Letters From Japan ~ Vol VIII ~ HOT / This is English?


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

Things are going well. This summer is definitely the hottest weather I've ever experienced. Japan has broken several heat records in various places. Tokyo reached 39.1 (102 F) degrees the other week. One night when I came home at 11pm, it was still 30 (86F) degrees outside! It's not just heat, it's humid too. And the semi (cicada) have arrived to make a huge racket, making things seem even hotter, like a jungle or something. Often, on weekdays, I'm only outside less than an hour or two a day-- the time it takes for walking to/from the station and to/from a lunch spot so I've been able to escape the heat for the most part. I feel sorry for the road crews and people that have to work outside.

You've probably heard that Japan is also experiencing drought conditions. The rainy season dumped far less rain than usual and water shortages in some areas are severe. Some prefectures are supplying water for only half the day or less. Tokyo has reduced the water supply by 10% but this has had little affect on the average household. The situation in Tokyo should remain stable. Needless to say, the beer and bottled water manufacturers are experiencing unprecedented demand.

I want to talk a little bit about Japanese English while I happen to be thinking about it. There are many humorous examples of English usage in Japan. A couple common examples are the popular soft drinks, Pocari Sweat and Calpis Soda (pronounced like "cow piss"). Also, since the Japanese use the "r" sound for our "l" sound, they will more often than not use the wrong one when writing English. The part I don't understand about such misspellings is that, if they're going through all the trouble of writing English on a sign, why they don't take the time to pick up a dictionary and make sure it's correct. For example, a car dealership by my station proclaims "Car Rease" in bright yellow foot-high letters.

In addition, many Japanese companies have English names for their own name or their products and they often attempt to justify such names, by giving some sort of explanation of what it means. Usually it seems as if they do this after the fact. "Tanaka-kun, you know English, write up a description of why we used this word." In front of me is a small notebook I bought recently. It's manufactured by Maruman but the cover proclaims "transparent memo/TRUSS" and contains a long description about the word "truss." It so comical that I have to share it with you. Here it is, word for word:

        The word "truss" is derived from the feature of a mountain
        bird that is hunted and bound its limbs hanging from a
        muzzle of gun.  In short it seems to mean limbs being
        bound with ropes just before it gets grilled like Yakitori.
        Converting its meaning, this word is used to indicate a
        bundle of hay and dried straw, or a hair-band for ladies,
        or a binding steel wheel under the boat mast.  It is
        supposed that cottages of our ancestors were built with logs
        bound at the top like bird's limbs bound.
        The derivation of "truss" has been thus come from the unity
        or solidarity.  The framework's joint of "truss" makes its
        uniting method so important.

Talk about free association! I hope you find it amusing like I do. Most Japanese people I know don't find Japanese English humorous although, if they know English well, they can recognize it as strange. In this case, it's completely ludicrous. First they take a word which commonly means "a medical device for people with hernias," pick an uncommon (although possibly original) meaning, add their own special imagery (raise your hand if, when somebody says "truss," you see the image of a bound mountain bird hanging upside down from the muzzle of a gun), and then try to claim that it's a synonym for "unity" and "solidarity." Well, that's Japan for you...

I'm still attempting to learn Japanese. Mostly by osmosis but I have a tutor once a week which is helpful. Last week, my holy grail was tracking down the meaning of "kashisu" which is a gairaigo (foreign word) I've come across used for flavors of ice cream, drinks, etc. I had originally thought it was "cranberry" since the kashisu-flavored foods I've eaten are red and berry-like. But when I found out nobody really knows exactly what it is and it's not in any of my dictionaries, I set out to find out. Turns out (a Japanese-English translator informed me) that it's French for Cassis Liqueur, which is made from black currants. Mystery solved and I can once again sleep peacefully... until the next word.

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: August 11, 1994
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005