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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010


Pen mightier than samurai sword

You've probably heard that Japanese people are shy to speak English because they are afraid of making mistakes. Every night before I go to bed, I pray that this English language phobia will spill over into English writing. As one visitor to Japan said to me, "You could spend your life correcting all the poor English on signs and menus in this country."

Why is it that the Japanese, who are so shy to speak even good English, are so bold to abuse the written language? Especially when it comes to using permanent mediums such as signboards that broadcast errors to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. On signs and menus, no one seems to care if things are misspelled or incomprehensible. That's your problem!

With an alphabet of just 26 letters (compared to 45 for hiragana and katakana), I suppose English writing seems deceptively simple. But even with just 26 variables, there are millions of possibilities of making spelling mistakes. In fact, there are far more possible wrong combinations of letters than right ones. Yet, I don't think the Japanese even consider they may make errors when writing. As long as they are not speaking, they cannot be mistaking.

Since we get a lot of foreign tourists here on Shiraishi Island, where I live, I'll use some local examples of interesting attempts to convey information via English signage. The signs start on the mainland, to tell people how to get to the port to catch the ferry to the island. Directions are quite simple: just come out of the JR Kasaoka Station and follow the signs to the "felly port." Once you get to our island (and there is a recording in perfect English that comes over the loudspeakers of the ferry to tell you at which island to get off), you'll be greeted at the ferry terminal with an English sign that says, not felly port but, "Shiraishi Shipping Shop." The owner of the ferry port proudly pointed out the new sign to me one day and asked, "Is the English correct?"

What could I say? It wouldn't make a bit of difference now that the sign was already made, mounted and paid for. But on an island of just 651 people, I couldn't imagine any container ships coming in or out of our tiny port. So I only suggested that they add at the bottom, in small print, "Sorry, no shipping containers. We were just having fun with the sign." With that I continued on my way, following the English sign to the "Article of Foods Shop."

But as time goes on, the Visit Japan Campaign flourishes, and we get more and more foreign visitors to our island, customers have started complaining about the English menu in San-chan's restaurant on the beach. Customers who ordered "fried fish" were being served a bowl of tiny fish with beady eyes instead. I felt compelled to help San-chan's come up with a menu entry that was a bit more descriptive. So I changed the name of the dish to "Tiny fish with beady eyes."

I was particularly sad to have to correct another part of the English menu that for years had offered the item "turbo shells" instead of turban shells (sazae). Can't you just see these sea snails with turbo engines attached to their shells running around the plate as if it were a race track? Sometimes these little gems of quirky English make your Japan experience so much more interesting.

My golden opportunity to make a difference, however, came recently when the island took up my suggestion to start bicycle rentals at the port. The bicycle rental sign needed to be in English so foreign tourists could read it too. So I painted up a sandwich board sign that said, in very nice English letters, "Bicycle Rental." Now, I have to boast here a bit — It was a huge triumph being in charge of my own language again after having wrested it back from the Japanese professional sign makers. I swelled with pride every time I looked at that sign with the perfect block letters on a white, glossy background. Surely I was leading the island on to great things — finally, we were on the road to Englishdom!

A week after I gave the owner of the port the sign, I noticed they had made their own sign as well. They replaced my sign with theirs, one with big computer generated letters that said: "Bickle Rental." How clever, I thought, a bicycle served with a pickle! In another week, they had put my sign back out next to theirs, perhaps deciding it was better to offer people a choice: plain bicycles or bicycles with pickles. And it seems the bickles won because eventually, my sign was covered up completely with other computer-generated signs in Japanese touting other things the "shipping shop" sells, like ice coffee and shaved ice treats.

Which goes to show why mistakes in written English are so much easier to accept for the Japanese: The pen is mightier than the samurai sword.

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