David Blecken
Jun 14, 2016

Should brands persist in ‘Englishing’ Japanese audiences?

English copy is everywhere in Japanese advertising, much of it bemusing to English-speakers both foreign and Japanese. We ask what purpose it serves—and whether it actually needs to make sense.

Musee Platinum's May 2016 advertising campaign
Musee Platinum's May 2016 advertising campaign

This year’s campaign for Musee Platinum Tokyo, a hair removal salon that usually mounts a big advertising push as the summer approaches, started out with a line that, for some at least, was eye-catching for the wrong reasons: Elaiza Ikeda, a popular model, featured alongside an invitation to ‘Enjoy the girl’.

Some Japanese pundits drew attention to the gaffe on social media, and after running for a number of weeks, the wording of the campaign abruptly changed to the more subdued ‘Enjoy, girls’. But while the original line may have raised a few snickers, most who took the time to process it would have understood it to mean ‘Enjoy being a girl’. Indeed, most social-media discussion of the campaign concentrated on the model rather than the wording.

Was the revision necessary? Feelings are mixed as to the importance of good English in a campaign targeting Japanese consumers.

The general consensus is that English copy serves as a design element rather than a means of communicating a message. “Using English looks better aesthetically,” said Tomo Murakami, co-founder of UltraSuperNew. “It becomes part of the whole look and feel. Communicating the copy message is secondary.”

The most important information needs to be conveyed in Japanese, agreed Kan Taniguchi, marketing director at Tugboat. But using kanji characters everywhere “makes the whole creative seem very serious, too square and heavy”, Murakami explained.

At the same time, the English copy does still have a message to put across. Masato Mitsudera, head of creative at Geometry Global, ultimately prefers Japanese for taglines, because of its scope for wordplay and depth. But “when you are expressing a theme on a large scale, Japanese can sound too direct, and people may have hostile feelings towards such direct messaging,” he said. “Expressing the message in English sublimates it, giving it a bigger meaning.”

So why do those messages often sound strange? “The biggest challenge is that English copy does not have any meaning unless the message is constructed with simple English vocabulary that most Japanese people would understand,” Mitsudera said. The Japanese love of wordplay also results in deliberately unusual English, he noted.

“I am often faced with this issue when working on projects for multinational clients," Mitsudera said. "If we prioritise correctness from an English grammar perspective, Japanese people can’t understand the meaning. I think it’s OK to use these coined phrases, if they sound and feel pleasant when communicating to an exclusively Japanese audience.”

Speaking from a consumer perspective, Yuri Imaizumi, a bilingual employee of Bloomberg in Tokyo, said she only tends to notice English copy when it’s bad. While it makes her laugh, she said, it rarely leaves her with a negative impression of the brand.

But not everyone agrees that wonky English phrases are OK. Taniguchi thinks native-English copywriters—not just native-English speakers—should check all copy to cut out the awkwardness that he often sees. That doesn’t have to mean making the language more complex or difficult to understand. Mitsudera said he follows this procedure before presenting to a client, but then expresses his own preference for the wording.

With Japan becoming more “international” and visitor numbers increasing dramatically, Murakami suggested there is also an element of national pride at stake. “It will simply be embarrassing” to continue to make such mistakes, he said.

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