Monday, May 24, 2010

Engrish in Japanese Fashion: English, T-shirts, and Babies

Although Engrish can be seen in every corner of Japan, it can be most commonly seen on clothes. On many of the trendy stretches of urban Tokyo, such as Shibuya and Harajuku, hundreds of teenagers and style gurus don fashionable clothes plastered with bolded English words. Whether or not the English makes sense isn’t the issue, all these young Japanese care about is how cool it looks.

This week, we decided to research the prevalence of Engrish in Japanese fashion because we believe clothes are one of the best ways for young people to openly express their values, attitudes, and beliefs. We will be looking to answer several questions: are the wearers aware of the mistaken English? Do they know the meaning of the English on their clothes or just see the English words as an artistic image? Do they prefer clothes with English written on them, and why?

To answer these questions, we asked several Japanese people for their opinions on several T-shirts with English words splashed across them. Dan’s conversation partner Keita actually often wore shirts with Engrish phrases on them. This is one of them:

Although the English on this shirt is spelt correctly with somewhat proper grammar, it semantically makes little sense. It was interesting, however, to find out the Keita (the Japanese student wearing the shirt) was both unaware and apathetic to the meaning of the English. When asked, he stated that he only bought such shirts simply for the design, regardless of what the English meant. It appears that to many Japanese people, English is part of the design itself, existing as an artistic pattern of shapes instead of as portraying a messaging. The function of English as an artistic device can be seen by the broken letters at the bottom of the shirt. These scrambled and nonsensical letters are simply part of the design, and clearly not meant to portray any kind of meaning. Keita coming to the decision to buy the shirt is evidence enough that such artistic use of English appeals to young Japanese people.

In comparison to the shirt below:

When we asked Keita whether he would rather purchase this shirt or his “Torrid Love” shirt, and why, he said that this white shirt had too much awkward, lengthy English for it to be appealing to him. He said the wordy blocks of text are not very visually appealing, and thus, he would always choose a shirt with simple, short, and bolded words. That said, he mentioned that the English was more of a compliment to the shirts design, and that the actual design and pattern on the shirt is the primary thing he looks for when making a purchase.

This shirt simply just a clutter of random English sentences, and does not really make any sense at all. One of the lines reads, “The Believe Thing is Therell”. Clearly this line is rife with spelling and grammar mistakes, but according to Keita, the mistaken English isn’t the issue at all. Instead it’s the fact that this plain, script-like English is on a simple white shirt with no appealing pattern or cool design to compliment it. Because Keita (and presumably many other Japanese people), search for a stylish design first, and views English as just a nice addition, he stated that he would never purchase this shirt. In fact, this shirt was on sale with an excess supply, which might imply Keita’s opinion in fact the opinion of many other Japanese people.

This is another shirt that uses English in a way that is appealing to Japanese youth. Its bold neon words are very stylish to a Japanese person, even though in English it makes no sense and even misspells the word “body” as “bady”. When we asked a several Japanese people which T shirt they would prefer, the Japanese boys said that the colours were almost a prerequisite for them to buy a shirt.

When we asked the Japanese girls, they said that in high school they bought many shirts similar to this one because at that time they had fewer English-speaking friends. They thought that the English on clothes was very cool, which leads us to further conclude that the actual meaning of the English does not matter to Japanese consumers.

This next picture brings up the question of culture differences:

Although the English on this shirt appears to be correct, its meaning is fairly ambiguous. When we asked some Japanese students to translate the phrase “I feel happiness when I eat a potato,” they used the word, 幸せinstead of うれしい. The difference between these terms is that if one is うれしい they have temporary satisfaction, whereas if one is幸せthere is nothing they would rather be doing at that moment. 幸せ is a sort of lasting happiness. Thus, these shirts are saying that potatoes are the key to lasting happiness, as children are so easily satisfied. We think that the designers of these shirts simply wanted a short English phrase to make children look cute. We do not think that the designers really wanted to portray any deep message concerning happiness, as it says “I feel happiness”, as if the child is saying it.

In conclusion, we found that many Japanese people do not care about the correctness of English on their T-shirts. They pay more attention to the design, patterns, and colours of the shirt. English merely acts as a compliment to a shirt’s design. Also we can safely conclude that English IS simply just an artistic tool used by designers, and not a medium to communicate messages.

By Brenda and Dan

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