English use in Japan -- Why?

I was reading a New York Times article today on the Mitsubishi Motors attempt to rebuild its tarnished reputation. In the photo, taken of the MM corp’s Tokyo headquarters, they had a display of the Mitsubishi flagship, the Evo. The strange part was that all the signs and whatnot around the car were in English. This got me thinking: often times, when you see a Japanese product, at least a portion of the text on it will be in English. The obvious thought might be that this is for products designed for export, but this is often not the case; even Japanese-only products will often have a name written in English. Why is this? Has English become so universal in some places (such as Japan) that it has become acceptable to merge it with existing Japanese text? Anyone with any experience in Japan care to weigh in?

Much like a lot of Americans like the way Japanese writing looks, regardless of what it means, Japanese people like the way Roman characters look.


Well, there is an obvious reason and a not-so-obvious reason.
The obvious reason is that the Japanese like to use English in their language to spice it up a bit, and the use of foreign words makes something sound exotic.

The non-obvious reason, advanced by some Japanese linguists, is that the use of English serves to enhance the perception that Japanese is a unique language and culture. By using foreign words, it makes the Japanese text stand out as all-the-more unique. It enhances the self-perception of Japanese people as unique and superior.

I’d like to add that places like Japan have large expatriate communities.

I live in China and luckily many things here are written in both Chinese and English, mostly for the benefit of expatriates and tourists. If you have the money in your pocket, people are always prepared to speak your language to some degree :wink:

— G. Raven

The Japanese are also already used to dealing with text using multiple writing systems on a day-to-day basis. If you look at Japanese ad copy, for instance, even someone who doesn’t read the language (I don’t) can clearly see the difference between katakana or hiragana and kanji characters, and note that they are heavily intermixed. In addition to it being liberally sprinkled with English trade names and buzzwords in the Roman alphabet.

This is too easy:

Japanese Engrish

They don’t always do the best job of translation from Japanese to English, as this humorous site attests.

Just a WAG, but in many ways English has become the language of technology. So most new technologial inventions are named under English conventions, It maybe that it English may be used to make it seem more advanced.

Derleth, that Engrish site is a hoot! I had noticed for years that the Japanese put English gibberish on T-shirts, but now they’re really over the top. That site has a picture of a girl cheerfully wearing a T-shirt that proclaims:

and she probably has no idea what it really says.

As I understand it, more than ninety per cent of the traffic on the Internet is in English. I recall that most international airports use English to avoid confusion.

More people are likely to speak English as a second language than any other. If a Tokyo businessman is chatting with colleagues in Hong Kong and Rome, the odds that all three know enough English to communicate are better than  that the guy in Hong Kong speaks Italian.
  Also, first Great Britain and then the United States have been the dominant forces in world culture for the past century. That may be winding down now, but certainly more people are exposed to English-language TV, movies, books and magazines worldwide than any other. Little kids in Delhi, Rio and Athens recognize Superman.

This obviously explains why most Medical terminology in Japanese is from German. Or not.

Some quick facts:

  1. There is no large community of expatriates in Japan. The last statistics I heard said there were only 150,000 non-Japanese in the whole country, and that figure is allegedly about 90% composed of ethnic Koreans who were born in Japan but denied are Japanese citizenship.
  2. The Japanese don’t “like” different script systems. That would be like saying “I like having 5 fingers on each hand.” It is just a fact of life. Do you “like” having both upper and lower case letters in English?
  3. Every Japanese must take English (7 years IIRC) as part of their standard education. Every Japanese person educated after WWII is familiar with the English alphabet.
  4. There was a movement around the 1860s amongst Japanese intellectuals to abandon Japanese and make English the official language. It obviously failed, but is the reason for #3 on this list.
  5. The Japanese have a love-hate relationship with English, and America specifically. Everyone studies English, but the Japanese people on average, consistently score the lowest of any nationality on TOEFL.

Not in Japan. It is most likely to be Korean or Chinese.

When I lived in Japan, the people I spoke with all assumed that the use of English started as a way to get attention. This was especially true in the auto industry. Prior to WWII, Japan’s auto industry was minuscule: “In 1938 Toyota produced 458 cars, Honda 1,242 and Datsun 2,908.” (Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, p. 221, cites omitted.) After the war, cars were seen as a technological marvel, and since all technological marvels ultimately came from America (Japan was still in deep inferiority territory) it was logical to associate with high-technology by using English. One of the earliest mass-produced models was the Nissan “Bluebird,” a word that’s not only English but almost completely unpronouncable for Japanese. (It’s rendered “buruubaahdo” in katakana.) The car was later known in America as the Datsun 510.

