Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Begetable Bag

So we went to Daiso yesterday.  Daiso is maybe the Japanese equivalent to a Big Lots or something, where everything is $1.50 unless otherwise marked, and everything apparently comes from Japan.  This would obviously be a huge boon to the type of Japanophile who spends a lot of time watching anime and eating Pocky in their mom’s basement, but based on the signage, it also seems like it’s a popular place to shop if you’re Japanese-American and miss the trappings of home.

It was too rainy to do anything interesting yesterday, so we drove to Union City to find the Daiso down there.  When we lived in South San Francisco, we had one in San Bruno, across from the parking lot of the Target.  We went there in 2008 and filled a couple of carts with odd stocking stuffers at $1.50 a clip, stickers and Japanese bubble gum and candies made in flavors that maybe candies should not have been made.

Some of the stuff at Daiso is interesting in the sense that everything in Japanese housewares, or at least what we saw there, carries these common traits of extreme efficiency, cleanliness, modern design, and a compactness that’s appealing if you don’t live in a 28-room McMansion.  But the real draw here is the absolutely horrifying Engrish on everything.  It’s not just the marketing copy or the product instructions, which are also pretty poorly translated; but even the logos and slogans on things like coffee cups and stickers and magnets and things.  There are many other examples of this stuff on the web, but I felt a need to defy the “no photography” sign (which probably said something like “nothing of taking of the photos a person shopping”) and whip out the iPhone for a few shots.

It makes me wonder – do they know the stuff is so horribly translated, and keep it for the kitsch value?  Or is it done on the cheap, and they’re like “fuck it, ship it!”?  Or do they honestly not know?  I wonder how bad the Japanese copy reads, if it’s equally as appalling, or if it’s a slick as an Apple ad, and then gets mangled by some machine translation software.

Engrish like this is a mixed reaction for me now.  I mean, I remember when my friend Reece spent a year in Japan in high school, and came back with stories of the Japanese fetish for English-texted clothing, even though they didn’t know what it said.  (Like a guy walking around with a fancy jacket that just said DRUGS on the front of it.)  I’ve always found the stuff hilarious, until I worked at a certain company where I spent my entire day immersed in very poorly written English, often with little or no opportunity to change things because of a lack of time or because my corporate overlords across the Pacific were too bull-headed to let you change their work.  Like I remember having to work an all-nighter once, not because of a lack of time, but because a web site had to be QAed and launched, but the team flipping the server’s switches was in Korea, and of course us lowly Americans couldn’t be trusted to do this ourselves, so our entire San Jose team had to be there for the jump from staging to production.  And even though we spent months going over beta stuff and copyediting every line of the site, when it went live, we got tons of “improvements” from the web design team that were absolutely gut-wrenching, like a giant banner ad at the top of every page that said “blow your brain cell up!”  And for maybe every dozen things like that we yelled and screamed about, maybe one or two would get changed.

So now when I see a warning label that says “when itch and the like it occurs”, it makes me chuckle, but also makes this part of my brain go “oh shit, I need to file a bug report and spent ten hours going through this entire thing only to later have all of it ignored, and every single sample for my writing portfolio is going to look like it went through Google translate, and also they won’t let me use a red pen here, on the off-chance that I will accidentally imply that someone is actually dead.”  And it’s funny when said company gets called out on their Engrish skills on Engadget, or I see one of their press releases and think “oh man, nobody in the American branch read this, or maybe they did but were powerless to change it”, it makes me feel helpless and small again, and then a couple of cycles later, I remember I don’t work there anymore, so fuck’em.

Anyway, I didn’t buy anything.  Then I came home and we had no power, so I spent a few hours digging up flashlights and the hand-crank radios and all of that crap.  And we went to Home Depot and bought $40 of glow sticks and flashlights, and of course when we got home, everything was back on.