As most dedicated anime fans and Japanophiles are already aware, Japan as a whole is full of messed up English writings on street signs, and most notably t-shirts. With most of Honey’s staff living in Japan, seeing such “colorful” expressions on clothing may be everyday life to us but still an excellent source of entertainment while out on the streets. While some t-shirts may have grammatically messed up expressions, some have correctly written phrases but with explicits. Naturally, Engrish is not just limited to t-shirts, but to anime (and manga) in a good number of instances.
Before going on, so there would be no misunderstandings, I would to disclaim this article is by no means intended to be racist or insult the use of English in anime. Again, it's not like Americans (speaking as an American myself) themselves been accurate in using the Japanese language (which there will be examples of). Despite having six years of Japanese study back home and living in Japan for nearly seven years, my Japanese itself (and other non-native Japanese staff at Honey) is how Ryoma from “Prince of Tennis” would say まだまだだね.
Alphabet system vs. Syllable-based system
So why is the use of English so distinctively weird in anime in its original Japanese? The obvious conclusion is that Japanese and English are very different languages. The next question is how are they different? The word “Engrish” itself is the ultimate example because Japanese does not use an alphabet oriented language like English and other Western European languages, and their syllabary system makes no specific distinctions between “r” and “l.” So the kana characters of [ら り る れ ろ]or [ラ リ ル レ ] can be read as “ ra ri ru re ro”or “la li lu le lo.” So both the names Kerry and Kelly are read as ケリー, or “Kerii.”
Or if your name happens to be Shawn/Sean, because they share the same pronunciation, it is still written as シャーン, “Shaan.” Both my name Justin and the feminine version Justine, are still written as ジャスティン, or “Jasutin,” though the katakana pronunciation is closer to the feminine.
In addition, especially for older generations in Japan, there is no distinction between “b” and “v,” and the Japanese syntax does use the “th” combination so many Japanese people have trouble with English’s pronunciation system due to how the Japanese language is organized its kana based system. However, Japan has slowly been introducing a “v” sound through the ヴァ (va) character as opposed to using バ, or “ba.” By relying on kana which is “sound” based in verbal usage, many words are going to be difficult to catch which this article will demonstrate examples of.
Though this first example does not have the same comedic effect as other Engrish usages, one easy and famous example that emphasizes Japanese’s pronunciation system is in “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Stardust Crusaders” through its terrifying and yet awesome villain, Dio Brando, or as he would like to say in the first season, このディオだあ！(KONO DIO DAA!) If any of you readers are hardcore Jojo fans, the famous phrase of his that activates his time stopping powers is “The World.”
However, Dio (whether he would be played by Chiba Isshin, Tanaka Nobuo, Midorikawa Hikaru, or Koyasu Takehito) in the Japanese version does not of course say it in its natural English pronunciation, but in “katakana English,”ZA WAARUDO,” katakana, a writing system meant for words “borrowed” from other languages, it is written as ザ(za)ワー(waa)ル(ru)ド(do), which explains this distinct pronunciation. Each kana character represents a “sound” and each individual character is the closest in representing “the world” in a pronunciation sense when combined.
ジョジョ: Stardust Crusaders - "ZA WARUDO!!!"
Despite this bizarre (pun intended) pronunciation, hardcore Jojo fans unanimously prefer the Japanese performance because it brings a sense of exoticness to the character, and is an excellent representation of Dio’s charisma and intimidation. If one hears it in the natural English pronunciation through a dub, it loses its charm and lacks why the phrase is unique. However, the use of pronunciation has not been limited to anime and has been done on North American television in the second season of “Arrow,” based on the legendary DC comic title.
A similar approach was used in referring to a Japanese-based strength-enhancing drug called “mirakuru” as opposed to “miracle.” By using the katakana pronunciation, it adds an exotic and yet eerie feel while using the natural English pronunciation wouldn't have made it effectively stand out (and I did show it to Japanese friends they did get a kick out of it). Granted the show could have used the word “kiseki,” the literal meaning to “miracle,” but “mirakuru,” the katakana pronunciation, just has this “it” feel to it as does ZA WAARUDO.
