Friday, June 29, 2007

Weep Not For Engrish

June must be The Month When I Yell Angrily At Other Foreigners In Tokyo, because this week I'm at it again. This time the object of my all-destroying disdain is Beau Miller's essay (entitled Farewell, My Government Abuse Chicken) which was printed in the Last Word section of issue #692 of Metropolis. In it, Mr. Miller laments recent efforts to rid Beijing of "Engrish" (bastardized English born of computerized translation).

"Engrish" is one of my least favorite words in the world. It's like a thick, juicy slab of "I find your country quaint and humorous" wrapped in a "Your inability to understand English is an endless font of delight" tortilla.

With his mouth full of the burrito I just described, Beau Miller complains that, without all this "Engrish" (and "Chinglish," just in case you weren't already offended), cities like Beijing and Tokyo will become tiresome, boring and generally less of a barrel of laughs for him. If he knew that an endless supply of "Engrish" was always available at Yahoo's babel fish page, he might not be in such a panic.

While Mr. Miller frames his essay by stressing that Beijing has "more important matters to address," his decision to illustrate that point with a stack of "ha ha ha, these people can't even speak English good" observations is counter-productive to his cause. I do, however, approve of his decision not to identify himself as a freelance writer. Most Last Word authors do. After all, "freelance writer" sounds a lot cooler than "ESL instructor."

Below is the letter I wrote to Metropolis in response. I kept it short, and so perhaps oversimplified my argument (and may subsequently be accused of missing the point of Miller's essay), but I wrote it more for my own benefit than anyone else's.

The disappearance of allegedly comical English from cities like Beijing and Tokyo is no crisis. Rather, if this change means people will stop using condescending words like "Engrish" and "Chinglish," I hope it happens sooner than later. The "Engrish" in question is usually the product of babel fish translation services (available for free all over the Internet), so if Beau Miller's top priority is indeed his own entertainment at the expense of language, why not just go to the source?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Megane Suupaa Rap Craze

A few months ago I noticed that the hawker standing in front of the Megane Suupaa eyewear shop in front of the Electric Town exit of JR Akihabara Station was freestyle rapping about glasses. His ad lib Japanese rhymes contained goofy lines such as, "Check out the third floor, yo!" and "It's hard to see at night! Get some corrective lenses, yo!"

I'm not exaggerating or trying to be funny. He really did suggest corrective lenses to help with night-time driving, and he really did say "yo."

Today I saw the hawker rapping again, although I can't be sure that the guy I saw today is the same guy I saw a few months ago, because -- check this out, yo! -- it turns out that numerous Megane Suupaa hawkers at locations across Tokyo are using this atypical sales strategy these days. A quick search of YouTube reveals a treasure trove of videos of rapping hawkers, most of them working at Megane Suupaa. The Akihabara guy even uses a little boombox playing a hiphop beat to help him bust it out fresh, yo! He also uses the "faux gaijin" pronunciation style that is popular with Japanese rappers, who desperately wish they were foreign.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Simmer Down Now

One of my co-workers once observed that foreigners in Japan can be arranged on a spectrum. At one extreme end you have those who absolutely love 100% of Japan 100% of the time, who will defend every aspect of it until they choke to death on mochi in their living room in Utsunomiya at age 99. At the other extreme end you have the jaded, jilted, angry foreigners who act like they decided to live in Japan specifically for the purpose of complaining about it and comparing it to their (far superior) home country all the time.
Both extremes, my co-worker said, are goddamn annoying to foreigners who fall someplace in between.
That observation occurred to me today when I read this enthusiastic essay by enthusiastic Tokyo enthusiast Erica Belling in the June 1, 2007 issue of Tokyo Notice Board. For that razor-thin minority of people who don't know but, for what ever reason, would like to know: Tokyo Notice Board is a free 60-page assemblage of classifieds, personals, advertisements for strip clubs and, lest we forget, often uninteresting works of opinion, fiction, poetry and satire created by foreign residents of the Kanto Plain. For example, the work of our new friend Erica. Walk with me through this garden of joy-induced despair, won't you?
First, she starts us off with this:

Where else in the world would you see Rockabillies, bagpipe-players, girls dressed as ‘Little Bo Beep’ and J-Pop bands all in an afternoon?
Speaking content-wise, I have nothing against this opening paragraph, except I didn't know some people said "Little Bo Beep" instead of "Little Bo Peep." Even stranger, in the Tokyo Notice Board appearance of this article, it says "Little Bo Bee." What ever. She could have said "Little Beau Bridges" and the essay wouldn't have lost nor gained any impact. Let's push onward, for now the garden becomes a jungle:

This is my take on Tokyo – eclectic at the least, crazy at best. And I’ve only been in Tokyo for 8 days! So far I have explored the streets of Harajuku, the bright lights of Shinjuku, the shopping of Shibuya and the 6 floors of Don Quijote (you really can find ANYTHING you need there!)

