23. “Engrish” is a language, too.

“Shampoo for extra damage.” Wait…huh?!

For a native English speaker, it might take a moment to figure out what the intended meaning of the phrase “shampoo for extra damage” actually means. No, the shampoo isn’t made specifically to damage your hair. What if I reworded it as “shampoo for extra-damaged hair”? Makes more sense, right?

In Japan, phrases like this can be found scattered throughout all different forms of advertising from billboards to posters to product packaging to vending machines. This interesting phenomenon is known as Japanized English, or “Engrish.” Incorrect English is used so much there are even websites dedicated to it! Even though the use of English is so abundant in all forms of Japanese advertising, why do some agencies and companies not take the time to make sure the English is correct?

Before going any further, here are some examples of Engrish.

You get the basic idea. For native English speakers, Engrish is definitely a source of entertainment; however, what’s the purpose of Japanese using English in their advertising if they don’t bother to double-check it? This isn’t meant to imply that ALL publications in Japan that use English are incorrect. On the contrary, when I studied abroad in Japan, many informational and street signs directed at foreign visitors had very clear and proper English.

According to Philip Seaton’s article (as linked to earlier), the main purpose of using English in advertising isn’t necessarily to communicate with the Japanese consumer, or even a foreign consumer. Instead, it’s a promotional strategy. In Japan, English gives off a feeling of being cool, fashionable and current. When the Japanese see English in an ad, they generally don’t bother to look at it closely enough to find mistakes. Simply having English on a product makes it appealing. This makes me think of people in the US who buy shirts with Chinese and Japanese characters on them without knowing the meaning. They buy it because it’s cool and foreign! It represents an idea more than anything else. Seaton gives an example in his article of a young man seen wearing a shirt with the Chinese character for “urine” on it. I’m guessing he didn’t know the meaning when he bought it.

English is also used for design purposes. There are three different forms of Japanese script and only one form of English. Often, designers will place an English word in the middle of a sentence on a billboard or poster, only with the design in mind. Whether or not the English word makes sense grammatically within the Japanese sentence isn’t necessarily important.

I’m curious about the strategy an American ad agency might use if they ever needed to create an ad for a Japanese company, targeting Japanese people. As native English speakers themselves, would they opt out of using any English? Would they use proper English? Or would they purposefully use bizarre or incorrect English to catch the Japanese consumer’s eye?

While many Japanese ads and products are swarming with Engrish, don’t think all things that use English use it incorrectly or that all Japanese ads throw in random English words. Here are some wonderful and creative examples of great Japanese advertising and product design. I received this book as a gift a few years ago and absolutely love it. Take a look! Clicking the book cover leads to the scans.


3 Comments on “23. “Engrish” is a language, too.”

  1. Having lived both in Japan and China for a little bit I definitely can agree to the coolness factor that you mentioned that English brings even when it makes no sense whatsoever. As a native English speaker it’s quite amusing, but to the people in Japan and China it’s not as amusing.

    Going off the trend that you mentioned of how American’s like getting Chinese tattoos or shirts we started a line of Chinese/English shirts that actually have dual meaning in both Chinese and English. Maybe you could call them Chinglish… The goal is to not only educate Americans on Chinese, but make it really simple for them to learn simple Chinese.

    Not sure if we’ve succeeded, but we’re going to see what happens. You can check us out at http://flyrice.com.

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