Currently in Japan the younger generation finds English and French to be rather hip. Don’t misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean all of my students are falling over themselves to learn English. The elementary students like it well enough, as the lesson is highly activity and game based. In fact at my school, the students in first through fourth grades clear away their desks for the biweekly English lesson and sit on the floor. Over the next 45 minutes they will get up to sing a song, often with motions, they will likely work in groups, and they may dart around the room during an activity. Once fifth and sixth grades hit, they are confined to their desks. Textbooks are incorporated, and while we still do activities, it is rare for the students to stand up during the lesson. By the time they are given a thrice weekly English lesson in junior high, spelling and grammar receive heavy emphasis in the curriculum, tests are incorporated, and students smile a lot less frequently during the lesson.
So what do I mean when I say French and English are hip? They appear decoratively on a lot of items: t-shirts, tote bags, pencil cases, notebooks, etc. Sometimes the English is spelled incorrectly, but not usually (that is one of the major components of their education, after all). Sometimes it just doesn’t quite make sense (I used to own stationary that said, “I’m sticky about my favorite things”). Sometimes it is crude (seeing a sweet middle-aged woman in a t-shirt with cuss words is so common it is almost cliche). Sometimes it is rather embarrassing for the wearer (I’ve consistently seen one woman wearing a shirt that says, “I like being simple minded). But most of the time it is completely correct, quite sappy, and very unremarkable. The mother of one of the little girls on my preschool bus wears a t-shirt with English on it several times a week, and I consistently notice this, but I can’t actually remember what any of the shirts in her collection say. I don’t speak French, but a coworker of mine does and reports that the words she sees on vending machines, advertisements, and t-shirts are as consistently incorrect as the English is. Occasionally I spot German, of which I do have a conversational knowledge. The quote that often passes through my head when I see Japanese usage of German is, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
In addition to decoration, a common way English is used is in the names of Japanese musical groups. I’ve heard my students mention all of the following artists:
– Spicy Chocolate – they dress a little like rappers, but they sing pop love songs because that is what is popular in Japan.
– Perfume – Their big hit is called “Chocolate Disco.” Yeah, I don’t know what a chocolate disco is either.
– Mr. Children – the picture in my head this name creates always makes me think of a kindly old man, like Mr. Wizard, singing nursery rhymes. Even though the band is a bunch of young Japanese dudes singing melancholy pop.
– EXILE – mentally I usually swap this with Exodus and begin thinking of Moses. I probably should keep it straight and just think of Napoleon or the Count of Monte Cristo.
– GReeeeN – I didn’t misspell this. They have four “e”s in their name because of the four band members.
– ONE OK ROCK – I actually kind of like their music. But there is some indication that the name comes from the time they used to practice on weekends, which in butchered English is, “One o’krock”.
– BADBOYS – I translated this name for my students, and it made them peal into laughter. The tricky thing is, this term is loaded with meaning in English. It is everything from a naughty toddler to a criminal on the show “Cops” to the James Dean hottie. I gave the direct translation, but I know that doesn’t do it justice.
– Kis-My-Ft.2 – It’s pronounced, “Kiss my feet.” When I first heard the name, it made me laugh, and then I had to explain it to my students. Again, that also required some nuance of why someone would kiss another’s foot.
– World Order – while the name always reminds me of a dictator, their quirky and brilliant dance moves make their music videos so very worth watching.
Now, I am fully aware that American and British bands have their own set of less than intuitive names. I remember being puzzled when I first heard the names Smashing Pumpkins, U2, UB40, 98 Degrees, the Beatles, Fun., and One Direction (which direction is that?). I guess what I’m trying to say here is that no culture has a monopoly on crazy band names.