Again, a discrepancy: in the web version, she says she's been in Tokyo for eight days. In the TNB version, six days. WHICH IS IT, ERICA? YOU CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS! Speaking of capital letters, yeah, I guess you can find "ANYTHING you need" at Don long as your needs are limited to an array of goofy neckties, novelty gifts, sex toys and fake Rolexes. Both the printed and the online version of the article are missing a period at the end of this paragraph, so I don't know what Erica's doing in Tokyo, but she had better not be teaching English. Next:

I’ve had hot coffee from a can, tea from a can, soup from a can, traveled the subway in rush hour, bought a bicycle (a must in Tokyo), strolled Omotesando and been cleansed at the Meiji Jingu shrine. I’ve tackled the underground maze of endless stairs and escalators at Roppongi subway station, I’ve basked in the beauty of Yoyogi Park and stared in amazement at the architecture of Roppongi Hills – and the price of mangoes - $300 Australian dollars a box!

Jesus, all this canned food! What are you, homeless? Oh yeah, I guess you are, since you decided to take a bath at Meiji Shrine, of all places. Better find some income so you can afford those mangoes.
In the next paragraph, Erica starts to say some things against which I must contend:

From the perfectly presented Tokyo women to the punks to the straight-faced business men, I have found they all have something in common – a respect for one-another. This is how Tokyo works.
Wait a ding-dang minute here, Little Bo Beep. I thought you just said you've only been in Tokyo for six to eight days. I think that pretty much disqualifies you from telling me how Tokyo "works." And your observation that everyone in Tokyo respects one another is an easy mistake, for what you've wrongly perceived as respect is actually indifference. Like New York City, Tokyo is full of people who, in the words of Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters II, "would just as soon step on your face as look at you." If you'd moved here from any other city in Japan, you'd perceive the order and efficiency of Tokyo as coldness and impersonality. But no, you obviously moved here from a place where mangoes are cheap and canned food is a luxury and bicycles are frowned upon.
Erica blathers for another paragraph and a half more about how absolutely super everyone is, and then finishes with a final burst of positivity, to the tune of "When You Wish Upon a Star":

I see Tokyo as a city of endless opportunity and daily challenges. My mind is already overloaded with plans for my life here. Challenge number one: learn Japanese!
Yeah, Erica. Get right on that. You're a blank slate. An unspoiled innocent in a brave new world where nothing can go wrong. And you'll be that way until you get hassled by the police for your gaijin card and registration every time they see you riding your bicycle, you get touched up by a helpful businessman on the subway, or an earthquake sucks you into the underground maze of Roppongi Station while simultaneously bringing a million tons of amazing architecture down on you and your mangoes.
Technorati: mango / architecture / Ghostbusters II

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Let's Learn Japanese: Dame usagi

Dame usagi
Stupid rabbit ("Dame" can be translated as "no good," "unacceptable," "hapless" or "stupid." In this case, let's go with "stupid.")

This week Osaka-based Nova Corporation, proprietor of the omnipresent Nova English Conversation School chain (whose mascot is an allegedly cute, pink rabbit with a yellow beak), was ordered by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to suspend recruitment of new long-term contract customers for six months as punishment for illegal bait-and-switch practices and contractural misrepresentation.

[the story]

This is just one more troublesome black mark on the reputation of a company that has, in recent months, been especially troubled with bad press. In 1997, Nova repaid 3.8 million yen to a group of 18 students who complained of false advertising and had been subsequently forbidden by the company to cancel their contracts. In January 2007, seven Nova teachers were arrested for possession of cannabis and cocaine. And in March of 2007, a Nova teacher from the UK named Lindsay Ann Hawker was found strangled to death, presumeably by one of her students. Her body was found buried in a bathtub full of sand (one hand protruding) on the balcony of the student's apartment. The suspect remains at large.

