Japan 13: For reading, please exclude not shower head wear.

Written by

Andrew Millar


January 19, 2008

My shower cap and I have been having a great time in Japan, thanks for asking.

Currently we’re sitting comfortably on a Shinkensen bound at breakneck speed for Hiroshima.

And yes you read right. I did write my shower cap and I.

My little plastic pal and I have been constant companions since we moved into the Hotel Monterey in Kyoto. I was searching through the basket of free goodies they provide in the bathroom, and there amongst the cotton buds, hair clips, razors, tooth brushes and body sponges was a little plastic bag marked ‘Shower Cap. Relax and enjoy your stay with this cap.’

I know what they mean. But it was just another example of Manglish. And I decided to take the literal meaning for a change and I must say I have enjoyed my stay with this clear plastic cap. We’ve been very happy together.

But Manglish or Engrish, examples of badly translated English, abound.

Here’s another example from the Monterey bathroom… ‘Our water is naturally that is draw from underground, then filtered without effecting the mineral content. At the showing of your bath time, cleans the skin up.’

Now the Monterey is a very good hotel. The interior is all based on William Morris wallpapers so it has a kind of baronial, gothic feeling. From the outside it is solid and impressive and looks like the old Savings Bank of South Australia moneyboxes we had as children. So getting a translation correct would be routine. Or so you would think.

But Manglish is everywhere. Every single translated sign has some form of twisted prose in it. Often sentences are jumbled. They are full of typos –- like ‘Hundret for the centenary exhibition of a loved local artist’. And often the wrong words are used.

Here’s an example ‘Propose a hairstyle and it much’s your lifestyle.’

Do they mean a new hair do can make your life more meaningful and fulfilling? Or do they mean you can choose one that won’t look incongruous with the way you live. Who knows?

And Japan is the land of the unnecessary apostrophe.

One tee shirt we saw proudly proclaimed the wearer’s quest for the elusive ‘lump of happiness.’ As these were in the women’s department I hope some well-endowed young lady does not wear one. Males already have a notion of where the lumps of happiness can be found…

I began this trip thinking Manglish was quaint or endearing. It was evidence they were trying to accommodate.

But now I’m not sure. I’m beginning to see it as the manifestation of a form of prejudice. A little statement of exclusion. An expression of standoffishness. A small reminder that you are a visitor in a foreign country. You are made to feel welcome but have no ownership of anything. Not even your language.

To present you with perfect English signs would be to give part of their lives over to you. And the Japanese are quite protective of things Japanese. They hold traditions quite tightly and exclusion is a tightly held tradition. Here is an example. I heard of a man who was elected to the highest office on a PTA Board. The local prefecture officials made great public relations out of the fact that this was a shining example of integration. He was Chinese and they saw this as proof of racial tolerance. How modern. How ‘just like the west’. Except for one fact. The gentleman concerned was Japanese born. His parents were Japanese born. It was not until you went back to his grandparents that you find the Chinese connection. Two full generations and still considered an outsider.

This is an intelligent and talented country; a country where to make a mistake is mortifying; a country where ‘face’ is everything; I can’t believe that simply translating a sign is that difficult.

I used to be amused by Manglish. Now I believe the joke is on us.