Thursday, January 27, 2005

The English site: A labor of love, popular for the wrong reasons

Friends and acquaintances ask me about the Engrish site more than any other site regarding Japan. The acquaintances usually phrase it along the lines of “You lived in Japan? Have you seen that Engrish site?” The friends put it more like, “What do you think of this site?” or “Goddamn that Engrish site! What the fuck is wrong with white people? “

The latter approach might shock some of those reading this, so I’d be happy to explain. First of all, it is important to point out that the website states that “The webmaster has taken great pains not to point out the faults of others or have a discriminatory tone - just to have fun with the results.” I believe this entirely. The webmaster is someone who has lived, studied and worked in Japan for a very long time and I believe has nothing but the best motives for the project.

The site should also be valued in that it provides a substantial archive of a particularly interesting phenomenon in Japan (and to a lesser degree elsewhere in Asia)—the widespread use of English on products, in media and various other places in societies where daily discourse is in some other language.

My main concern is that in its lack of understanding of the complexities behind the uses of English within Japan, the site goes a long way in supporting racism and strict definitions of “competent English”. Whether this is intentional or unintentional does not justify its effects.

The tone of the site with its “funny Engrish” and infantile comments and its justifications that the point is merely “to have fun with the Engrish phenomenon” reflect another phenomenon: stereotyping of Asians in media and comedy acts. After a dozen times of seeing a comic caricature of a slanty-eyed, slurring chinaman, audience laughter can only be explained through the stereotypical mocking of a race of people, not the idiosyncratic nature of the portrayal. In the same way, after twenty or thirty times of the same “R/L switch” or simple misspelling, it seems unlikely that the humor is simply fun and is more likely mean-spirited.

Furthermore, the website’s FAQ blames the failure to “get it right” on the lack of native English speakers as if native status were some type of shield to deflect spelling and communication errors. Having to read through fax after fax of native English teachers’ spelling, grammar and communication mistakes while in Japan, I can assure you that this isn’t the case. Of course, this cuts both ways as the webmaster is also said to be “fluent” but “is by no means a ‘native’ speaker”. Once again, I applaud the webmaster for trying their very best to be non-discriminatory, but the false assumption that language ability is related to “nativeness” is damaging.

The saddest part is that people on both sides of the equation are hurt by the lack of empathy on the site. In my experiences with non-native English use, I’ve found that many speakers and writers not only develop their own personal style (like many native speakers do), but their style is utterly unique and as a result has a poetic-like quality. How long it takes, or whether it develops at all varies from person to person. I have taught a young woman whose letter writing came out in the form of beautiful, grammatically incorrect poetry after only two months of study and the help of an Japanese-to-English dictionary, while many other students had a great deal of trouble leaving the set constructions laid out by their texts and teachers.

Unfortunately, the ability of the most poetic students is often overlooked or even crushed by teachers and observers who will not tolerate “incorrect” English and “correct” it or mock it. Sadly, if Robert Frost or Shakespeare had had yellow faces, I imagine these legalists would quickly have writen off or destroyed their works. In this way, these offenders not only attack others unjustly, but also deprive themselves of the wisdom found in others’ “incorrect language”.

The Engrish site addresses this by pointing out that the majority of the language on the site is composed by companies, not individuals and is not meant to be correct and “not an attempt to communicate”. This is probably true on a corporate-level, although not always in the way that the readers and creators of the Engrish site might imagine.

When I lived in Japan, I talked to a package designer who said that their company’s research had shown that English-speaking foreigners in Japan were far more likely to buy items with imperfect English because the products made them feel superior to Japanese because they could recognize the mistakes. Since such English for many of the reasons mentioned on the site will not scare away most non-English reading consumers, this company saw that it was a free way to increase sales in a small, but dependable urban market. Many white foreigners will comment on how “The Japanese worship us! They want to be white!” based on stereotypes they've called from their conversations in English with some Japanese people, but the same Japanese people will sometimes make nationalistic or racist comments in Japanese or when the foreigners are not present. Similarly, many Japanese companies seem thrilled to use foreigners’ own national or racial superiority complexes to sell them goods.

On the other hand, many designers of “incorrect” or “funny” English products are individuals who are very interested in communicating themselves artistically through language. In my closet, I have half a dozen pieces from “intheattic”, an underground clothing line that is popular in Tokyo, but also sold elsewhere throughout the country. In the graffiti paint style, one of the shirts proclaims, “he turned a deaf ear to the people’s heartrending cries for more freedim”. Half a dozen times people have said, “Where did you get that ‘Engrish’ shirt?” Another shirt has a tri-layer print of a family of dogs with the words, “The Father of Our Country” written below in simple script--a clever poke at national origin myths. Checking the fashion section, there are the occasionally stumpers (e.g. the “I heart BM” t-shirt) but generally, it’s pretty clear what the designer was trying to communicate even though the commenter doesn’t or chooses to not understand.

I think it’s also important to have perspective—the big difference between the clothing sold in Japan and in the U.S. is that most people in Japan are less willing to drop a wad of money to have a scarlet A&F tattooed on their chest to show how lame they are.

I understand that it is not always possible, but in not crediting the artist or designer of most of the works on the site, the site solidifies its non-empathetic, “laughing at, not laughing with” stance. Like in the film “Lost in Translation”, Japanese people are a faceless background for foreigners in Japan to derive bewilderment and amusement out of, not human beings to be related to on an empathetic, artistic level.

Without this empathy, the Engrish site and its subculture contribute to the problems of representation. Most American media commentaries on Japan (and many other foreign countries) tend to focus on how different and weird those “crazy” Japanese are and this site contributes to that. We get 100 stories on pornographic manga and none on “How to cook Chinese Food” manga. We hear about “underwear vending machines” (which I’ve never seen anywhere) but not that there are half-a-dozen vending machines per block in the city so that you never go thirsty.

Is there a place for Engrish? Of course, I admire the work, thought and intentions put into the site. But should it be the first site that comes to mind when people think of Japan (and other Asian countries featured on the site)? Should it be the URL that is spread around like the common cold with more damaging symptoms in how it affects Asian Americans? I’m not going to take part in that. If you are interested, I’m sure you can find the URL easily. In the meantime, go check out the site for the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum:


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