Why do some Japanese TV shows use difficult English phrases instead of Japanese ones?
August 25, 2007 1:16 PM   Subscribe

How is the English language regarded in Japanese culture?

So I'm watching Ninja Warrior. It's a Japanese TV show sort of like American Gladiators, but roughly 45 times awesomer. Many of the obstacles are called by English names. "Spider Walk," "Body Prop," "Pipe Slider," "Jump Hang" and the like.

And that's what they call them in the original show in Japan. They use subtitles for the play-by-play, and you can hear the Japanese announcer calling them "Rumbuling Dice" and whatnot.

Why do they do that?

It's not like these are common English phrases. They go through the effort of making up somewhat clever or descriptive names that require a good amount of English proficiency.

Does everyone in Japan speak English? Why would they not just say "Jump Hang" in Japanese? Is there any larger meaning to this phenomenon? Discussion of English in other Japanese fora is welcome. Compare and contrast the role of English in Japan with its role in Korea and China. Cite specific examples.
posted by ibmcginty to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've only spent time in Korea so I can't speak with any authority, but I think there is a fascination with English words; that the mere sound of English is poetry. There's no other rational explanation after you've seen absurd stuff like this.
posted by zek at 1:26 PM on August 25, 2007

See Engrish-PopCulture

Engrish is usually accidental, but sometimes its use is deliberate. Foreign branding, for example, serves the same purpose it does in the West: exotic embellishment. For the same reasons that a Chinese character or a Japanese Kanji tattoo seems "exotic" to many in the West, Asians may appreciate English words or gibberish for its aesthetic appeal alone; straight lines, frequent symmetry, and the unembellished curves of Latinate letters may all appeal to Asian senses of aesthetics and balance.
posted by Avenger at 2:04 PM on August 25, 2007

It sounds cool and makes you seem cosmopolitan. You know how some Americans think using a few words of French makes them tres chic? Same thing.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:14 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I see your point, Faint of Butt, but I think this goes beyond that. The Price Is Right wouldn't rename "Plinko" something in Japanese or Spanish, y'know? This isn't a word or phrase that's reached other cultures, like declasse or plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose; it's phrases that require knowledge of the language to make heads or tails of. And they're accurate.

And because of that, Avenger, the link you post is not entirely on point (though it is informative in its own right).
posted by ibmcginty at 3:12 PM on August 25, 2007

Japanese is a highly assimilative language. English words are Japanized constantly. It's not just pop-culture either.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:18 PM on August 25, 2007

Sorta what Solipsophistocracy said. There are a bunch of english words that have been assimilated into the Japanese language, from coffee to cola to computer.

I think its really a mixture of using English to add something fancy or foreign to the situation, but in other terms, the words might actually simply be used in the language. When the Japanese adopt a foreign word, its generally because there just isn't a suitable Japanese word to do the job.

So...a little of column A, and some from Column B.
posted by Atreides at 3:27 PM on August 25, 2007

Japanese is assimilative, but this is not limited to English- words from many different languages have been incorporated into modern Japanese. A similar thing can be seen historically, with the adoption of Chinese poetic forms (not to mention a significant component of the writing system itself).

The script used for a particular foreign word can be a good index of its degree of assimilation into Japanese, from Romanji to Gana scripts to proper Kanji.

Of course, English is somewhat more fetishized than other languages, given its official promotion by the government, its importance in the university entrance exams, and some of the aspirations of immediate post-war Japan. To many it would represent a degree of cosmopolitanism (although for some nationalists, it's now indicative of the corruption of Japanese).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:51 PM on August 25, 2007

There's a popular manga about a character named "Moetan", whose purpose is to help the Japanese learn useful English words and phrases.

In response, someone did a special manga about a character named "Maritan", whose purpose was to help the Japanese learn to curse like a Marine.

Anime is not real life, but it is an interesting reflection of Japanese thinking nonetheless. So two observations:

1. Computer displays in anime nearly always show roman letters, even if only gobbledegook. English apparently looks "high tech".

