Sunday, May 16, 2010

Engrish in Convenience Stores: Quick, Functional and Delicious

This week, we explored the variety of Engrish present in the nearby Welpark convenience store, and found a bountiful supply. While some examples of grammatically correct and easily understandable English were discovered, many of the products had either quirky, grammatical error-ridden Engrish or ambiguous, overly flowery descriptions of their products. Not all types of products had Engrish in them (for instance, we found no English at all in any medicinal or healthcare products) but one of the first things we noticed was the prevalence of Engrish in beauty/hygiene products. For instance, we found this Engrish on a container of hair wax.

Firstly, note the prevalence of fragments in this Engrish. In many of the examples we found, a common error was the use of fragments rather than complete sentences. In other places, our classmates have found Engrish such as, “Take Free,” and “24 Open” made up of fragmented sentences. A possible explanation for this could be the fast-paced culture in Japan, as well as the way in which Japanese people view English on products, signs, etc. Dan’s conversation partner, Keita, noted that direct English which gets its message across in as few words as possible is much cooler than proper English with prepositions, pronouns, and other “unnecessary” particles. In this manner, all the short, fragmented Engrish we’ve seen, such as, “Claim of wild & beautiful,” may be more eye-catching for Japanese consumers, even though we find it a humorous and odd description. Certainly, it gets its message across succinctly despite the grammatical mistakes; while “claim” is a rather unorthodox word choice, you understand that the product is trying to sell itself by claiming that it will make you attractive. This is another example:

On this product, the “unnecessary” English particles that would make it a comprehensible sentence have been omitted. In this way, the removal of such words has rendered its meaning fairly ambiguous. For example, does “for beauty body” mean the drink is only for beautiful people, or that it will give you a beautiful body? Hence, the cost of making this sentence more appealing to Japanese people is that it makes it less understandable to English speakers. According to many of our Japanese friends, few Japanese people even read such Engrish on the products they are buying, and many do not understand it at all. There is definitely some irony to it.

Having said that short, succinct English is seen as cooler by Japanese people, it should be noted that from a North American perspective, these “short” phrases may actually seem long and redundant when taken as a whole. For instance, while the three fragments used above are short in themselves, the overall description is relatively long and heavy-handed, possibly because of the choppy nature of the sentences.

This label should say something along the lines of “Gives you dry, beautiful hair. The blended ingredients are gentle on your hair.” This is simply a grammatical error that could be correct given the proper attention. It appears that this sample is suffering from the direct application of Japanese grammar rules to the English language. This is evident from the presence of verbs at the end of the sentence, as it does in Japanese, in comparison to English where verb and noun order is much more variable and flexible.

In other cases, the phrasing is overtly long and filled with flowery language that can easily be misinterpreted by English speakers because of the gaping cultural divide between Japan and the West. This can be seen in other examples we found.

This product is one rife with one long winded sentence that takes away from its impact.

Here, this product repeatedly mentions the improvement of your “laundering experience” by using their detergent. Indeed many of the labels focus on providing an enhanced experience by using their product, as opposed to getting enhanced results from using it. It describes experiences, such as doing laundry, which in Western societies would be very mundane and may not possibly be conceived as being a pleasant experience at all. Clearly, there is a focus on making everyday chores more enjoyable, as opposed to the Western concept of getting them done as fast as possible. This is reflected in such Western mentality by results-based thinking, with most of our products being advertized as being able to achieve better results, faster. In Japan, the focus is on the process, and not merely the results.


In conclusion, we found that most of the Engrish products were in the cosmetics and hygiene sections. These sections of the store had a larger amount of domestic Japanese products and few Western ones. The Engrish was generally made up of either short, choppy fragments or run-on sentences that offered unnecessarily long descriptions that were abundant with errors.

After talking with many Japanese friends, we found that although we may find Engrish humorous, Western society is just as guilty of butchering foreign languages. For instance, one of our friends, Yuta, recalled a time when he saw a foreigner with the word 冷蔵庫 (refrigerator) tattooed onto his arm. Just as the Japanese may find contracted English as cool, Westerners find meaningless kanji just as appealing, and are just as prone to using them in awkward ways.

By Alex and Dan

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