#23. Travels in the Land of “Japlish” (Part 1)
Jayna Tokie Tanaka
Japlish, the cousin of Konglish and Chinglish, confounds both speakers of English and Japanese. In the first case, it may take years for foreigners in Japan to realize that they have been misconstruing the roots of some everyday words. In the second case, when Japanese travel to lands where Japlish is not spoken, they have problems when they think what they are speaking is English and find out that some words they know do not exist outside of their country.
Trains pull into stations and stop precisely at marked locations at the “home.” Home? That’s right. For decades, I thought trains pull into “homes.” After all, people go home. Why not trains? The problem was that I had not lived for long where there was regular train service, so I missed learning that trains stop at “platforms.” I finally figured out that what the Japanese were saying was not “home” but “form”! Japanese notoriously cannot pronounce the “r,” and therefore, they just lengthened the “o,” and the word sounds like “home.” Making it more confusing was that they had also left off the first part of the word. Actually, it was rather nice to think of trains of always coming “home.” It had a warm, cosy feeling. Maybe I should never have realized that they just stop at ordinary platforms.
Another word which left me puzzled for a long time was “axle.” I understood that axles exist as parts of cars. I learned to drive a car when I was sixteen, but when I came to Japan, I gave it up. First of all, I am not particularly fond of cars; second, it seemed too much trouble to learn how to drive on the other side of the road; and third, the wonderful public transportation system was very endearing to my eco-friendly soul. Therefore, although I knew a little about cars, I did not pay much attention to Japanese cars and the names of their parts. I knew that what is called a steering wheel in the U.S. is a “handle” in Japan. That was not very confusing. However, when there were reports of people having accidents because they mistook the “axle” for the brake, it made no sense at all. What are axles? Aren’t axles those straight poles that connect wheels to each other? Why would you call the part of the car that you step on to make it go faster an axle? The puzzle was finally solved by several fatal accidents in recent weeks. What I thought was an “axle” turned out to be a shortened form of “accelerator.” Now it makes sense. People step on the “accel” to make a car go. It took such a long time to understand this one because most people do not call this part of a car an accelerator. We are much more familiar with the term “gas pedal.”
Finally, I was totally confused by “frays.” Aren’t frays what happen when people (or dogs and cats?) start beating up on each other and everyone (or all the dogs and cats) in the vicinity join in? That made no sense at all in the situations I heard the word. How about the worn patches in people’s clothing, rugs, or couches? That did not make sense either. There is also a verb by that name. Someone could deliberately make that worn patch if they wanted to. Of course, that led nowhere at all. There was one other possibility. There is also the word “flay.” However, that seemed too gruesome to think about. I am sure no one wants to do that to other people in the situations where I heard it. Where did I hear this word? It was most often related to some sort of sports event, usually baseball, and usually yelled by the cheerleaders. I would often hear it in TV dramas about high school sports. Then there were the “frays” at Koshien baseball games in the spring and summer. Now that I think about it, however, I heard many, many “frays” while on campus at Waseda University. The male and female cheering squads showed off their skills during lunchtime before important sports events in front of the building I taught in. That was why I probably thought about this word so often. Recently, I learned that there was a good reason for this. In 1905, the Waseda University baseball team went to the U.S. to play baseball, a first for a Japanese university team. Their leader, Abe Isoo brought “frays” back from this trip and spread it among Waseda students. These “frays” were used at a Waseda-Keio baseball game later the same year, and now they are always a part of Waseda games. By now, I am sure you know what this word is, but it took me close to forty years to figure it out. I am quite sure that no one at my high school would recognize this very handy cheer. Hurray!
Traveling in the land of Japlish has been a lifelong hobby. In the next segment of this travel report, I want to talk about all those words that have taken on new meanings or very narrow meanings in Japanese. They face complete bewilderment when used abroad.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）