What's The Deal With Engrish?

by Justin Sevakis,

Michael asks:

Something I've wondered for a long time is why in so many anime, the characters will be speaking in Japanese and then randomly say a few English words. An example would be in shonen anime when a character announces their attack or it's done in the opening/ending song. Any reason why they don't just use the Japanese word(s)?

Picture, if you will, a magical otaku district of the United States. Everybody speaks English natively, nobody's actually Japanese, but everyone is at least a casual anime fan, and listens to J-pop occasionally. Japanese dramas are shown on TV with subtitles, and Japanese songs come on the radio. When you go to school, instead of taking Spanish or French, you take Japanese. In fact, you HAVE to take Japanese every year, for the entirety of middle and high school.

I'm sure that actually sounds really cool, but put that aside for a moment to focus on one big flaw in this nerdy daydream: that the Japanese language classes actually kind of suck. There are a few lingual wunderkinds at every school that study a lot on the side, of course, but the vast majority of people graduate with only a few worthless phrases and words still in their heads.

That's basically the relationship Japanese people have with English. Everyone knows it a little bit, almost nobody knows it very well, and there aren't many native speakers around to check anyone, so nobody feels all that self-conscious about getting it wrong. The result is that people use it almost decoratively: they like how it sounds, they think the English gets across a mood or a subtlety that Japanese doesn't, and enough people kinda sorta get what you're talking about to maybe get a point across. It's somewhat like the Japanese you hear tossed around at an anime convention: awkward, leaning hard on a few cliché words and phrases. There can definitely be a layer of pretentiousness to it.

Lately, the fact that everyone has an internet connection and a smartphone means that some of the most embarrassing English misspellings and ridiculous slogans are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be. Gone are the days of signs reading "RED ALART." Nowadays you have to go to China to find gentle old ladies proudly wearing T-shirts that say "THE SLUT MONSTER - since 1992 - dictionary love" or somesuch. But though the lines aren't as bad as they were in the 90s, awkward English phrases still abound. They're everywhere in Japan, Korea and parts of China, usually in metropolitan places. Stores and restaurants use them on displays and billboards, songs toss in a random English phrase or stanza. There's often an artistic quality to its use that English speakers, lost in trying to decipher the actual meaning of the line, are usually oblivious to.

The point behind the casual use of English is often a display of coolness or worldliness, even if it's awkward to a native English speaker's ears. Japanese people know that Japan is a small island country, and that nobody outside of it speaks the language. English seems bigger and more grandiose, representative of the world outside. Using it in unexpected places can give the impression of sophistication. A particularly cringeworthy example: in a drama series from a few years back called Nobuta wo Produce, the coolest kid in school's goodbye catch phrase was "bye-bicycle!" -- a line so grotesquely awkward that uttering it smugly would get the kid punched in the face in America. Conversely, the English lyrics in End of Evangelion's memorable "Komm Süsser Tod" sequence drifted over Japanese audiences almost unnoticed. Only English speakers were immediately aware of what was actually being sung.

I have a theory that growing up with kanji, which can often be interpreted with wildly different meanings and pronunciations, makes people naturally more playful with language. I've noticed over the years that English speakers tend to be extremely rigid in their application of how English is supposed to sound and operate, and that creative ways of reinterpreting the language or individual words are often met with derision. Japanese, on the other hand, is always throwing together existing kanji with odd or English pronunciations, coming up with new Katakana not-Japanese-but-Japanese words, and other new and inventive things to do with language. Here's a somewhat recent example: if you use Japanese language input on a computer, you can type "hoshi" and get a ⭐︎ to display as if it were a kanji character, or "haato" to get a ❤︎. And so now you can find both characters in song lyrics, artist stage names, and show titles. They're now part of the language!

As a result, Japanese people don't place TOO much importance on getting English grammar and mechanics right. Be that as it may, of course they get a little bit embarrassed when a real English speaker notices their lingual shortcomings, just as a room of teenaged American otaku would get all self-conscious about yelling Japanese phrases if actual Japanese people walked into the room.

But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it amongst ourselves. What are some of your favorite Engrish lines? Post in the comments!

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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