Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

July 21, 2016

Japanese English
One more thing to enjoy during your visit to Japan

David Thayne / English Teacher, Writer

David Thayne is a man who's always in motion. He has written over a hundred books on language and culture and frequently pens columns for some of Japan's most widely read newspapers. He also often appears at schools and companies to give speeches and conduct seminars. On NHK WORLD, he's a regular on Japan-easy, a program that introduces the Japanese language to a global audience.

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People come to Japan from around the world for beautiful old temples and shrines, magnificent nature, and funky pop culture, and while strange English is probably not a big attraction, it's something that will put a smile on your face. Perhaps my first exposure to Japanese English, sometimes called Japlish, came about 30 years ago when I bought a loaf of bread in a bag with the words Flesh Bread on it. Upon seeing this, my mind spent a few seconds going to some awful gory places before realizing that Fresh and not Flesh was the desired intention. Since then, I've noticed many other examples of unique English usage, especially in conversations with Japanese.

Some of the mistakes quickly become clear, like when I walked into a meeting only to be greeted with, "I'm expecting." I responded with, "Wow, great! When is the baby due?" After a few confusing seconds, we figured out that she was trying to say, "I've been expecting you," or "I'm glad you could make it." But other times, the mistakes take longer to reveal themselves. Someone once told me about the "coarse meal" they had, but it wasn't until a few days later that I realized I was being told about a "full-course meal" and not a meal that requires a lot of chewing. And when one man told me, "I'm really interesting," I resisted telling him he didn't have to brag long enough to realize that he was trying to say, "I'm interested." I was once even told, "You'd better shape up," but before getting into a fight, I thought for a moment and realized I was actually being told, "You'd better get in shape."

Another excellent source of Japlish is signs. One I saw at a train station was both confusing and entertaining: For restrooms, go back toward your behind. It actually kind of makes sense, if you don't think about it too hard. And then there's, You lady will push this button before leaving in a bathroom. Other signs are just confusing: Building asks a smoked visitor in the outside smoking section that you cannot smoke in. But some signs are accidentally deep, almost zen-like: Please wash a hand, in a lavatory, and Today is under construction, at a construction site.

There are a few possible conclusions we can draw from the large volume of non-standard English used in Japan, but one of the most common ones I hear is the focus on English to pass college entrance exams and not on English for communication. Personally speaking, I think there are two better explanations. First, there's a huge gap between English and Japanese. Maybe I'm making excuses for myself, but this is why I'm still making mistakes in Japanese that are just as embarrassing or even more so than those I've mentioned.

Secondly, a lot of the Japanese English you'll find in Japan comes from the spirit of Japanese omotenashi, or hospitality. If you've ever been to a country that doesn't bother to put signs in English or other foreign languages, you'll appreciate the effort of Japanese to lower the language barrier. The Japanese do truly want you to have a good time when you come visit. It's easy to make fun of strange English, but you have to admit that the Japanese are doing their best to make us visitors feel welcome.
So while all the strange English might bring a smile to your face, try to remember that behind the English is often a desire to make you feel a little more at home.

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David Thayne / English Teacher, Writer, Speaker, TV Personality

David Thayne is a well-established English language teacher and author in Japan. He has written over a hundred books related to language and culture, and is also a popular columnist for Nikkei Newspaper, Asahi Newspaper, Mainichi Newspaper, and other publications. He is also popular as a speaker and seminar conductor at schools and companies. He also appears as a regular on Japan-easy, a popular NHK WORLD TV show that helps people around the world learn the Japanese language. As a student of Japanese culture and society, he is currently the curator of a website that helps Japanese explain their culture in English.

QuestionHow long have you been in Japan?
I guess I've been here for close to 30 years. It's kind of hard to admit that I've lived here longer than in my home country of the United States!
QuestionWhat was your original reason for coming to Japan?
When I was in college, a friend recommended that I go to Japan and make money teaching English. I didn't make very much money, but I had a good time and fell in love with the Japanese and Japanese culture.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
Wow, there’s so many. I live in the middle of Tokyo, so I love the countryside, and a valley in the Kamo area of Shiga Prefecture is heaven for anyone who loves beautiful nature.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
Cafes. I do a lot of my work in cafes, and while most of the time I just go to ones in my neighborhood, finding a new cafe with an unusual atmosphere - and an electric socket and free Wi-Fi -can make my day.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
一生懸命
Issho-kenmei: This is a type of Japanese idiom called yon-moji-juku-go, formed by combining four Japanese characters. This one means something like to do something with passion.

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