Going from strange to stranger, consider this letter printed in February 2005 in Metropolis, Tokyo's self-proclaimed #1 English magazine. The writer claims to be Gil Cruz, a Nova employee who firmly believes that "Nova rocks," despite the fact that Nova employees are forbidden by their employer to speak publicly as representatives of the company. The letter sparked a mixed response of yeas and nays from others who had worked for Nova, and the question of whether Gil Cruz actually exists (and whether Nova does, indeed, rock) has yet to be answered.

This latest slap on the wrist by the government has caused a sudden 10% drop in Nova's stock value and many are unsure of what will become of the overgrown language giant. One thing is certain: If Nova ceases to exist, Tokyo pedestrians will have to figure out a new way navigating. Once, you could simply look up for the nearest Nova sign and know that the nearest rail station was not far away.

Technorati: Nova

Thursday, June 14, 2007

New! Toothpaste Pepsi

Two days ago, Pepsi (via Japan bottler Suntory Beverage) released something called Pepsi Ice Cucumber. Japanese retail locations are throwing a spotlight on this ill-looking, vaguely minty green soft drink which, in my opinion, tastes a lot like toothpaste.

When I bought a bottle of the sea-green tonic at the 7-Eleven near my apartment today, I asked the cashier if the stuff was selling well. He said it was, despite the fact that the shelf from which I took the bottle was perfectly stocked without a single empty spot. Based on the recommendation of a co-worker who tried Pepsi Ice Cucumber before I did and suffered subsequent stomach discomfort, I took a single drink from the bottle and then put the rest in the refrigerator. The bottle is likely to stay there until the stuff ferments and becomes Pepsi Sea Foam Green Moonshine.

Technorati: Pepsi Ice Cucumber

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Japanese TV seems to annoy me more and more each day. Lately I can't be in the same room as a TV without shuddering in disgust at one of the idiotic shows passed off as entertainment on the Japanese airwaves. For that reason, today I'm starting a new feature called Kiru Your TV. Kiru is a handy Japanese verb that simultaneously means "cut," "kill" or "turn off." SAFETY FIRST! If you decide to "cut" your TV with any kind of bladed weapon, make sure to unplug it first.

My first nomination for being kiru'ed is a show called SMAPxSMAP (with a silent "X"), the foremost televisual vehicle for the ever-aging idol group SMAP. SMAPxSMAP is a multi-segmented show which aims to prove that SMAP (Nakai Masahiro, Kimura "Kimutaku" Takuya, Inagaki Goro, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi and Katori Shingo) can do everything. They cook fancy food for celebrity guests in a segment called "Bistro SMAP." They perform comedic sketches. They do all sorts of fun and interesting things, but the show always ends with a musical segment.

At this point, it's important to know one thing about SMAP: They are funny comedians and talented actors (and, apparently, gifted chefs). But one thing SMAP cannot do is the very thing they were assembled by Johnny's idol talent agency to do, which is singing.

A typical episode of SMAPxSMAP ends with a special musical guest appearance by a "real" musician. The guest participates in a question/answer session with the SMAP boys, after which they all share the stage for what can only be described as an orgy of musical pain: SMAP joins their musical superior in a poorly-arranged ensemble, often presented in a horribly out-of-tune unison.

I cannot help but ask, Why does this show exist? Certainly I'm not the only person who feels the ear pain and embarrassment that comes naturally when SMAP collides with a musical legend like Stevie Wonder (pictured above). But I always reach the same conclusion: Self-indulgence. It's undeniably fun to sing. And it must be even more fun to sing with a musician you really admire. But SMAP's attempts to do so are not fun for anybody but SMAP, and should not be televised.

Witness the video. Watch an amazingly patient Stevie Wonder share the stage. The SMAP boys do nothing but sit quietly and bop around on their seats during the first song. Then, around the 3:53 mark, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" starts...and with it, the agony. Highlights include:

4:12 - Nakai looks really funny when he sings the word "hearts."

4:21 - SMAP can't agree on the vocal rhythm for "no song to sing."

5:00 - Nakai attempts some artsy hand gestures.

5:37 - The bottom of Kimutaku's heart is actually his liver.

5:51 to 6:13 - Nakai and Kusanagi sing something other than the real lyrics and are bailed out by Stevie at the last second.