A more extended example of how katakana hinders natural English pronunciation is through Kaji in “Evangelion 2.22.” A large majority of his English is rather difficult to follow for native and fluent speakers due to that factor. For example, the word “analysis” is pronounced as “anarishisu.” In addition to no official distinctions between r’s and l’s,” the “si” pronunciation does not exist in the Japanese language and it becomes “shi.” And because most kana characters ends in a, i, u, e, o sound, when combining the characters to form an English word, it becomes something of a mess by putting them together to make a simple word.
Virtually, nearly all Japanese words do not end in a constant which is why many English adapted words in Japanese end in vowels (such as “o” with ZA WAARUDO). But with that said, we can give credit where credit is due and that even in Engrish, Yamadera Kouichi (also famous as Spike in “Cowboy Bebop,” Ryoga from “Ranma ½,” and as Birusu, the newest “Dragon Ball” villain) still maintains his charming voice when speaking in Engrish. However, if there is one perfect instance where westerners do butcher Japanese words, it’s that a good number of people mispronounce “manga” as “main-guh ,” as opposed to “mahn-gah.”
Evangelion - Kaji's Cool Engrish
Opposite Use of Grammar
Another significant lingual difference that contributes to Engrish is of course grammar structure. In English, the usual structure is [subject]+[predicate]+[object]. While in Japanese it is [subject/particle]+[object/particle]+[predicate]. Other differences are because certain functions in English don't exist in Japanese, and certain functions in Japanese do not exist in English, which this editorial will explore on a surface level. One basic example is in “Bokura ga Ita” while the cast is having an English class, Yano Motoharu is asked to translate a sentence, “She was so beautiful I wanted to make friend with her.”
The first notable mistake is the compound verb, “make friend.” Because the Japanese language has no distinction of adding an “(e)s” in plural and/or third person, or any other rule that makes it necessary to do so, this kind of mistake is reasonably uncommon. In addition to that scene, it just becomes a hilarious disaster when Motoharu is told to replace the phrase “I wanted to make friend with her” with a similar meaning and it becomes more than just wanting to “make friend.” Why Motoharu translates it to such colorful phrases, it is simply because he doesn't know the exact answer.
Very Inappropriate Engrish!(Video Does Contain Explicit Language)
Another example in which grammatical differences are demonstrated is in “Free! Iwatobi Swim Club.” When Rin goes to Australia and attends school there, he tries to explain about his school in Japan through the sentence “My school have big sakura tree.” It’s original Japanese is 私の学校には大きな桜の木があります or “watashi no gakkou niwa ooki na sakura no ki ga arimasu.”
Arimasu, meaning have/has, whether it would be first person, third person will always stay that way while in English, have must change to has in the third person usage. Plus, the omission of the article “a” is also a significant factor. Because articles such as “the” and “an/a” do not exist in the Japanese language, such omissions are rather common and very understandable.
Wasei-Eigo(和製英語) or Japanese Use of English
Another big reason why Engrish is rampant in anime is because of word usage. Sometimes a word in English that is used in everyday Japanese doesn't exactly translate to natural English. These words are called “wasei-eigo “ or Japan based English words. One example from anime that perfectly points out the difference in word usage is the original Japanese version of “Black Lagoon.” There is one instance where Revy sticks up a guy and says to her in English “give.”
Revy’s (who is American raised) response is along the lines of “give me what” demonstrating she doesn't understand the guy’s use of the word “give.” What he means here is “I give up.” The use of the word word “give” meaning to “give up” in a real world context is often used in Japanese pro-wrestling and mixed martial arts, such as whenever someone is put in a submission, the Japanese referee will repeatedly ask “give” as a means of asking if that person will “give up.”
Give me What? (Video Does Contain Explicit Language)
There are other reasons why Engrish is common in anime and on t-shirts in Japan, but those reasons are an entirely an article within itself. But for now, we leave the floor to our readers to share some of their favorite instances of Engrish in anime.
Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty
Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします