Japanese distort English and make a lot of cents

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 05, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- "Man Marking -- We Support Ocean Spirit," a sign outside a tweedy men's clothing shop in Tokyo's glitzy Ginza shopping district says in English.

Inside the shop, a clerk is puzzled that two visitors would ask what the sign means.

"I don't think it really has a meaning," says the clerk, Toshiko Nakamura, a bit tentatively. "I think it's more like -- a feeling."

In this capital of commerce, where English is not so much a language as an industry, Ms. Nakamura has put her finger on what makes one branch of that industry profitable.

The "feelings" Japanese get from English words or phrases can seem as elusive to a native English-speaker as the "meanings" of haiku, Japan's distinctive 17-syllable poems that require neither grammar nor logic. But big money awaits ad agents who can make those feelings sell products.

The mother of all English advertising slogans in Japan, for example, consists of two words that make sense neither as a sentence nor as a phrase: "Speak Lark."

Ubiquitous on billboards and magazine pages here, those two ** words may have sold as much tobacco as any two words of English in any English-speaking country.

English advertising phrases spring from the same soil that annually gives new lives to thousands of English words. They are not so much borrowed as born again into Japanese with new pronunciations, new spellings, new lengths and sometimes much altered meanings: "Gorufu hande" (golf handicap), "wapuro" (word processor), "sekuhara" (sexual harassment).

Dictionaries of Japan's adopted English expressions can run to several hundred pages. An entire sub-industry publishes dictionaries for Chinese, Koreans and other Asians who can't study Japanese without a printed guide to the thousands of words adapted from English.

Where the French have built a bureaucracy to fight off "Franglais," Japanese tend to giggle about "Japlish," as they long ago came to call these borrowings. When they do think about it seriously, it is to acknowledge how much it helps them adapt a deeply traditional society to modern ways.

Schools here require 10 years of English, not because it is the language of Shakespeare but because it is the medium of international business.

But teaching is bent to school and college entrance tests, nearly a half-century old, that never did have much to do with using the language. High school graduates tend to have extensive English vocabularies but muddled notions of what words mean and scant means of joining them into phrases, much less sentences.

In this sea of Japlish, not only advertisers find profit.

One privately published telephone directory lists 1,100 English schools in Metropolitan Tokyo alone. They range from branches of nationwide language chains to one-teacher operations with names like "Susan's English Classroom."

They find their prime markets in two groups. One is young businessmen, panicked about foreign assignments in which they'll actually have to use the language to communicate. The other is young women who would like to convert those 10 years of hard study into a chance to talk with people they see when they travel overseas. Some readily confess they're hoping the language may lead to a foreign husband.

Even English language schools don't always dare use much English, least of all for their names. One of the biggest and fastest-growing prefers to spell out its English name in Japanese sounds: "Bairingaru" (Bilingual).

But their own fear of English doesn't keep them from making money on the language. The country's estimated 8,000 English schools are believed to have taken in a total of $22.6 billion in 1991.

With stakes like that, competition is hot, even with the nation's economic slowdown cutting into profits.

Some schools offer lessons aboard "classrooms" consisting of anything from an ocean-going yacht to a roving double-decker bus imported from London. At one, a white-gloved driver takes a teacher and students through Tokyo's trendiest neighborhoods in a Rolls-Royce limousine while they practice conversation.

What will they think of next?

Bilingual says it plans an English-language theme park, complete with hotel, artificial lake and English-speaking staff.

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