Japan 8: The English Language

English is an assimilative, aggressive language. It is insidious in its hegemony of other languages. Think Starbucks.

The French are trying to fight the good fight, but with the Internet, the march of English is implacable. Many languages are dying out but, in fairness, that’s mainly due to minorities, religious persecution and ethnic groups being assimilated and homogenised by dominant larger local societies, rather than the march of English.

The Japanese appear to have in interesting relationship with English. But it seems peripheral. I doubt that English is threatening Japanese in any real way. I hope not, anyway.

Niamh told us that Japanese has three different script systems, one of which is Chinese. And I don’t think it’s going to adopt too many English words any time soon, apart from the odd neologism (selfie, anyone?) which won’t do too much damage. It’s a language that is heavy with honourifics too, which appear to be suffixes at the end of words, mainly. You hear a lot of -samas from workers in restaurants. One thing I like about English is the lack of these – it’s an equal opportunity language. Saying ‘fuck you’ to an older female president is the same as saying it to a younger male homeless immigrant.

But in the cities especially, you do see a lot of English words about. All the signs are in both scripts, and there are so many brand names which they they don’t, of course, translate.

Then there’s the t-shirts and tops. What is it that persuades so many people, men and women, to wear clothes with banal English messages? We saw it in Italy too, last year. Love life. It’s cool. Be kind to me. You’re the best. Girls just wanna have fun. Time to take some time. Rock chick. Okay.


And so on. There seems to be some strange cachet in this. You never see Japanese script on these clothes at all. And the players’ names on the baseball shirts in Hiroshima were all in English too. And then there’s the menus, but that’s just good business.

I don’t understand it. English language teaching seems to be poor in the general education system. And the people seem slow to speak it. That could be due to a reluctance to seem foolish, or a need for perfectionism: something I’ve see in Eastern Europe too. And as someone who has no Japanese whatsoever, I’ve no problem with that. Our guide book put forward the theory that this reluctance has driven the underserved Japanese reputation for coldness, distance and inscrutability.

Then there are the mistakes. The mis-spellings, the difficulties with grammar, punctuation etc. It’s very understandable, and sometimes very funny. This was my favourite because it also added in the r and l difficulty.


Which Niamh explained by the fact that the Japanese only have a letter somewhere in between r and l. Westerners learning the language have to work hard at this. It’s a running joke, of course, and we take the piss out of Chinese at home about it. Two flied lice. Good thing then that the Japanese laugh at our attempts at their r/l sound.

And I think it’s okay to smile at these mistakes as long as we don’t feel superior about them. Given that the vast majority of visitors (including me) can’t put two words of Japanese together, we’re in no position to look down at all.

But why the banal English phrases on the clothes? Why not some Japanese characters?

That I just don’t understand. Perhaps it’s lost in translation.

PS: I loved this one too, on a public toilet in Nara.



Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out June 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

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