Fieldnotes: English and French in Japan

fresh winds

It’s late November 2019 and I just returned from a two-week trip to Japan. I admit that on journeys such as these, the fieldworker in me tends to take over at times from the tourist or visitor, for Japan remains a stunningly interesting place for issues of language and globalization. I discussed a number of Japanese examples already in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, now almost a decade ago, and my recent visit added new and rich linguistic landscape data to the voluminous collection I have built over the years.

Let me briefly reiterate the argument I developed earlier regarding the phenomenology of globalized languages such as English and French. I started from the observation that linguistically ‘incorrect’ forms of English and French account for a lot – perhaps most – of what we see of these languages in the world. It is too easy to dismiss such forms of language as, for instance, ‘bad English’, and it is even easier to just use them as funny illustrations of mass linguistic incompetence. We should try to understand them sociolinguistically, i.e. from the viewpoint of what such forms of language do for the people who use them.

That means that in thinking about globalization, we need to think in terms of globally available language forms – forms of ‘English’ or ‘French’, for instance – that have been locally inflected so as to become a functionally adequate in local repertoires. This means that while such forms of language might be linguistically ‘incorrect’ from the viewpoint of a presumed global norm for e.g. English or French, they can be indexically valid within a local sociolinguistic market. In the case of English and French, the indexical arrow usually points upwards: signs using language forms associated with English or French tend to articulate positive, exclusive, global, cool indexicals. And these are not affected by differing degrees of linguistic correctness: they suggest not the language English or French, but a more abstract ‘Englishness’ and ‘Frenchness’ as imagined cultural attribute. Which is why I put scare quotes around the terms ‘English’ and ‘French’ when they are used analytically: we are not referring to the languages but to the indexical fields triggered by forms associated with the languages.

Let’s keep this in mind while we consider two examples, one of English and one of French. Both examples are shop signs found in prestigious shopping malls in, respectively, Fukuoka and Kagoshima. This is important: shop signs are supposed to tell us something – indexical – about the shop and its products, and they should attract customers through that indexical appeal.

The first example is of an expensive, up-market ladies’ fashion brand called ‘SOFUOL’. This puzzling acronym stands for ‘Sophisticated Full Length Office Lady’:


We can see how and where the sign is located in this picture:

sophisticated full length office lady

Denotationally, this phrase doesn’t make much sense. But indexically, it can be read as a sequentially ordered series of positive cultural attributes related to femininity: this brand caters for ‘sophisticated’ ‘ladies’ who are, or aspire to be, rather tall (‘full length’) and belong to, or aspire to be seen as belonging to, an educated middle class (working in an ‘office’). The fact that all of this is in ‘English’ naturally contributes to the effect of the sign: English is posh, cool, expensive – and therefore fitting to this shop sign. Possibly, we are looking at an ‘English’ calque translation of something that could make eminent sense in Japanese, and in which the conversion from Japanese to ‘English’ contributes an indexical upgrade for the sign. In that case, it is the mere act of translating something into ‘English’ that we must take in focus, not the actual words and expressions used in the sign.

So while the entire sequence appears – linguistically and denotationally – as a random cut-paste of qualifiers, we can see the local cultural logic of it and understand its sociolinguistic validity when we approach the sign from within its indexical load. I can now move on to the second example.

English is posh and cool, but French is even more so. Using French in Japan signals a ‘next level’ of global excellence and invokes a ‘Frenchness’ revolving around qualities such as: expensive, exclusive, European good taste. Which is why European-style bakeries, chocolate shops, coffee shops and patisseries in urban Japan often use ‘French’ shop signs and names. Other luxury products are also often advertised by means of ‘French’.

A shop selling expensive bathing and sleeping suits in Fukuoka, tapping into this rich indexical pool, called itself ‘bain de objets’, while another one in Kagoshima went beyond the handful of words in a shop name and displayed this more extensive text:

robes de chambre

Here, too, a more contextualizing picture can help us to get a sense of the where and how of the sign; we see that the shop is called ‘Du fond du coeur’ and displays a brand intriguingly called ‘Gelato Pique’. The longer text can be found underneath the brand name.

Du fond du coeur

Of course, French teachers would be merciless in their judgment of this elaborate, poetic construction. The association of food with bathrobes might strike many as awkward (just like the association of toilet paper with ‘green winds’ in the cover illustration might be perceived as somewhat unhappy), and the final call to ‘open this packet as soon as possible’ might be experienced as a bit of a surprise. But I believe we are observing lookalike French here: a text made up of visual elements that look like ‘French’ and are flagging ‘Frenchness’, and made up of a considerable amount of such elements – this is a long text – which is in itself sufficient to convey the rich indexicals described above, regardless of what the text actually might ‘mean’ from a normative-linguistic viewpoint. From within a local sociolinguistic economy, this sign counts as French, just like the ‘SOFUOL’ sign counts as English. Locally, it is adequate and comprehensible as such.

This year’s data offer quite a bit in this way: as evidence of the complexity of sociolinguistic globalization, and as a call to approach this complexity with indexicality as our main analytical tool. If we don’t use this tool, we risk getting stuck in superficial judgments of correctness – prompting the potentially tricky question as to why highly sophisticated people living in a fully globalized society such as Japan fail to produce ‘good English’ or ‘good French’. If we use this tool, by contrast, we can do justice to the local rationalities of meaning-making in a globalized society. After all, as we know, people make meanings on their own terms, not on those imposed by a teacher of English or French.

Jan Blommaert

(All images in this text are (c) Jan Blommaert 2019 but can be shared under the conditions of the Creative Commons license below)





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