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ホーム > コラム > Travels in the Land of “Japlish” (Part 2)(第24回)

Travels in the Land of “Japlish” (Part 2)(第24回)

#24. Travels in the Land of “Japlish” (Part 2)

Jayna Tokie Tanaka

     While native speakers of English may have some strange encounters with unfamiliar Japlish words when trying to master the Japanese language, native Japanese speakers may panic when they try to use their newly acquired second language. This happens because some words borrowed from English have come to be used in peculiarly Japanese ways. These words express ideas that do not exist in the English language but have become so much a part of the Japanese language that Japanese people naturally think that they have been borrowed from English.

     One expression that contains so much baggage that it cannot be translated or explained in one or two sentences is “club activities.” The two words themselves are normal everyday words used all the time in English. However, when put together and used in Japanese, they call to mind a unique set of actions and ideas which always accompany these words. In my understanding, “club activities” may be a part of education up to the university level. Children may choose to participate in clubs in their schools. One uniquely Japanese idea is that while in elementary school, joining clubs may be voluntary, in junior high and high school, there is peer, family, and school pressure to join some kind of club. The general feeling is that children are not yet ready to use their time wisely, so their time must be organized by adults who know better. In other words, clubs should keep children out of trouble. Those who do not join clubs are called “people who go home,” with the innuendo that they are not fully taking part in school life. Another Japanese idea is that anyone can join any club. That means that the sports clubs are not teams as they are in American schools, where there are “try outs,” and those who do not make the grade are “cut,” which means dropped from the team. In the same way, children with a variety of abilities can join school bands and English language clubs. This produces baseball clubs with a hundred members, most of whom, of course, never get to play in official games. It also means that if a school is famous for its concert band (called brass band in Japan), some students will choose the school in order to join the club. That seems to be an unusual way to choose a school. Finally, belonging to a school club, whatever it is and at whatever level, usually means unbelievably long hours spent on “activities.” For sports teams, it means practice, sometimes before and after school. It means games on the weekends, and of course, it means practice every day during the short summer vacation. For school bands and English clubs, it may mean practice every day of the year, or something very close to that. These long hours mean that no one should get into any trouble at all. Everyone who has had some contact with Japanese schools takes all of the above for granted. However, they will find that no one outside of Japan has any idea about what they are talking about. It might take quite a while to explain it all to an outsider.

     Another expression that does not translate because the whole includes much more than its parts is salaryman. Because it has no counterpart in English, the word is now included in English language dictionaries. First of all, not all people who get salaries are salarymen. Although fixed amounts of money are paid monthly to many people including professors, electricians, teachers, and receptionists in doctors’ offices, none of these workers would be called salarymen. First of all, a salaryman should work for a company with generally recognized name value, what would be called “a major company” in the U.S.  A full-time worker in such a company may receive a relatively higher salary (but not necessarily), good benefits including housing and family allowances, and bragging rights. Just being able to say that he works for such and such a company is very important. Note that people do not use the word salaryman when they introduce themselves; that would be gauche. They say that they work for such and such a company, or rumors of their place of employment travel around their network of friends and relatives. Then these people say, “Ah, a salaryman.” In addition, a salaryman would be thought to have more responsibility than others, but he would not be part of company management. After World War II, they worked to increase trade with other countries, they were in charge of building Japan’s infrastructure, and they oversaw vast networks of retailing centers. They have been credited with the postwar economic miracle which is Japan and were celebrated in the long-running tv documentary Project X ~ Challengers. Finally, tourists often mention the fact that they see lights on in office buildings late into the night. That is the image of a salaryman, working on a big project and sacrificing his private life for the company. Salarymen were sometimes described as warriors, as they toiled for the sake of their companies and for Japan. A warrior, of course, is thought to give his all for his lord, forsaking family and leisure time. For many families, that was the reality; the breadwinner was never at home, while the housewife was left with the responsibility of caring for parents and children. Salaryman has been a word describing a work situation that Japanese created. It is interesting that when it formally entered the English language, its use began to wane. The world of Japanese business has moved on, and salarymen may become a historical concept in the near future.

      Words and expressions made up by the Japanese can be heard everywhere in everyday conversations. A list of such words was compiled by an interested expat in Japan. The list includes “American coffee (weak coffee),” “cheer girl (cheerleader),” and “doctor stop (doctor’s recommendation not to do something).”[1] I would add “fried potatoes (French fries or fries),” “dead ball (hit by pitch),” and “slippy (a mispronunciation of slippery).” All Japanese people would know these words. Do you?


[1] Bullock, Ben. “What are those pseudo English words like salaryman?” sci.lang.japan. Web. July 10, 2019.


Jayna Tokie Tanaka(ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ)

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