The dominance of English: a view from Japan

Posted by on May 14, 2013

© ImageSourceOur series on English as a lingua franca continues with a post from Japan. We asked Jim Ronald, Professor of English Linguistics at Hiroshima Shudo University, to provide a perspective on Japan’s engagement with English. Jim has discussed the subject with four of his students, and they give their views here.

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What impact is English having on Japan? In various ways, English is profoundly affecting the lives of people in Japan, although things are often different from how they may seem to a visitor to the country. As a long-term resident here, my experience of English in Japan differs from that of most Japanese people, so I asked my four graduate students, Eiji Takeda, Sae Asaoka, Miyu Yokota and Ryota Hiura to add their voices to this account.

Eiji Takeda tells of his British fiancée’s impressions when she first came to Japan:

“One of the things she was startled by was the flood of English writing in various places. She said, ‘I don’t know why you Japanese can’t speak English when it’s everywhere here.’ She was shocked to see little girls wearing T-shirts that said ‘touch me now’, ‘creature’ or ‘love child’, or a building in Tokyo just named ‘BIG BOX’. And when she saw the signboard of the little off-licence surrounded by beautiful green rice fields in my village, ‘Liquor Shop Urban’, she was lost for words.

Living in Japan, we are almost blind to all these English words that scream out confusing messages to her and to other visitors. We might gain a vague impression from them – something lovely or stylish or modern – but very few people would stop to read them and think what they mean.”

Two related issues that do directly affect many people’s lives are English proficiency tests and workplace requirements for English.

In Japan, there are many kinds of English proficiency tests. These days, above all, the business-oriented TOEIC test, produced by an American company, is considered an important tool for measuring people’s English ability, as well as for getting a job. As many as three quarters of companies now require specific TOEIC scores as a condition of employment or promotion. As Sae Asaoka says, “We often hear people, especially university students, say ‘I want to get a higher TOEIC score.’ I used to say something similar when I was an undergraduate, but now I’ve got a relatively high score, I feel different. For one thing, a high score does not mean that someone is good at communicating in English. People just want a high TOEIC score and there are plenty of books that help them do just that. But surely the important thing is not simply to get a high score, but to enjoy learning something you did not know, to study for your own growth, to study with the goal of becoming a good language user. Pursuing these goals – enjoying learning English and finding ways to communicate better – is surely more meaningful, and will also give us higher test scores. And really, what employers are looking for are people who can use English.”

Miyu Yokota points out that while some companies just see English in terms of a test score, others have gone a lot further. “International companies, such as the clothing company UNIQLO or Rakuten which specializes in Internet commerce, have adopted English as the official working language in their offices. They are already international companies and as they plan to expand and build more branches around the world, they need a global workforce, with English as the common language for the staff from many different countries. For Japanese people wanting to work in these companies, English is essential.”

Finally, Ryota Hiura looks at English in the world of popular music:

Many Japanese bands use English words in their names, and in their song titles and lyrics. It somehow gives a cooler image than Japanese. For example, Bump of Chicken is a well-known Japanese band, but most Japanese people have no idea what the name might mean. If we try to work out the meaning, it could be about cowardice or maybe goose pimples. In either case, if this were expressed in Japanese it would sound old-fashioned or somehow frumpish. And English names like these are far from exceptional. In a recent local festival of up-and-coming bands, around 50 of the 55 bands’ names include some kind English – usually a deliberately wacky kind. It seems that a band’s name almost has to be in English in order to appeal to a young Japanese audience, but at the same time this restriction does seem to enable the freedom to be creative and playful… Here, to finish, are a few more entertaining examples of bands’ names, including their creative grammar, word breaks, and capitalization: the band apart, Hello Sleepwalkers, TOTALFAT, Scott goes for, another sunnyday, overthedogs, Indigo La End, and zippy ZIPPER.”

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Comments (6)
  • Jim: Interesting. The band names remind me of a shiny pink A4 file-folder I bought in Japan in the 70s. Its cover features brightly-dressed figures in various poses with inconsequential captions: “Ironing is my hobby”, “Wait a minute, I’ll change my hat”, “Isn’t it out of fashion to wear a well-starched shirt?”, “I made too many purchases this month”, and “I want to be a nice guy to my girl friend”, amongst others. It is still a prized possession.

    Posted by Gill on 14th May, 2013
  • I was in Japan a long time ago, but am still haunted by the bizarre English I saw on T-shirts (‘boy sister’, ‘vigorous throw up’ etc) drink cans, and in branding: I couldn’t resist a pair of walkman earphones labelled ‘Turbo Nude Club’ – I just had to join!

    Posted by Peter on 15th May, 2013
  • Great post and very informative due to the student perspectives. I love the incorporation of English into the Japanese language. Indeed, it is the subject of my ongoing PhD thesis. I am always fascinated by people’s reaction to this creative use of English, especially when words like ‘bizarre’, ‘crazy’, ‘non-sensical’ and ‘incorrect’ are used to describe the way that English has been adapted to the Japanese language. Often people who put forward these views, that English has been used in ‘bizarre’ ways in Japan, forget about the highly creative uses of English within the English language itself. Think about British bands with the names: ‘The Arctic Monkeys’, ‘The Pigeon Detectives’, and ‘Biffy Clyro’. These are just accepted, but when foreign bands have names such as ‘Bump of Chicken’, people often highlight these ‘strange’ uses of English. Think about products in the UK and US too such as ‘Shake & Vac’, ‘Chicken Tonight’, and ‘Cillit Bang’. And creative blendings of words such as ‘brunch’, ‘guesstimate’ and ‘chillax’.

    What Japan is doing with English is highly creative and meets the needs of Japanese society. This makes it a fascinating area of study, especially in relation to the different variety of English which is studied in schools throughout the country, mainly used for performance on proficiency tests which control entrance to universities and employment.

    Posted by Keith on 23rd May, 2013
  • Thanks a lot for your responses, Gill (hello!), Peter and Keith. The debate is raging on – with recent Guardian, BBC and other reports of the NHK being taken to court for using too many English words. My feeling is closer to yours – it’s interesting, often very creative or just bringing a smile to your face. Gill, I’d treasure that folder, too! In fact, I’d like one – but in the meantime I’ll just enjoy the messages on the passing t-shirts!

    Posted by Jim Ronald on 27th June, 2013
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