Free Your Mind to the Deli

Posted February 22, 2006 at 8:06 pm 3 Comments

There’s a Japanese proverb about Mt. Fuji that is often quoted in tourist guidebooks: “if you never climb Mt. Fuji, you’re a fool; if you climb it more than once, you’re crazy.”

I’m not sure if it’s worse to be foolish or crazy, but I guess I fall into the second category, since I hiked up Mt. Fuji twice last summer. The first trek up the mountain was a considerable struggle, but the second time around it didn’t seem so tough. My calves and lungs had adapted somewhat, and more importantly, I was confident that I was capable of the challenge, having accomplished it before.

The lesson I took away from this alpine adventuring was that humans are extraordinarily adaptable. At home in the States, I had always been a fairly stringent grammarian, but after living in Tokyo long enough, I developed a certain immunity to language mistakes. After a few months, I was no longer bothered (or even particularly amused) when I noticed the writing on the side of my saucepan that said “it supports people loving all cooking.”

I think it’s all a matter of conditioning. When you’re surrounded by signs and labels in a foreign language, and are effectively illiterate, you are so relieved to see something that you can understand that you willingly forgive mistakes. You also begin to realize the incredible difficulty of translating between English and Japanese; with my own understanding of Japanese being so abysmal, I was in no position to judge Japanese attempts at English, so I soon lost interest in poking fun at poor spelling or grammar.

What still fascinated me, however, were snippets of “Engrish” that gave glimpses into the Japanese psyche. The phrases that I found interesting may have had grammar that was completely correct, but they used combinations of English words or notions that would never be constructed back home, revealing differences in cultural attitudes, and taking on an almost poetic quality.

“The words make sense,” I often found myself thinking, “but the concept doesn’t.”

Splendid Double Harmony is here!!

I suppose understanding the Japanese spirit is also a matter of conditioning. After a few months I would pick up a bagel sandwich and glance at the wrapper, which said “BAGEL IS THE ESSENCE OF LIFE… AND LIFE IS THE REASON FOR BAGEL,” and it wouldn’t even faze me.

“Of course,” I would think to myself, “naturally, bagel is the essence of life.”

This was a dramatic shift in attitude compared to my first trip to a Japanese convenience store. On the way from the Narita airport to my orientation program in Hayama, our bus parked at a truck stop where we disembarked to buy snacks and drinks. I wandered the aisles fascinated, transported to a mysterious wonderland of enticing alien products in shiny plastic and aluminum packaging. A few months later, when I would step into a Lawson to pay my utility bill, I wouldn’t even give the rows of Collon or Calpis a second glance.



Evidently, I am among the privileged ranks who are allowed to buy this “Exclusive Elite” coffee from a vending machine.

Fortunately, before I reached a point at which I failed to notice these things completely, I managed to capture a number of little gems. Over the next few days, I will post some of my favorites. I’ll begin with a “deli” theme:

This is a nice hot deli from Pizza Hut. It makes you smile and be happy! Enjoy the deli while it’s hot. Try with Pizza! You will surely say “Great!” and want to buy it again.

Poet Your Mind
to the World
Free Your Mind
to the DELI!
Why don’t you
take a Rest?
at the CORNER before
Your Real!!

3 Comments »

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  1. Indifferent to Engrish – I don’t believe you!

    Comment by Jen — February 23, 2006 #

  2. I just took a one-week trip to Japan for an academic conference, and I had the same experience with the funny translations (I found this site by searching for “poet your mind to the world free your mind to the deli” because I saw it in Tokyo); that is, it quickly lost its novelty and I just felt like I was making fun of someone else’s innocence. Now that I’m back in North America, of course, it’s all hilarious again. But I still have a twinge of “but if you’re only laughing, you are missing part of the point”.

    Comment by Billy — May 27, 2006 #

  3. I’ve lost much of my nitpickiness the past couple of years for a different reason. I’ve been scoring the standardized writing tests taken by American schoolchildren. I’ve reached the point where I can decipher words even when facing the most atrocious handwriting. What scares me most is the way concepts and methods of presenting an argument that would have baffled me or annoyed me when I first started the job have begun to make perfect sense.

    Comment by Amanda — June 23, 2006 #

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