Japanese Funnybusiness Humor
Humorous observations on Japan and its products made while traveling there.
Japan and North America are largely similar, but on my recent trips to the Land of the Rising Sun I kept noticing little amusing things here and there that at least I thought were worth sharing, so I've collected a bunch of anecdotes and observations for the perusal of those who find this sort of thing fun. Yes, in many cases I'm making fun of Japan, but it's all in good sport. After all, I've spent time there, and I've married into the culture, so I have a right to poke a little fun at it if I want to.
Product names are a big deal in any country, and we've all heard stories of mistranslated ones. My favorite is the characters used to write "Coca Cola" phonetically in Chinese--before Coke standardized it with a set meaning "Happiness in the Mouth," it was sometimes written with characters that meant "Bite the wax tadpole." Japan is a wonderful country, because they do the hard work themselves. The thing is, it's popular (and has been for quite some time) to have English product names. This is fine, except when you have somebody coming up with an English name who probably doesn't speak much English and your target audience doesn't either:
To start with, there's one that many Americans have already heard of: The ever-popular sports drink Pocari Sweat. True, that is what it (and most other sports drinks) taste like, but I think truth in advertising can be taken too far.
Another favorite is the popular hamburger chain Mos Burger. The hamburgers are actually quite good, and no, they don't have any lichen on them (though if you look at some of the food in Japan, you wouldn't be surprised if they did). In fact, according to the sign on the wall, "MOS" stands for "Mountain, Ocean, Sun." What exactly this has to do with their secret formula barbecue sauce, I have no idea.
After eating your Mos Burger, maybe you need to brush your teeth, and one brand of toothpaste is Denta-T. I found it amusing that this was abbreviated DR-T on the tube; I can't help thinking that Mr. T had a younger brother who opted to go into oral hygiene instead of joining the A-Team.
A personal favorite of mine in the "that doesn't sound quite right" department is the train station snack stand chain Let's Kiosk. Other than the fact that it's utterly meaningless, I had no idea that "kiosk" was a verb.
Another company name is a game publisher that started out specializing in lame RPGs, but you may now have heard of: From Software. If I had thought of it, I would have happily named my company that just to see a magazine write "...the new game from From."
In the candy department, my personal favorite is a Nestle Crunch-style candy bar called Crunky. I don't know about you, but I'm wary of any candy named after the sound a VW Microbus makes when there's something wrong with it.
Another questionably titled candy is a type of gum called Communicase. It sounds to me like one of the enzymes that I was supposed to remember in biology class, but judging from the pictures on the package, it helps blocky robo-people coordinate their speech ("It's the breath freshener that 3 out of 4 giant robots recommend!").
Just as it's popular to have English names on your product, many products (especially candy, for some reason) have a slogan or description in English on the front of the package. The names can be funny, but even though the descriptions are surprisingly well written (often a little too eloquent for their own good), many are of questionable or rather overstated content:
For example, on a snack food called Yaki-Ichigo? (yes, including the question mark--it translates roughly as "Cooked Strawberries?"): "Why don't you try Yaki-Ichigo? It's crunchy and melts frothily in your mouth." For those wondering, it does in fact melt frothily in your mouth, although that experience isn't as bad as it sounds--they're sort of like strawberry Cheetos.
Or, on the popular chewing gum Green Gum (itself rather dubiously, though accurately, named): "A light and mild sweetnes coupled with lasting flavor and fortable chewiness. Enjoy the delight only possible from Lotte." I have no idea what fortable means, and although the stuff isn't bad, I think that many brands of mint stick gum can give it a run for its money in the delight department.
Another questionably named gum is Black Black (you can even buy a form of it in the US now), which would more accurately be named "Black White," since its hard black shell is filled with white gum. Subtitled "Hi-Technical excellent taste and flavour," the package says (in Japanese) that the stuff is supposed to wake you up, and they're not kidding. It looks rather unpleasant, but actually chewing one of the tiny pieces is an experience somewhat akin to mainlining 10cc's of peppermint extract--like biting into an entire tin of Altoids. Clears the sinuses, too.
How about Pocky ("The Super Snack"--a massively popular line of chocolate covered pretzel sticks now available worldwide, if you've somehow avoided hearing of or trying it). On a package of the dark chocolate variety, "Men's Pocky" (manly pretzel sticks?): "Crispy pretzel dipped in dark chocolate for the type of person who enjoys the finer points in life." Now that's a pretzel stick. The only snack food that shows people how refined you are.
