THROUGH THE FIRE: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Engrish



(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 24, 2010)


According to the police, don’t prostitute oneself, spread obscene goods, slap the bottle, or arouse exquisite poisons. For fire break off, use blasting powder, then hit the pipe. Badly violators will be canceled and will give the local police to keep it.

Anyone who has traveled through Asia has no doubt encountered something resembling the passage above. In the States, we affectionately call it Engrish. A friend of mine, who recently returned from a New Year’s trip to Tokyo, invented an outstanding term for the people who use it most.

It was inspired, like the best cultural observations, from shock.

The term was “Jacker,” a marriage of the words Japanese and Cracker; a union, not only in a semantic sense, like “Spam” or “Zonkey,” but a merger of social meaning and cultural connotation, like “Wigger” or “RuPaul.”

A Jacker is any native Japanese who acts, dresses, dances, speaks, sings, or smells like an American. Anything that a Jacker uses to signify his or her JackHabit, like a retro hair style or a clothing label, is referred to as Jacker Crack. Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts and torn-knee Levis are Jacker Crack; so are low skirts and high heels. Ironic T-shirts – in English, of course – are rampant, and despite the wearer’s inability to grasp its irony, are worn proudly and Jackily.

Like crack users everywhere, Jacking is addictive. And judging from the color inside most Jackers’ mouths, it’s very bad for the teeth.

But this is nothing new. The fact that young and trendy Japanese are obsessed with American culture is not surprising. This kind of annexation has been well documented, both in this newspaper, and likely in your own lives as well.

My friend was well aware of this fact before his trip. He thought he understood what that meant. The writer Salman Rushdie once lamented that his pre-conceived notions of the Taj Mahal would sterilize his visit to the monument. Similarly, my friend feared his expectations would sully his trip to Tokyo.

But nothing could prepare him for what he saw.

His first taste was on the street: Teens everywhere, pale and thin, were wearing tight black shirts and tighter, blacker jeans; half strutting and half shuffling down the sidewalk without fear of the sun. This sight would be unremarkable, even in Tokyo, if not for the fact that each was wearing contacts, all made bluer by their brilliant blond hair.

The hits continued throughout the day, and well into the evening, when he went to a karaoke bar and shared the stage with a salaryman in a pink wig, and bonded with him over Budweiser’s and Lady Gaga. Even getting drinks from a vending machine, that most quintessential of Japanese experiences, couldn’t be enjoyed without running into Tommy Lee Jones, whose mug scowled from the base of every Boss coffee.

Despite all he had heard, he was not prepared for how overwhelming it all was, how surreal it was to be so familiar with a place so foreign. Everywhere he looked was a reminder that 7000 miles wasn’t so far away.

And it wasn’t just the celebrities; English was everywhere. On billboards and menus; subways, signs, even shrines. Though the words he heard were mostly inaccurate, he heard his native language more than he thought he would. He came to rely on three things in Japan: good food, cheap cigarettes, and lots and lots of Engrish.

The curious thing about the way the Japanese, and other Asian countries, use English is that it’s totally distinct to the way any other culture appropriates it. Most incorporate English into their native lingua franca, creating an amalgam of equal parts. In Los Angeles, the dialect is Spanglish. En todos lados, isn’t it?

But in Japan, they just go for it, with no regard for grammar, syntax, or any kind of piddling pretension like understanding what it is they’re saying. They just like the way it sounds. They’re like suburban white kids blasting Dr. Dre out their windows; they just think it’s cool.

But is it? Is it cool that a country uses the language of a nation that only 70 years prior had occupied its soil, its people? That uses words without understanding them in order to feel trendy, while debasing a rich, proud and vibrant national culture?

Sure it is.

Language, like music, is one cultural relic we all share. What makes each unique is not its words or its phonemes, but the way a culture uses its language to communicate a distinct nationality. English, with its vast lexicon, is uniquely suited to literature: irony, paradox, sarcasm… Japanese, in comparison, is semantically undemanding, but its simplicity is its poetry – gochisoo sama; shikata

Ga Nai.

But things change. Maybe Engrish is a way for a new generation to announce itself, a way for some to fit in with the world around them, to define themselves within an ever-shrinking world. Perhaps incorporating English is not contaminating Japanese but honoring it, updating it.

This is global file-sharing at its most pure. English suits modern Japan the way Anime – or  Japanese game shows – suits modern America. It’s all good.

So do not sweatings; calm your bottles. Words is exquisite.

You know what I mean.


Alex Isao Herbach can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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