Why Is Random English Used So Much In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

"Hiruzawa Nakari" asks:

Why do many official anime websites have their main navigation links ("Top, News, On-Air, Story, Cast & Staff," etc.) in English? Are they trying to make site international, or is it because it just looks cool?

Those websites are clearly not aimed at an international audience, because aside from those navigational links, they're often entirely in Japanese, without even a small English info page. Only those small bits are in English, and are clearly meant for Japanese speakers to use.

This isn't too far off from how English is used everywhere in Japanese media. TV ads for DVD and Blu-ray releases use the English phrase "Now On Sale." Go to a music store, and most of the categories are displayed in English. Store windows will have signs and displays in English. Sometimes that English will be good, sometimes not so good, and sometimes downright baffling.

Japan has a strange relationship with English. Imagine what America would be like if literally everybody had to take French every year of middle and high school, most of us listened to French music and watched a ton of French movies, but very very few of us knew any French people or ever traveled to a French speaking country. We'd all retain some French, but after a few years of disuse, we'd be pretty bad at speaking it.

Ultimately what you have is a country with a huge population with basic but limited knowledge of a language that also symbolizes the glamour of the outside world. So, how do people end up using that knowledge? As decoration, really. Sometimes English is used in a simple way that people know, so that it's useful AND fancy, like in the websites you mention. Other times, it's just there purely decoratively, like on signs and posters where there's just a random paragraph of semi-gibberish English text. Often, people will be more playful with a language they don't really know. And if something is off, nobody will care too much.

When people don't know what's being said and don't feel any particular pressure to try and make it out, people interpret the words in unexpected ways. They start paying more attention to the appearance of the text, or if spoken/sung, the sound and the rhythm of English. They project moods and images onto the words, completely separate and divorced from their actual meaning. For example, when Japanese fans watch End of Evangelion and Komm Süsser Tod starts playing, nobody knows or really cares that much what those lyrics say. It simply sounds like a rollicking English/foreign gospel song that washes over them as part of the larger experience.

Obviously a large city like Tokyo has a large number of foreigners around, and to make the cities in Japan more accessible, signs and announcements for mass transit are often bilingual. THOSE English words are, actually, there for non-Japanese speakers to be able to get around. But the rest of English in Japan can serve multiple uses, and only some of those uses involve what the English words actually mean.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's 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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