And, winning the "That's just not right" award is a tasty, cream-flavored, taffy-like candy called Milky. The slogan (in Japanese): "Milky--tastes like mama." Yes, it's a children's candy, but I like it too, and at my age I find the thought disturbing.
While I'm on advertising slogans, I might as well mention ads; there are a lot of very short ads in Japan, and most of them involve either random imagery, way-too-perky women, or people in very strange costumes--sometimes all three. And almost every one has either the company name or their phone number sung in an uncomfortably sweet ditty at the end, a nightmare for those prone to getting tunes stuck in their head. But I did see a couple of cool ones:
My favorite was for an Internet provider; it involved an average family duking it out in a John Woo-style slow-motion slugfest over the computer. There's just something satisfying about a Japanese mother leaping four feet into the air and delivering flying kick to her high-school age daughter's face. If you're wondering, mom won but the youngest son sat down at the computer during the brawl.
Another good one focused on a 70-some-year-old man with a physique that puts most bodybuilders to shame. A large family is sitting around a traditional Japanese dinner table, when a young boy says "I can't get this jar open." Grandpa promptly jumps up, throws his shirt (anime-style) into the air, pops the jar open dramatically, and starts flexing his meaty chest for the camera. I don't have the foggiest idea what the ad was for, but it was awesome.
And, finally, a beer ad. Rather than attractive women or some annoying guys on a couch, this one told the story of a studly six-inch-tall action figure breaking into a cooler to commandeer an aluminum bottle (mutant spawn of the can and the traditional bottle) of the product in question. When the little plastic dude finished chugging his brew, I couldn't help but think: "Woah! GI Joe's getting hammered!"
Next up in the odd English department is clothing. It's gotten somewhat popular in America recently to put some cool-looking Japanese or Chinese characters on T-shirts, even if you have no idea what they mean, but the Japanese beat us to it--they've been putting nonsense English on clothes for decades.
My personal favorite on one trip was an attractive handbag an older woman was carrying on the train. It read "Abyss of Time." I have absolutely no idea what that has to do with a purse, but I frankly found it somewhat frightening.
Another was a T-shirt that my conservative sister-in-law put on her nine-year-old son; it featured gritty black and white photos of provocatively dressed young women (one of whom had the word "butthead" scrawled on her navel) and the word "Splendid" at the bottom. Great shirt for a drunken frat boy, but...
On the same kid, a pair of Mickey Mouse Pajamas captioned with the word "Impudence". I'm probably the only person who's ever seen those PJ's that knows what that word means, but then again, on that kid it's an entirely appropriate label.
A few minor fashion observations I found amusing:
One is the prevalence of low-riders in the cities; apparently they've come into fashion among today's youth. And since the average young Japanese person apparently has considerably more money than sense, some of these are rather odd. A sparkling purple '80s-era Chevy Caprice with miniscule tires and lots of gold and chrome trim, for example. When a rather dweeby-looking 20-year-old in a baseball uniform that didn't quite fit got out of it, I felt that something was amiss. Another was a group of youngsters driving a car fit for a drug lord: An immense, brand new Cadillac that was about a quarter of an inch off the pavement and apparently didn't have a muffler. Just seems like there's a better way to waste money, especially in a country where you can barely park a Honda Civic in most spaces--they probably have to rent a second apartment just to park their ride.
Elsewhere in the aimless youth department, another interesting phenomenon was street musicians. Rather than the down-on-their-luck performers that you see in the States, the city near where I was staying seemed to be filled with college-age kids who had nothing better to do than sit on a street corner, play a guitar, sing classic songs, and hope that a talent scout would notice them or something. They weren't out for money, and it's a good thing; a couple of them were OK, but most weren't fit for open mic night at the local elementary school's talent show. My theory was that they would sit in front of a store singing (loudly) off key until the owner eventually paid them enough to leave, then move on to another spot and repeat the process. I never saw any of them move, though, so maybe they'd just been thrown out of every karaoke bar in the area but still hadn't had their fill of public humiliation.
