Letters from the JaME Editors #3
The third instalment of the "Letters from the JaME Editors" comes from Hanamogeraed.
The most common examples are the swapping of L and R and pronouncing si, as in "sit", as shi. This doesn't usually affect the message conveyed but it did give hip hop band ORANGE RANGE's song City Boy a more hostile tone when they repeated the title over and over. Some just sound like a direct lift from an online Japanese to English translation: timeless phrases such as "as I whisper golden women" and "you know but shove, your tears but cute" detract from the beautiful orchestrated pieces of the "Vision of Escaflowne" soundtrack by Yoko Kanno. The now disbanded Shocking Lemon often gave us some great rock tunes embellished with the likes of "I wanna kill me" and "why, why, why, why, I want to dive! Feeling over". Even those who should know better can't seem to help it - fluent English speaker Utada Hikaru gives us the classic lyric "like Captain Picard I'm chilling and flossing" in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Perhaps she's just a fan of the Star Trek star's dental work.
Many of you will be thinking "so what"? They're Japanese, of course their English may be flawed occasionally, and it doesn't change the quality of the music. For English speakers however, a seemingly random jumble of nouns and verbs affects the interpretation of the story or emotion behind what is supposed to be the artist's personal expression. Not to mention that it's extremely distracting whenever you get to that part of a certain song. Surely leaving it in Japanese would allow them to be more eloquent and retain the beauty of their mother tongue.
The blame for a lot of questionable English in mainstream music can be laid on those marketers and earlier pop pioneers who discovered that the inclusion of another language added a sophistication or mysticism that Japanese consumers bought into. This solely decorative use of English has spread throughout media and advertising to the equal bemusement and amusement of those able to understand it (see engrish.com for some good examples).
On another more serious note, "Engrish" prevalence is also due to many Japanese people simply having a poor grasp of the language, and what may even be a fear of it. Some readers who have visited the country may have experienced asking for directions from a local only to have them backing off apologetically or, as I've been told, running away altogether. Japan was found to have the lowest average Test of English as a Foreign language (TOEFL) score bar North Korea back in 2002, and it's not looking much better today - in 2010 they ranked 104th out of 113. It's not surprising when a government survey of high schools conducted in 2010 found that only 20% of English teachers taught classes in English, with 6% saying that they barely used it at all. In May Hashimoto Tooru, the governor of Osaka prefecture, told Japanese publication English Journal about his concerns regarding the topic. He stated that the testing of strict grammar rules and vocabulary in entrance exams meant that students crammed these but left conversational use of the language by the wayside, since there is currently no speaking component in the exams. Comparing Japan with other Asian countries who are faring better, he saw Japan being isolated from the rest of the world within 5 to 10 years unless action is taken.
In my personal experience, I've found most of the artists' talks, although endearing and full of effort, to not be the most complex. If I took a drink every time someone just shouted "Are you ready??" as their MC I wouldn't remember enough of the gig to write about it the next day. Yes they are Japanese, but these have been young artists who came out of school not that long ago (although you could argue they were more focussed on playing music than on their English lessons at school) and their Korean and Chinese counterparts are often impressively fluent. Also when funk artist Suga Shikao came to town, the most fluent member of their team was somebody who usually worked on online marketing. English proficiency is obviously not the label's priority in the management role.
But on the dark cloud is a silver lining. Amongst the artists I've been privileged enough to interview, they have almost all expressed their desire to improve upon their English or learn other languages. Music labels are recognising the potential of the international market and are making efforts to provide quality English versions of their official pages. Many artists have ended up playing in various far-flung corners of the world, and with large numbers learning Japanese worldwide Japanese music is already an international phenomenon. Music is an international language, and hopefully everyone can lay their negative stereotypes aside to simply enjoy it. Even with all the complaints I have about dodgy English, it still can't diminish my love of J-music. This humble fan just wants to finish with: if in doubt, leave it out. Can you spare us the Engrish, please?
Feel free to share your Engrish lyrics, stories or opinions. Or to just call me a snob.