As an English teacher I experienced firsthand the fascination many Japanese have with the West and America in particular. By no means is it simple emulation or idolizing; it’s really sense of enormous difference, and that alone is a source of great interest for a country that is remarkably unified in language and culture. (There’s an ugly stereotype of Japanese as robotically monolithic - that really isn’t true, either. But there isn’t a country in the world where 124 million people are so mutually intelligible, not only in speech but in customs.)

Chas.E, we may have different definitions of what qualifies as a second language, but I think English is the most commonly used and spoken foreign language in Japan, even if it’s not used very well. Almost everyone I encounter in Japan can speak at least a few words of English, but not many can speak any other languages. I would also probably guess (that is, I can’t back this claim up with anything more than personal anecdotes) that the #2 second language is either French or German (if you’re not counting people of Korean or Chinese descent who are still classified as ‘foreigners’ by the Japanese government) just from observing how many people around me have studied them in college or are currently taking lessons to prepare for a European vacation. Oh yeah, and most of the German medical words came into Japanese during the late 1800’s, when they viewed Germany as the epitome of Western medical technology. Most modern medical terminology (‘AIDS’, ‘gene therapy’, etc.) is borrowed from English.

Back to the OP. Traditionally, Japanese was written mainly in kanji, which are pictograms that express a meaning as well as a sound. This could be somewhat limiting as the ideas that need to be expressed advance beyond the concepts that existed when the kanji were first created. There could be two ways of dealing with this problem: either string together longer and longer sequences of basic kanji to build words for modern technology (is this what Chinese does?). Or, just use the foreign word and incorporate it into your own language. Japanese tends to do the latter.

Other than that, there’s the fashion issue as well. Using English gives products a more international image, and makes them look more modern. In contrast, companies wishing to project a traditional image use Japanese names, drawn as if they written with a calligraphy brush.

Just talking through my hat here,


There are alot of americans in Japan. Thus, they need to read it too.

Anyone want to guess what country in the world has the most people that can speak english???

Well, our Japanese teacher says that the younger generation likes to use english because it is “cool”, and the corporations are quite willing to capitalize on this.
She also mentions that when it comes to incorporating foreign words, normally they aren’t spelled out in romaji as the subject notes, they are transliterated into katakana.
So, it seems likely the english words are mostly for effect.
Also, I don’t think any adding to the kanji has been done for quite some time. New words created in the Japanese language are spelled out.

BTW, a couple of off-topic japanese language questions.
Why do we refer to their unit of money as the “yen”? She insists it just “en” with no “y”

Also, why is it that it seems all these freakin kanji take three times as many brush strokes to write out as to simply spell in hirigana?? I pity the poor Chinese who have to write in this all the time.
Or is this simply chance? Anyone have some counter examples?
I’d ask about why each kanji seems to have half a dozen different meanings, based on context, but just read the history on that in one of my books.

I have heard that there are more students of English in China than there are native English speakers. Of course, few of these Chinese students are fluent speakers of English(although there are many more of them than there are American students who are fluent speakers of Chinese).

That’s true. Actually, I was thinking more of katakana than romaji words when I wrote that, so I guess I wasn’t really addressing the OP.

That’s true. I don’t know why. The closest it comes to being pronouced “yen” is when the preceeding word ends with an ‘n’. Sen (1,000) or man (10,000), for example.

With Chinese, each kanji has one meaning and one reading. The Japanese borrowed Kanji from China and applied it to their own language, but it wasn’t really suitable. This is why kanji in Japanese can have anywhere from 1 to 15 possible readings, with just as many different meanings, and still you need hiragana to clarify the grammar.

Why keep kanji? Well, one argument in favor of kanji is that Japanese is loaded with homophones, and without some written means of indicating a word’s meaning, the language would become unreadable. One of the best examples I’ve seen in support of this is the following sentence, from Jeffrey’s J-E Dictionary:

Niwano niwaniwa niwa niwatoriwa niwakani wanio tabeta.

Which means “Two chickens in Mr. Niwa’s garden suddenly ate an alligator.” With kanji to show what each “niwa” is supposed to mean, it becomes much easier to read.


Jeffrey’s dictionary

In earlier stages of Japanese, the kana syllables ye and yi existed. In modern Japanese, they are no more, having been replaced with plain e and i. The initial y- has become zero. Once I heard a Japanese scholar speaking on yin and yang, but she pronounced it “in” and yang. If you see an ordered table of kana in a Japanese textbook, you will notice that where “we” and “wi” should go, there are gaps. But in the old iro-ha nioedo poem that used each of the kana once, there are still those obsolete kana.

Yep, forgot about that. Of course, the best place to find one of those obsolete kana is on the side of a bottle of Yebisu beer. :slight_smile:




My theory is that it’s an English mispronunciation. Say “the en” quickly and to someone else it’ll sound be indisguishable from “the yen.” There ya go…

P.S. Was “en” ever pronounced “yen” in Japan?