2. In our fiction about magic, magical spells usually sound like recycled Latin. It turns out that much of the time in anime, magical spells are English, or at least Engrish. (For instance, all the magical cards in "Card Captor Sakura" have English names.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:37 PM on August 25, 2007

It's also worth noting that Japan like a lot of countries imports a fair bit of English-language (mostly American) pop culture- music, movies, tv, etc. - I think English gets used a fair bit to reference these artists/genres and evoke a particular style.

Hazarding another guess, I think English is also used as a kind of verbal italics. In written Japanese, katakana are used for italicizing Japanese expressions as well as for writing foreign words- perhaps the use of English in spoken language combines these features. It does seem that when English is used, it's for expressions that convey a bit more drama, excitement, or emotion.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 4:39 PM on August 25, 2007

I'll second those who are going with the "a foreign language adds an exotic flavor" theory. It happens to a certain extent in the U.S. too, though our borrowings are nowhere near as sophisticated because Americans don't have as much of an incentive to learn other languages as the Japanese have to learn English. Hence, we might occasionally name the American equivalent of a Spider Walk something like "The ArachnoCrawl" instead of going for a full Greek transliteration.

You might want to check out TV Tropes, a wiki dedicated to cataloging pop culture narratology. It has an exhaustive page of "Gratuitous English" examples, most of which are from anime shows that cram in the Engrish in order to inject a little foreign coolness:

A hunk of background music in the anime Bleach, used in particularly menacing situations, features whispering voices chanting 'deeeemon' and 'eeeeevillll'. It's actually a bit goofy and off-putting to English speakers; if they were speaking in Latin, German, or some other language one didn't speak, it would probably sound cool.

posted by Iridic at 4:47 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

In addition to the foreign coolness factor, Japanese has been doing this with foreign words for so long that it's standard language. "Benkyou" is 'study' the noun, imported from Chinese.. 'Studying' the verb is "benkyou suru". 'suru' is pretty much "to do", so 'studying' is "to do study". There are a bazillion actions that are Noun + 'suru'. In Japanese, 'SpiderWalk' would end up being some monstosity of a sentence like "spider moving looks like way of walking".

Given the usual way of assimilation of new actions, importing a Noun and just sticking it in front of 'suru' for the verb... add the coolness of foreign words... and by not trying to make up a Japanese word for something new they get a Noun and a Verb at the same time. English just gives a good source language where you can throw a couple of Nouns, or Noun form of a Verb together to make a new Noun that you can plug into the standard imported word syntax.

Anime... imagine your surprise watching some magical girl anime where her intelligent magic weapon somehow speaks English... "Trust me my master, I will protect you." and the antagonists weapon speaks German... "(embarrassing lack of German skill deleted)". Everything the weapons say is translated into Japanese subtitles. Weird.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:41 PM on August 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

To answer the "does everyone in Japan speak English" question: yes and no.

Everyone in Japan is required to take English during high school, and the Roman alphabet is so commonly used that everyone in Japan is perfectly capiable of reading it. But most people don't remember much, if any, of their high school English. They might remember a few words or phrases, but not enough to carry on any sort of conversation, nor to understand the English names given to stuff in game shows.

English is a very hard language for a Japanese to learn, not only does English contain sounds that don't exist in the Japanese language (ie: -th), but Japanese is a completely syllable based language, virtually every consanant is followed by a vowl. Then there's the grammar, which is completley unrelated since Japanese isn't in the Indo-European family.

Many people have mentioned the "English is exotic" theme, and its definately there, but I think insufficient in and of itself. I think that we have to take history into account.

When Japan went through the Meiji Restoration back in 1868 there was a huge movement to Westernize the country. The words for "modern" and "Western" were used interchangably during that period. In Tokyo it became fashonable to wear Western styles, most new construction was done in Western style, etc. Naturally, a couple of decades later there was a backlash that resulted in a nearly fanatic embrace of all things Japanese, which played neatly into the hands of the military cliques who turned Japan into a nasty little Fascist state and brought it into WWII so catastrophically.