Finally, coming back to styles from the '80s, there was a menacing looking fellow who seemed to always be on the 9:30 train out of town. He's about 6 feet tall (that's huge by Japanese standards), rather hefty, and always stands in as cool a manner as possible during the ride (it must be hard--acting that cool looks really tiring). Add to that a fistful of huge gold rings and a tiny, battered baseball cap and you have the guy who any female character in an anime series has to be rescued from. Just one small problem: A pink shirt and a pearl necklace just did not complete the look.
Winning the "Unclear on the concept" award was a high school kid I passed on the street. He clearly was fond of the American fashion that involves wearing baggy clothes and pants that ride somewhere around the knees. Unfortunately for him, he chose to execute this style with his school uniform: Button down white shirt, tie, polished leather belt, and navy slacks. The poor sap ended up looking more like a businessman so drunk he forgot to pull his pants up when he got out of the loo. Ah, what I wouldn't have given for a camera.
And one for the road: American music is relatively popular in Japan. There's even a radio station in Tokyo that plays nothing but American pop, and the announcers speak English (not that most of the listeners have any idea what they're saying). Why's that funny? Picture a 35-year-old school teacher and his wife singing along to "The Thong Song", having absolutely no idea what a "thong" is. And then picture me trying to explain it when they asked.
And now for something completely different...
Odds and ends that I found interesting or amusing:
I'm sure that every country in the world has elevator music--you know, the upbeat, mind-numbingly mellow tunes that repeat endlessly in public places to keep people stuck in line from tearing each other's heads off. Japan is no exception, but their elevator music is disturbingly recognizable; my first (and sadly not last) experience with a Japanese-style toilet (a 2 foot long hole in the ground) was in a neon-pink toy store restroom with a Prozac-enhanced instrumental version of the Titanic theme playing in the background. It was a truly surreal experience.
Supermarkets are even more interesting, because they sometimes play really, really loud tunes that sound disturbingly like the themes from '80s-era video games. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was shopping in the item store of an 8-bit RPG.
Japanese supermarkets are very much like those in America, except all the products are closer to the ground. However, aside from the music mentioned above, I noticed something rather funny in a Wal*Mart-style megastore. The sections of the store were labeled in both Japanese and English, and the departments included Pet Foods, Housewares, Electrical, and Culture. I wish my local K-Mart had a "Culture" aisle. Actually, it was labeled "Stationary" in Japanese, and that's exactly what it was, but it makes you wonder where they bought their dictionary.
Japanese nutritional information
Japanese food has nutritional information printed on the package, but there's a small logical oversight. The thing is, many labels have the nutritional totals for the whole package. Yes, it's nice to know that the huge bag of individually wrapped little chocolate pie snacks has 1,572 calories and enough fat to give a horse a heart attack, but that doesn't do you a lot of good if you only want to eat, say, a half dozen of the little buggers. Oh, and in case you were going to get all mathematical, the bag doesn't even say how many snack thingies are in it. I suppose you could count.
Ever wonder why anime characters don't eat much cheese? They can't afford it. Milk is a common enough drink, but any processed milk-derivate costs about as much as an equivalent volume of 10 karat gold. A mid-sized carton of milk runs around a dollar or two (cheap by Japanese standards), but 5 slices of individually-wrapped processed plasti-cheese costs something like $1.50. A single stick of butter? $3. Heck, the whole milk-byproduct section of a supermarket is about the size of the butter section of a Safeway. I'm sure it has something to do with a lack of processing facilities, but still...
There are a lot of weird and disturbing game shows on Japanese TV, but the one that really caught my eye was... Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Yes, that religious ceremony of greed has spread across the Pacific. The prize has been changed to 10 million Yen (actually only worth $100,000, or about enough to cover dinner and a movie in Tokyo), but all else remains shockingly similar. The set is identical, the the music is the same, and the host even says, in heavily accented English, "Fainaru Ansaa?" Actually, that host was the most frightening part--they managed to come up with a guy who looks exactly like Regis Philbin's Japanese doppelganger, and he even hosts a talk show. Creepy.
For those who don't know this, there are an unbelievable number of drink machines in Japan. If someone were to name the country now, it would be most accurately titled the "Land of the Glowing Coke Machine." Seriously--whether you're in a subway station or a mountain road through a quaint rice-farming village, you can't walk 15 feet without passing a brightly lit DyDo machine or a box selling cans of hot mochachino and beer. (Many of these, actually, have pictures of Bruce Willis in a Hawaiian shirt with a rather odd expression on his face--one photo features the Die Hard Dude apparently thinking "My agent is soooo fired.") There are other types of vending machines, sure--ice cream bars, cigarettes, fresh eggs--but the number and variety of beverages available at the touch of a button is truly awe inspiring. On the other hand, I guess Japanese people never get the munchies, because there isn't a single snack machine to be found anywhere. Seriously--you can buy fresh eggs from a machine, but heaven forbid you want a candy bar when there's no mini-mart nearby.
