(No) truth in advertising

Travel photographers in Japan can be wickedly deceitful. At best they merely crop their photos so that you cannot see the ugliness around, at worst complete photo manipulation is performed*. Below left is the picture from the Hama-rikyu Gardens brochure, on the right is the photo I took from the same angle.


Notice what’s missing from theirs?
* Yes, I know American fashion photographers have been doing this for ages.

More hanami

Last week I went to Aoyama Cemetery to view the hanami parties. Lone scouts sent ahead to locate the “right” location (very feng shui) sat smoking and bored until the others arrive. By 4pm on Friday most of the prime spaces were reserved, some with traffic cones and signs, others with chalk outlines, and one with a small sign held down by 4 cans of beer. Vendors sold (in addition to beer, beer, and sake) grilled hotdogs and octopus on a stick.


  • Japanese tombstones are square
  • Generally a lone scout locates and reserves a space on behalf of his company
  • Spot reserved with big signs
  • Spot reserved with 4 cans of beer
  • Shoes are taken off before sitting down

No cellphones please

The next in a series… Some time ago I went to a snazzy French restaurant in Ginza for a business lunch. At the next table a sharply dressed business man answered his cell phone. I didn’t think much of it as people are constantly talking on their phones in restaurants in Manhattan, but the waiter went right up to him and told him to turn it off immediately. He stood his ground, didn’t budge until the customer hung up, turned the phone on “manner mode” and put it away. I was shocked. The guy was spending $100 for a lunch and was scolded to turn off his phone.

Girl in restaurant instant messages on her cell phone. Talking is strictly forbidden as it could disturb other customers.


No sleeping please

Another in the series of Japanese conundrums:

Sleeping in public places is perfectly acceptable (or at least common).
In business meetings it would nerve me to no end. In small meetings of 5 people they would sleep, at their desks after lunch they’d lean on back and sleep, on the subway people’s heads would end up on my shoulder.

Counter intuitively (to me) the Japanese would look favorably on the sleepers. It implied they must be working very hard to need to sleep at work.

I saw this guy on the subway, sat next to him, and got up within seconds. His whole body bobbed from side to side. He had drool on his chin and collar of that black leather biker jacket. I caught the eye of a young Japanese guy watching and we both laughed.


No smoking please

Despite the fact that no one actually uses the word “no“, there are many things in Japan that are simply not allowed. Smoking unfortunately is not one of them. Yesterday I had lunch in the Spiral Building, a multipurpose space* in Omotesando, that is actually quite cool. Two tables down some guy had the gall to smoke a mini cigar, the cigarillo. Vile. We complained to the waiter who instead of telling the guy to put it out moved us to a different table.

On the other hand, had the guy attempted to use his cell phone he would have been promptly told to turn the f*cking thing off or in Japan-speak please sir I am so very sorry to disturb you but cell phone use is not allowed, may I kindly ask that you turn it off or go outside.

The kanji for no smoking:
*There are simply gobs of multipurpose spaces in Japan. Usually conceived as make work public works projects designed to pad the wallets of corrupt bureaucrats, they are usually never used. See Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons for more.


Anyone who has spent more than 2 seconds in Japan has probably heard or read a bit of “Japlish.” Sometimes called Engrish, Japlish is essentially Japanized English and ranges from misspellings (I had the “Located Chicken” at a restaurant) to grammatically incorrect phrases (a revolving door sign, “Don’t playing here!”) to sentimental sap. Below I have collected a few samples to give you a flavor.

Photo Album covers are always a good source
We are with special time. If made carefully the wonderful love like this has been created.
Certain events in our life will remain meaningful to as log as we live.
Cherish photograph of your precious person.
The scene still comes to mind now and then. Cake was baking in the over and mother was making tea for us. We were veild in good old smell.

A food company’s mission statement
We are presenting the commodities that can be pleased by the customers, in pursuit of the deliciousness, pleasantness and health.

A notice from the cable company
Hello this is “Minato Cable”!
We will change our company nickname
“To be more friendly”
“To be more satisfied service”

On a garbage can at work
This expresses our life-vision

On the package of RELISH LEG COLLECTION Hosiery

Beautiful women lives on the beautiful planet
There’s a whole new world you had never seen where all the guys praise your beauty to the skies
Only if you screw up your courage to step in
The brightest life there will be all yours
With relish any of your dream comes true


For more examples see Engrish.com or Tokyotales Hall of Japlish.

Just say no

The conversation goes like this:
Nadine: “Excuse me, do you speak English?”
Stranger: “Yes”
Nadine: “Oh good, do you know where the post office is?”
Stranger: “Yes”
(wait for answer)
Nadine: “Could you tell me where the post office is?”
Stranger: “Yes”
Nadine: “Okay, so where is it?”
Stranger: “Yes”
I have come to learn that the word “yes” has many meanings such as:

  • I understand
  • I acknowledge you are standing in front of me and moving your lips
  • No

Imagine how frustrating this is at work.
On the other hand, there are many ways to say “no” in Japanese, none of which include the word no. Some of these are:

  • I see
  • It is difficult
  • Why do you ask me that?
  • Perhaps you would prefer…
  • Yes, but…
  • Silence
  • Hesitation
  • Yes