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The Bizarre Use of English in Japanese Advertising

The Bizarre Use of English in Japanese Advertising

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Have you ever wondered why Japanese advertisements have so much English content?

If you walk through any major intersections in Tokyo, you will likely encounter a fascinating and potentially perplexing mix of English and Japanese advertisements. Japan is well-known for its “Engrish” – a slang term used to describe the often inaccurate and nonsensical use of English by native speakers of Asian languages. But why do even large companies run extensive campaigns using incorrect English phrases?
Even after years of rapidly increasing tourism and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, significant corporations still put out English without a seemingly legitimate edit. Is this an accident due to cheap localization? Or an elaborate marketing tactic?
The incredible prevalence of English in Japanese media – both in written and spoken form – is at first baffling to a native English speaker. Phrases that seem to make no sense or are irrelevant to what they are attached to are nevertheless seen everywhere: on t-shirts, as part of television advertisements, and in Japanese magazines. Some people have argued that English in Japan is not meant to be understood and that it acts purely as decoration.
Contrary to what one might assume, using English in marketing to a non-English, Japanese-speaking audience is not a bad decision. However, there are specific nuances to consider, as the functions and applications of English and Japanese are different in this context.
In this blog, we will be looking at why Japan continues to use Engrish in its marketing, the different functions and applications used for this particular type of advertising, and if, in the end, it is successful in their region.

The three forms of English in Japan

All Japanese people learn English at school – it’s the only foreign language that everyone must study as part of compulsory education in Japan.
And yet, you’ll find many people are still a little uncomfortable using the English they do speak – this was also not always the case, as in more ancient times, Japanese people did not seem to have significant issues learning Dutch, English, German or even French for instance). This state of affairs is changing with younger generations and increased cultural globalization.
Comfortable or not, English is quite present in Japan, thriving in three significant strains.

Standard English

Standard English (英語 eigo) is what it is. The English language we all know and love, which can sometimes pose difficulties for Japanese people learning the language.

Made-in-Japan English

Wasei eigo­ (和製英語 made-in-Japan English) consists of English words, or idioms, which are either pure Japanese creations or actual existing English words that were given a Japanese meaning or usage quite different to what is found elsewhere.
These are extremely common in Japanese (dating back to the post-Meiji-Restoration “opening” of Japan of 1868) and an integral part of the Japanese language.
Some classic examples of wasei eigo would be the 1920’s mo-ga (モガ) from modern-girl, bakku-mirā (バックミラー) for a car’s rearview mirror, or kanningu (カンニング), an adaptation of the cunning, which is not an adjective in Japanese but a noun meaning cheating, especially in an academic context.
Some other notable examples of this creative usage of language:
● Hotchkiss (ホッチキス “hocchikisu”)
The Japanese word for a stapler comes from the E.H. Hotchkiss company, which produced an early popular variety of the device.
● Cider (サイダー “saidā”)
In Japanese, “cider” describes carbonated beverages, particularly colourless kinds like lemonade. Depending on where you’re from, “cider” in English refers to an alcoholic drink made with apples or unfiltered apple juice.
● Blind touch (ブラインドタッチ, “buraindo tacchi”)
In Japanese, “blind touch” is used for touch-typing – typing without looking at the keys, and therefore “blind”.
● At home (アットホーム, “atto hōmu”)
Used as an adjective, “at home” in Japanese has the meaning of “homely” (British English) or “homey” (American English). It can be used to describe one’s workplace or the atmosphere of a cafe or restaurant.

Decorative English

The other primary form is kazari eigo (飾り英語 decorative English), and this is where things start getting amusing, and the one that is primarily discussed in this blog.
Kazari eigo is mostly nonsensical, or just plain weird English words or phrases, used as decorations on Japanese products intended for the Japanese market.
It’s one of those things which either makes you love being in Japan or want to go back home to where a string of words actually makes a coherent sentence.

The design elements just look cool

English slogans are often used in a way a graphic or emoji would be – it’s mainly there for decoration or to create an image. The best comparison would be clothing with kanji wording or kanji tattoos in the West.
Based on English copy requests from Japanese clients, many ask for something that sounds fancy but can also be understood by the average Japanese person. Those criteria usually conflict, so words will be replaced with generic ones like “happy” or “enjoy”.
When asked about the use of English in Japanese marketing, some copywriters said that English is more attractive than Japanese and therefore grabs more attention. The discussion often focuses on the design and aesthetic elements, and it is believed that English looks less cluttered than Japanese.
The two languages have very different appearances and using English can help attract attention to the marketing message. This is partly due to the technical and visual differences between the Asian and Roman character sets. Using simple English can make the marketing more noticeable.
Using something unusual and different can often attract attention. Using another language as a marketing tool is an effective and exciting technique, as not many cultures can claim to use it as successfully or effectively as Japan does.