But I think the juxtaposition of "Western" and "modern" survived to a great extent, even if subconsiously. After WWII and the American occupation "Western" seems to have transformed, to a degree at least, into "American".

Walk down the street in Tokyo and you'll see people wearing message t-shirts, same as everywhere else. But in Tokyo well over 90% of the t-shirts will have the message in English, even if the shirt is advertising something Japanese [1].

I think, more than anything, its just that English sounds cool to the Japanese mind. Americans are gaijin, barbarians, of course, but we're *cool* barbarians.

[1] I was in Machida during its annual festival, a very Japanese occasion where people visited local shrines, watched people playing taiko drums, doing traditional dances, and parading through the streets carrying portable shrines. The festival staff wore shirts that said: "Fiesta Machida!" in romaji. No Japanese characters on the shirts at all that I noticed.
posted by sotonohito at 5:57 PM on August 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't know much of anything about Japanese language, but this may be similar to Russian which does not grow new native words easily. In English this happened overnight and nobody even notices. People start saying "ground zero" after 9-11 event and in a few days everbody uses it like it's been there before Chaucer. In Russian there were/are a number of Russian-philes who detest the use of foreign words and try to invent russian words that would use russian native roots and add hang-ons to them to mean and describe the new thing. That stuff never flies! It stands out like a sore. Everyone will say 'calculator' and not 'vichisl'yitel'. Same with computer. New words appear and grow from slang, in which case it spreads really quick and feels natural in no time, but they're never introduced from high above like when a game show decides, in this case, to coin a name for some sort of contraption. It's kind of democratic, it will come by itself or it won't but you can't cajole it into becoming a word. In soviet russia it was a little different, of course, in particular in early history when new words were introduced rather violently, to shake things up. They all sounded very ugly and perverse, but that was the point - that's how you shake things up. So as far as this show is concerned, they could come up with a japanese name, but it just would not sound good at all. It would be like playing God who created things and gave names to them. If you use english names that's ok because they're godless bastards anyway.
posted by rainy at 6:43 PM on August 25, 2007

English is used because it's kinda of trendy to use it - also they can make it something of their own by using expressions they make up.

While I agree that it is difficult for native Japanese speakers to learn English and vice versa because of the differences between the language - I would go a step further and say part of the reason many people don't speak English is because the program for studying it at school is nothing short of abominable. Tedious and boring with very little practical application. A large percentage of English teachers don't even speak the language themselves correctly.

This causes a lot of students to come to loathe the language. When I used to teach a few students told me they hated English. I asked them why and they claimed it was boring. They didn't even realize it was a language people use to communicate - they just saw it has a trial they were forced to deal with.

Oddly enough many people do not know the origin of common katakana words. In fact on a tv program here called Japonica one segment challenges the talento to come up with the original words, or sometimes to give the Japanese equivalent for Japanese words. They are often surprised - even if they use the word often.
posted by gomichild at 9:03 PM on August 25, 2007

I've wondered about a similar thing -- where in the world is an American accent considered interesting, alluring, etc (in the way many foreign accents in America are so considered).

Maybe this deserves an Ask MeFi of its own.
posted by notyou at 9:13 AM on August 26, 2007

The trendiness aspect has already been well-covered here.

Almost all Japanese comprehend some English, particularly when it's written down (spoken, maybe not so much). My favorite example of this was a restaurant that had a sign in the window reading "Every Monday Holiday," which means "closed Mondays." This is obviously a Japanese construction intended for a Japanese audience, but using English words. There are, of course, ways of expressing this in Japanese. But the whole of English is considered available for borrowing into Japanese and even for creating new phrases, as in this example. In English, we mostly restrict borrowing from Japanese to specific concepts or objects that originate in Japan.

"Spider crawl" is a case of the same thing. I disagree with zengargoyle that it would be more difficult to express it in conventional Japanese. "supaida- kuro-ru" is no better than, say, "kumo yuki" (I'm just spitballing here). And make no mistake: when the announcer says supaida- kuro-ru, he's conscious that he's using loanwords, but he's speaking Japanese, not English.
posted by adamrice at 12:05 PM on August 26, 2007

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