How to Use English in Japanese Advertising & Promotion

Posted By Caylon Neely

Have you ever wondered why there is so much English content in Japanese advertisements? Just take a ride on a JR train, or walk through any of the major crossings in Tokyo, and you’ll be exposed to an interesting (and possibly confusing?) blend of English and Japanese ads.

Using English when marketing towards a non-English, Japanese-speaking audience is not as poor of a decision as one might presume. However, there are certain differences to consider as they have different functions and applications.

By the end of this article, we hope you’ll be well equipped and confident in how to utilize it for your marketing and promotions.

Citing Notes

First off, to give credit where it’s due, we found an amazing thesis written by Douglas Goldstein of Carnegie-Mellon University. Some information from this post was gathered from his work and research on this topic.

English as an Attention Grabbing Promotional Tool

Bilingual Japanese English Poster for JR Travel

When professionals from Japanese ad agencies were asked about it in an interview (Referencing Goldstein’s work), their answers were quite interesting. Some copywriters were quick to say that English is simply cooler than Japanese and, as a result, grabs more attention. Much of the discussion seemed to boil down to an element of design and aesthetic appearance. They mentioned that English looks less cluttered and is easier to use for design.

Additionally, they talked about how different English looks from Japanese, which is a great way to attract wandering eyes exactly where you want them to be. This is, of course, in part due to the drastic technical and visual differences between the roman and asian character sets. So maybe using simple English could get more people to notice your promotion.

Elements that are strange and different can attract attention, that’s nothing new. However, using another language as a successful marketing tool is an effective and interesting technique. Not many cultures can claim its applicability, let alone effectivity, to the extent that Japan does.

English as a Design Language of “Imports”

Automotive Bilingual Banner for Mini Japan in English

Seeing a foreign typeface is not only attention grabbing, it also piques emotions from the viewer.

We can see examples of Japanese brands using English to emit a foreign feeling. Let’s take a look at an ad from Lexus; Toyota’s formerly export-only luxury brand that’s trying to make it in the home market.

This ad is shown on Japanese TV and has exclusively English communication. One could imagine Lexus as a completely foreign brand if they aren’t familiar with them. The point is that many brands wish to emit a foreign or exotic image, and English is a way to elicit that feeling.

In the same vein, International brands also typically use English in their promotional materials to reinforce their imported image. Take this TV ad for the BMW i8 hybrid car for example. This is a German company advertising in English to Japanese consumers. That complex mix of three different cultures may be enough to make a few heads spin, but it makes sense when you think about how foreign language works in Japan.

English (and other roman-based alphabets) allows the target to perceive something exciting and foreign. English is considered cool and modern in terms of marketing. That’s one of the reasons you see a lot of advertisements with random smatterings of English that don’t really make much sense, let alone contribute to the message.

So why does BMW use English instead of German? Nowadays, it’s common to see other languages like French or German in advertising, but English still remains the most widely understood language in Japan (*Note: we use the term “understood” loosely here). Therefore, users can relate to the message on some degree. Let’s look a bit more into that.

English to Communicate a Message to Japanese Consumers

Bilingual English and Japanese Suntory Rich Malts Beer Advertisement Promotion

Easy to Understand English

So do Japanese advertisers and marketers use English for its core fundamental purpose as a language: to communicate?

The answer is essentially, ‘sometimes’.

Typically a Japanese advertisement headline would have no more than a few English words on it. Since everyone in Japan has essentially studied English for 6 years in junior high and high school, it’s safe to assume that certain phrases (best to verify first) can and will be understood by most people.

For example, Suntory’s “Enjoy Rich Taste in Relaxing Time,” beer tagline could be understood on a basic level by the Japanese public. The words “Enjoy,” “Taste,” “Relax,” and “Time,” are all comprehendible by most Japanese consumers. Even though the phrase as a whole sounds pretty “off” to a native English speaker, most of the product’s target consumers will understand the message and most likely not even notice the strange phrasing.

For this reason, it’s often a moot point to contest marketing messages which are “inaccurate” by native language standards. Sure, it’s easy for us foreigners to chalk this up to a lack of budget or professionalism, but more often than not, those arguments miss the point entirely.

Japanese English

Many modern words in Japanese are borrowed English words. Through this “incorporation” process, they often go through meaning and functionality changes. These “hybrid” English words are what us ex-pat locals call “Japanese English”. These words are often established into Japanese by converting the words from alphabet-based roman letters to the katakana alphabet (an alphabet used distinctly for foreign-borrowed words). For instance, the words “taste” (Teisuto) and “time” (Taimu) are both regularly used in their Japanese form. A quick Google search of either will reveal a broad range of results.

Compound this communicative element with the ease of consumption (thanks to English education), and the impression of ‘cool’ and you’ve got quite a formidable marketing technique there.

For another English-Japanese experience, check out the website of the fashion magazine,  FUDGE, which is really pushing the bounds of English implementation into its appeal. Here you can find a decent amount of this “Japanese English”. Keep in mind, this website is intended for a Japanese speaking audience, though it looks to be an English facing site.

Do We Need to Check The English in our Advertisements?

Stop Light Crosswalk Black and White Photo

So if an advertisement is targeted towards a Japanese speaker, is it really important to make it grammatically correct?

The answer here is, ‘it depends’.

In regards to headline or “catch copy”, we recommend a bit of flexibility in regards to the English headline (in respect to the points made above). Using English alone will give you a good appeal, spending time to make that domestically understandable (keyword ‘domestically’) should also be a priority in order to achieve communicative functionality.

For body text, should you choose to write it in English, a more concerted effort to proper grammar and natural language is the ideal approach. Reason being, any body text or long-line content elected to be published in English, should not be considered functional content, but rather a vessel for appealing to the Japanese audience. Speaking in respect to fundamental design fact, long text will most likely not be read anyway. We encourage proper grammar for the sake of at least promoting correct language skills—maybe to make up for that ridiculous headline.

The Future of English in Advertising

As the world is increasingly recognizing Japan as a top tourist destination, we have to wonder how many Non-Japanese people will be reached by these promotions and how that will come into play for domestic advertising and promotion.

English, now being considered the official language for a variety of institutions, companies, and countries, is a great tool to extend a global message when used correctly. As Japan is trying to position itself on the global stage more and more each year, the English-speaking world is certainly watching and we believe businesses should be more aware of that impact.

Putting This Into Practice

All in all, it’s quite interesting to observe such a bi-lingual atmosphere of design and culture. While we’re a bit offput by it on the inside (we’d like people to be exposed to proper English naturally), we do get the chance to have a chuckle at some of the goofy phrases.

Bi-lingual marketing is an excellent way to stand out and get your products seen, but you shouldn’t let your company become the butt of a translation joke in any language. If you’re looking into marketing with English, Japanese, or both, please talk to us about how to create effective bi-lingual promotions in English and Japanese.

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