Parsnips, Anyone?

Business - July 16th, 2010
Photo-by-skyseeker

By Ian de Stains OBE

I recently attended an event at which a Japanese cabinet minister spoke of the importance the government attaches to attracting increased tourism to this country. He added that another goal was to attract people from the Southeast Asian region who wanted to learn Japanese. Not a mention, of course, of the government’s signal failure to encourage the Japanese to learn English, which would be infinitely more helpful to tourism, but that’s something we’ve touched on before.

The point is his touting the tourism. It’s all very well getting on your hind legs and proclaiming such a fine goal, but fine words butter no parsnips. The reality is that Japan is not really ready for tourism on the scale that the official line proposes. In terms of infrastructure, hospitality that is appropriate for non-Japanese travelers and—above all—linguistic preparedness, there is a woeful inadequacy. It even begins with the so-called tourism campaign itself.

Try a small test. Which countries come to mind if I quote to you the following slogans:

Incredible!
Truly Asia
The Sunny Side of Life
The Mediterranean As It Once Was

You get the picture, I’m sure. Catchy phrases (all of them in English, notice) designed to be memorable and to suggest something of what the destination has to offer. Contrast that with the Japanese effort: Yokoso Japan.

If you do not understand Japanese, yokoso means nothing whatsoever, and even if you do know the language, the word really doesn’t invoke anything of the truly amazing experience that this country has to offer the curious tourist. Think of the areas of great natural beauty, of the centers of really significant historical importance, of the many opportunities to experience a genuinely different culture in so many respects. Surely a talented creative team could come up with a suitable slogan in English that would capture all of this?

Of course they could—and probably have. But I know from my past experience as a copywriter and creative director that the best efforts are worth nothing if the person in charge of signing off on the project doesn’t ‘get’ what it is you’re proposing. And I’m sorry to say that in Japan, all too often, those in the position of making those decisions simply don’t have a sufficient grasp of the English language to allow anything beyond the most glaringly obvious.

The deep irony is that this means they will often allow slogans that provoke great hilarity among native English speakers. Kanebo’s ‘For Beautiful Human Life’ used to have gaijin laughing out loud in cinemas and Renown’s ‘Not to Join a Team Even if Wearing a Rugger’ puzzled for a long time, as did Japan Tobacco’s ‘Sometime Myass.’

It is one thing, though, if retailers want to use the English language as a mere decoration. It’s another when the government claims it is trying seriously to promote the country and its attractions to international tourists.

Ian de Stains OBE is the author of The Business Traveller’s Handbook to Japan, published by Stacey International in the UK and available through Amazon.