Japan is chock full of abysmal, albeit often amusing bits of English. Even after two years here I still chuckle to myself when I throw away my “conburnable” garbage at Starbucks, or when I’m munching on my favorite “thin wheat crackers with wheat.” The past six months of teaching elementary school has been the best place to observe foreign English, with its poor grammar, comical spelling, and often pure indecipherability. The children run around wearing clothes with English they may never understand. The best are those that use correct English yet leave me completely baffled as to why the phrase ended up on a child’s t-shirt at all.
I like the political activist spirit of this shirt: “People demand freedom of speech to compensate for the freedom of thought they seldom use.” When I told the third grader wearing this that I liked it he looked down and seemed surprised that there was indeed English on the shirt. I wonder how many years will pass before he ponders his freedom of anything.
A sixth grade girl’s shirt states “Achieve girlish shyness: TOP PRIORITY.” I looked at her and she giggled into her hand, blushed, and turned away. Mission accomplished. Most girl’s shirts talk about being cute and happy, but some are slightly too suggestive by U.S. standards. For example one fourth grader’s shirt boldly states that she’s “Slammin’” and “(I got jiggy with it).” Another states that “Girl’s pop funny” which wouldn’t be as strange if it weren’t boldly written on a fifth grade boy’s shirt. I will say no more.
Then there are the references to drugs and alcohol. My favorite by far was a third grade boy’s shirt stating that “I am not a heavy drinker”. Phheww! And the pot references abound. In a country with low drug use, the pot leaf doesn’t really express anything but cool. My girlfriend has never taken an illegal drug in her life but has about twenty pot leaf air fresheners hanging from her steering wheel. So if it’s cool for adults, it must be cool for kids too, right? Enter “Back Alley Fashion”…for kids! No joke. Initially it was the pot leaves on kid’s clothes that drew my attention to the window of this mall boutique. The fact that the brand was named “Back Alley” was just icing on the cake. It just proves that fashion trumps innuendo, and pretty much anything else in Japan.
Most shirts say nothing, with no talk of drugs, sex, or being cute. They’re just cool looking foreign words on a shirt, like our “cool” Chinese tattoos, lacking the context that brings out the true beauty of words. But within these floating statements I find a subtle pleasure; an inside joke all my own to smirk at. I passed a first grader today whose shirt said “Walked about the forest with birds singing merrily above his head.” It put a nice picture in my mind. His classmate’s shirt said “It takes about the right time to get there.” I immediately decided that if death were to begin marketing itself, this should be it’s slogan. Death takes about the right time to get there, and if the birds keep singing merrily above your head on the journey there, you have little to complain about.