English imbues foreign attitudes

Seeing a foreign typeface is attention-grabbing and piques the viewer’s emotions, and we can see Japanese brands using English to emit an unfamiliar and foreign feeling. Japanese brands love bringing celebrities from the West to promote their products, not only because of the name recognition but also because they usually speak English in those ads, which brings a foreign attitude to the project.
Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus, is famous for using English voice-over and text in its marketing design for the Japanese market. Lexus could seem like a completely foreign brand for someone in Japan who is unfamiliar with the brand. The point is that many brands want to project a foreign or exotic image, and using English is a way to create that feeling.
Similarly, international brands often use English in their promotional materials to reinforce their imported image. For example, take this TV ad for the BMW i8 hybrid car. This is a German company advertising in English to Japanese consumers. This combination of three different cultures may be confusing, but it makes sense when you consider how a foreign language is used in Japan.
So why does BMW use English instead of German? These days, it is common to see other languages like French or German in advertising. However, English remains Japan’s most widely understood language (although “understood” here is used loosely). Therefore, people can relate to the message to some extent. Let’s explore this further.

English to communicate a message to Japanese consumers

Do Japanese advertisers and marketers use English for its core, fundamental purpose as a language: to communicate?
The answer is essentially “sometimes.”
Typically, a Japanese advertisement headline would have no more than a few English words. Since almost everyone in Japan has studied English for six years in junior high and high school, it is safe to assume that most people can and will understand specific phrases.
For example, the Suntory beer tagline “Enjoy Rich Taste in Relaxing Time” could be understood at a fundamental level by the Japanese public. The words “Enjoy,” “Taste,” “Relax,” and “Time” are all comprehensible to most Japanese consumers. Even though the phrase as a whole sounds “off” to a native English speaker, most of the product’s target consumers will understand the message and probably not even notice the strange phrasing.
For this reason, it is often not worth contesting marketing messages that are “inaccurate” by native language standards. It is easy for foreigners to attribute this to a lack of budget or professionalism, but these arguments often miss the point entirely.

Borrowed Words

Many Japanese words are adopted from English and other foreign languages. Often, those words are shortened into entirely different words and disregard grammatical points such as tense.
For example, department store becomes “depart”, and “get” is never changed to “got”. This adds a layer of confusion when switching from Japanese English to actual English, and if no one on the team is proficient in English, the outcome is whatever the best person can come up with.
Furthermore, loan words never really adapt to changes in definition or usage. Many modern words in Japanese are borrowed from English words, and through this “incorporation” process, they often change meaning and functionality. These “hybrid” English words are what locals call “Japanese English”. These words are usually established in Japanese by converting the words from alphabet-based roman letters to the katakana alphabet (an alphabet used distinctly for foreign-borrowed words). For instance, the words “taste” (Teisuto) and “time” (Taimu) are both regularly used in their Japanese form.
Compound this communicative element with the ease of consumption (thanks to English education) and the impression of ‘cool’, and you’ve got quite a formidable marketing technique.
For another English-Japanese experience, the website of the fashion magazine FUDGE has exceptional examples, pushing the bounds of English implementation into its appeal. There you can find a decent amount of Engrish. Keep in mind this website is intended for a Japanese-speaking audience, though it looks like an English-speaking site.
The uses of borrowed words tend to fall into categories:
● Rephonalization (pronouncing English with a Japanese accent, according to Japanese syllabary): earth becomes aasu, headphone becomes heddohon, manager becomes maNEjya, McDonald’s becomes makudoNARUdo, radio becomes rajio, and ticket becomes chiketto.
● Truncation (shortening English words): contact lenses become contakuto, department store becomes depaato, food extract becomes Ekisu, illustrations becomes illusto, mass communication becomes masukomi, and remote control becomes remokon.
● Semantic narrowing (only one of the possible English meanings is used): Naïve only means ‘sensitive’ when used in a Japanese context, manshon (mansion) means a block of flats, furonto (front) means ‘reception desk’, toranpu (trumps) means ‘a deck/pack of cards’, bakingu (viking) means ‘a buffet meal’, potto (pot) means ‘thermos flask’, and shiiru (seal) means ‘sticky label, sticker.’
● Hybridization (blending of English and Japanese words or when part of an English word is written in Japanese): bejitaberz, kurakka means ‘vegetable crackers’ [the first word contains taberu, meaning ‘to eat, so there’s a play on words: eat your vegetable crackers!], haburashi (ha = teeth + brush) means ‘toothbrush’, imeji chizu (chizu = map + image) means ‘diagram’, roorupan (rooru = bread roll+ pan) means ‘bread’.
● Mock-Japanese linguistic creations (when English words are invented or take on different meanings in Japanese): consent (electrical sockets), feminist (a man kind to women), hair manicure (hair dye), pair look (matching clothes), and wanpiisu (one-piece dress).

The future of English Advertising

As the world increasingly recognizes Japan as a top tourist destination, we have to wonder how these promotions will reach many non-Japanese people and how that will come into play for domestic advertising and promotion. Will it stay as it is, confusing visitors and making them question the product’s quality? Or will they adapt and make concessions for the global market?
As English is now considered the official language for various institutions, companies, and countries, it is a great tool to extend a global message when used correctly. As Japan is trying to position itself on the worldwide stage more and more each year, the English-speaking world is undoubtedly watching, and businesses should be more aware of that impact.


We hope this blog explains why Japan excessively uses Engrish and will make you think twice about questioning its marketing strategies.
If you happen to need some support for your brand and content, we are more than capable of localizing for Asian markets and Western markets. We will make sure that our kazari eigo (飾り英語) will stand out and impact your desired markets.
We have an ever-growing team of excellent natural language translators available in over 60 languages (including Japanese) to solve any translation or localization request you might have.
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