I finally have a theory for why drink machines are so prevalent, though: There are no bloody drinking fountains in Japan! In the two and a half months I've spent in Japan, I've seen a grand total of two drinking fountains. Well, not entirely true--some Buddhist temples have a water spout and a tin ladle... if you're not averse to drinking out of the same cup as every other person who either isn't concerned about hygiene or was too thirsty to care.
On the topic of drinks, another observation I made is that apparently the Japanese have a fear of large quantities of liquid. Soda machines may be ubiquitous, but you can't buy a six pack of soda anywhere, and the biggest bottle of anything you're likely to find is 1.5 liters--reasonable, but not much bigger than the "jumbo trucker soda" size at most 24-hour mini-marts. It's not that people don't drink much; milk, for example, comes in 1 liter cartons, and although people may buy a half dozen of those at a time, you won't see bigger bottles anywhere.
Actually, there is one exception, and it probably tells you something about the Japanese psyche. You can buy a six-pack of beer (in giant 24-ounce cans no less), and the one thing that you can buy in a 4 liter (a bit over a gallon) bottle is the native Japanese version of vodka--cheap booze that's about the culinary equivalent of rubbing alcohol. Oh, and you can buy a 2 liter bottle of soy sauce (I've never seen less than a liter of it at a time, in fact). Yes, that's right--soy sauce comes in bigger bottles than orange juice, Pepsi, or milk.
It's a common occurrence to have natural treasures capitalized upon by opportunistic marketers, but the state of affairs for the most recognizable mountain in the world is downright sad. If you're heading up to the mountain, there's only one road that'll take you about half way up. After paying $30 for the privilege of using it, you get to enjoy a picturesque drive up the mountain... until you get to the end of the road. You're promptly greeted by about four immense and very awkward-looking buildings plastered with ads and cheesy tourist photo-ops ("I was here" signs, giant sandals, unnerving looking plastic statues of shopkeepers, etc.). Within, you can choose from a wide range of quality products: Mt. Fuji ornaments, Mt. Fuji keychains, Mt. Fuji T-shirts, non-Mt. Fuji T-shirts, little stuffed Mt. Fuji-shaped toys, big stuffed Mt. Fuji-shaped toys, really huge stuffed Mt. Fuji-shaped toys, and an endless variety of Mt. Fuji-shaped snack foods. But in all three of the nearly identical stores, there was a grand total of one item that you (probably) couldn't get at any tourist shop within a 100-mile radius of the mountain: A 2000 yen ($20) can of Mt. Fuji air. Actually, there were two varieties of the air--the other was 500 yen cheaper. I don't know, maybe that air was dirtier.
There are plenty of chain restaurants (none of which have very nice views), serving ramen, roasted corn, and my favorite, the "Fujiyama Dog" (particularly good since the Japanese don't even call it "Fujiyama"--they call it "Fuji-san"). And the best part of all this? Although there were dozens of tour busses and cars in the parking lot and probably hundreds of people walking around, as soon as you stepped onto the trail that led up the mountain and provided countless beautiful vistas for the price of an easy 3-minute walk... nobody. That's a heck of a long way to come for a picture of Mt. Fuji with a "Fujiyama Dog" sign in it that's bigger than the mountain.
The Worst Pet in the World
One of the things that you can, for no apparent reason, buy at the Mt. Fuji gift shops (as well as many other tourist traps) is a "pet" that the Japanese pioneered, apparently in response to a lack of space and time to care for such high-maintenance animals as goldfish, cacti, and tamagotchi. The ultimate low-maintenance pet is... an algae ball. Seriously--they sell the half-inch-diameter fuzzy green balls in tiny jars of water. You don't feed them, water them, play with them, or do anything else with them. And in return, they don't wag their tales, purr, greet you when you get home, move, produce oxygen, or look like anything more than... well, little green moss balls. "Ooh, mommy, can we take it home? Can we?"