Japan: Language is Funny

Language is Funny

By: Billy Hammond

The use (or misuse) of language can sometimes produce some pretty interesting outcomes. I've listed a few instances gleaned from my years of living in Japan below.

Mouth vs. mouse

I once had a Japanese company ask me to check a translation done by a Japanese translator whom they'd had doubts about. This was in the early days of the computer revolution and the company had come out with a Macintosh application.

The translator had used a dictionary and had misspelled every instance of "mouse" so that it read "mouth". To make matters worse, the Japanese engineer who'd written the manual had used a colloquial Japanese phrase in vogue at the time of "hitting the mouse button".

As you can imagine, it was an interesting translation. Directions for use of the application had taken on the form of "hit mouth two times in rapid succession", "move mouth so curser (sic) will appear on help menu item on monitor screen", etc.

I've often wondered what kind of condition the user would be in after following those directions if they were left as is.

Mr. My Tool

A very famous international electronics manufacturer came out with software that allowed the user to create his or her original business programs a number of years ago when computers were first starting to be used in offices around Japan. They named the software "Mr. My Tool".

Imagine how hard I had to keep from laughing when a friend of mine boasted to me that he'd created a program to balance accounts with "Mr. My Tool"!

Umm..., are you sure that you want this?

A number of years ago, one of my students who spoke very good English returned from a trip to Hawaii. He asked me to check his pronunciation of "I'll take this." And "Yes, I'm sure." His pronunciation sounded all right to me and I asked him why he wanted me to listen to these two phrases which he'd so obviously mastered.

It seems that when he visited Hawaii, it was quite humid and he found that he perspired more than in his homeland, so he went to a drugstore to purchase some deodorant (in those days, Japanese men seldom used deodorant). He made his selection and the salesclerk asked him twice if he really wanted to buy the deodorant. Thinking that his pronunciation was not being understood he adamantly insisted that he wanted to purchase it.

Out of curiosity, I asked him what brand he'd bought and he brought the can to the next lesson. I almost fell over when I saw it. He'd bought a can of FDS!

Dictionaries can be dangerous.

Most of the Japanese/English dictionaries used in Japan define the word "intercourse" as close to the English equivalent of "interaction on a social or cordial level". Thanks to this dictionary definition, a Japanese businessman made a big mistake in the use of this word. At a gathering with his client he told his client's wife , "I hope we can continue to have intercourse in the future"...


A T.V. ad for an okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancake popular in West Japan) flour company uses "Like Burning" as the company's catch phrase... Hmmm... wonder how stuff made with their product tastes?

A flyer for a pizza company advertises it's pizzas with the slogan "It's ever sweet tasting life".

Do what?

A circular in the newspaper for a home improvement center named "My Hand" had a caption of "DIY with My Hand"...

Are you a MR?

Japanese pharmaceutical salesmen and women have begun to refer to themselves as MRs. They think it means Medical Representative... Can you imagine a pharmaceutical company boasting of the number of trained MRs they have?

Relaxed and Refreshed?

Found on a 24-roll pack of Suzuran brand bathroom tissue (toilet paper): "Be relaxed and refreshed with soft tissue". I wonder if it's supposed to help cure constipation...

In a similar vein, the outside of the box of facial tissue I have on my desk is emblazoned with "HOXY will always offer you a rich and comfortable life with paper". It seems that the Japanese expect a lot from their paper products!

Copyright, A.E.L.S., Inc. (Billy Hammond), May 2003. Reproduction in whole or in part prohibited.