me caffeine jitters, which I otherwise tend to get frequently.

Furthermore, if a boutique clothing store doesn't have an English name, it will have a French name. (Or maybe an Italian name... but hardly ever a Japanese name.) The French names, as you might guess, are no more likely to be grammatical or logical than the English ones are. I nearly cringed when I saw that one of Kobe's most elegant department stores had an extremely mangled and misspelled French poem painted on the wall of the accessories department.

I said that this Francophilia surprised me, but I guess it makes sense, in terms of the Japanese love for all things cute. Because the Japanese idea of France seems to be similar to the idea of France that I had when I was a little girl watching too many Audrey Hepburn movies: Paris, romance, beauty, refinement, femininity, frills, pastries, pastel colors, etc. In this context, it makes perfect sense that Sofia Coppola filmed Marie Antoinette after making Lost in Translation--because the look and feel of Coppola's Marie Antoinette accords fully with the Japanese idea of what France is all about. I wonder if the movie was a bigger hit in Japan than it was here?

Oh, and also: I know it's a tired joke to make fun of the trouble that Japanese people have distinguishing between "r" and '"l" sounds, and to say that they are speak "Engrish." But I got confirmation of this when I went to the school where my friend Lexi teaches and sat in on a class where they played a game. Lexi divided up her first-year English students into teams and had one child from each team run up to the chalkboard and write the name of their favorite subject in school. Three kids wrote "Engrish." And none of them wrote "English."


Anushka said...

not to nitpick, but to avoid even a hint of orientalism, i would assert that charming japanese misuse of english is not comparable to the deliberate use of hindi and english (both of which the authors have complete mastery over) in modern indian or indian-inspired literature. while both charming and originating in a confluence of east/west/globalization/what have you, one is a cute error by someone who doesn't fully understand the language while the other is a deliberate literary tactic.

Marissa said...

Point taken, Anushka. Though I was under the impression that if you go to India, you'll see signs that misuse English in the same way that these Japanese signs did, and they're what inspired these Indian authors to blend the two languages (deliberately!) in their novels.

Anushka said...

That's probably one of the influences- however, the mix of languages is used by individuals who are fluent in both languages habitually and constantly, and I'd wager that that (along with perhaps a comment about the heterogeneity of modern Indian culture) drives the authors to employ the style that they do as well.