World Economy

Lost in Translation: ‘Let's Drink. Get Drunk!’ Will Japan ever get the hang of English?

Craig Dale, Supervising Producer, CNBC, Special to

Oh Japan. You get so many things so right. But then something comes along that shows there's still some way to go.

Take this week's G-7 summit in Ise-Shima, Japan. One of the gifts inside the swag bags given to journalists was a burgundy-colored box with gold lettering containing a sake cup. But the message on the box reads: "Let's drink! Get drunk!"

CNBC's Akiko Fujita mentioned it on Squawk Box Asia:"I don't know if that's the message you want to put out at a G-7 summit, but there you go," she laughed.

'There are no exits'

Michael H. | Getty images

I've seen this kind of thing before. The longer I lived in Japan (I was there for more than five years) the more I noticed the glaring examples of so-called Japlish. The sign on the walkway inside a train station showing a conductor bowing apologetically in front of the words, "There are no exits." The instruction in bathrooms to "please use up all the toilet papers" or stern warnings that "this toilet cannot be used for construction work."

We should, perhaps, expect to see more of this in the future if the results of the 2015 Education First English Proficiency Index are any guide. The survey, which ranks Japan at number 30 globally behind South Korea and Vietnam, notes Japan's English proficiency is not improving.

"Japan's otherwise effective education system has adopted English as a subject area, while not recognizing that it cannot be taught effectively via instruction and materials written in Japanese," the report said.

To be fair, the Education First study ranks China and even former U.K. colony and global finance center Hong Kong lower than Japan. And the internet is awash with "Chinglish," the portmanteau for badly translated signs and menu items such as "The palace explodes the diced chicken," "Deformed man toilet," and "Take care of your slip."

But should a developed nation such as Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, be doing more when it comes to learning English, especially if it's going to welcome the world to international events such as the G-7 Summit and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? It is trying. Taxi drivers and emergency service workers in Tokyo are getting English training in anticipation of the foreigners who will flood the city for the Summer Games. And the government has started English instruction earlier in schools. Not good enough, according to the Education First report.

Groupthink to blame?

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"A series of education reforms has been implemented in an attempt to improve English proficiency, so far with no measureable impact on adult skills."

It's those adults who are now running the show, creating or approving the poorly translated phrases in the train stations of Tokyo, the cafes of Kyoto, and the restaurant menus of any number of rural towns up and down the archipelago.

"There's a big industry in Japan hiring native English writers to revise translated Japanese, but the advice is not always taken," says Mark Robinson, an Australian Japanese based in Tokyo who works as a writer, editor, media consultant, and is the author of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook.

Robinson suggests the people behind "Let's Drink. Get Drunk!" no doubt had good intentions, but that they may have misjudged the possible reaction to the notion of getting wasted at an international forum (especially among Westerners).

These Lost-in-Translation moments are not lost on Canadian freelance writer and editor Stephen McClure, who's seen plenty of this kind of thing in his 31 years living in Japan.

"A lot of [Japanese] take great pride in their English, and legitimately so," he says. "But because Japan is cut off in so many ways geographically and culturally from the global discourse, it tends to be a very academic brand of English. Some people put so much work into learning the language they're loath to admit a mistake. It's a pride thing."

McClure argues that what's lacking sometimes is a quality filter.

"It's not just a linguistic thing," he continues, referring back to the sake box. "It's possible someone might have known better, but they didn't want their superior or allegedly more knowledgeable person to lose face. That happens all the time."

Too often, if you ask Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former government advisor and adjunct professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Kurokawa, who chaired the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, argues conformity and "groupthink" allows for mistakes both big and small to get through.

But he also maintains that striving for perfection in spoken English is holding back Japanese leaders in government, academia, and business, sending the wrong message to young people.

"Why don't they just keep talking English in public? You don't have to be afraid of not speaking impeccable English," he argues. "Why don't you speak in English and then students will realize this famous person speaks in English and be inspired."

Kurokawa praises speechwriter Tomohiko Taniguchi, who crafted the speech Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave before the UN General Assembly in 2015 and coached the prime minister in his delivery and stage presence, helping the leader appear more relaxed and confident.

Global problem

However, the lack of skill or even a willingness to learn a foreign language appears to be a global problem. Among the top 15 languages taught at colleges in the U.S., only enrollments in Korean rose at every institutional level between 2009 and 2013, according to the U.S. Modern Language Association.

The British – routinely ridiculed by other European countries for believing that speaking English loudly and slowly will be enough to get by abroad – are also falling behind in the multi-lingual stakes. A 2014 study by the Confederation of British Industry and Pearson Education showed business leaders were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the foreign language skills and awareness of other countries' cultures among recent graduates.

And while I'm fluent in English, French, and Spanish, perhaps I'm just as guilty, leaving Japan after five years with only so-so Japanese, which made getting a comment on that sake cup box from the government an exercise in futility. I called the Japanese Foreign Ministry. No English there, but an official asked me to phone the team at the G-7 summit. Someone at the media accreditation desk in Ise-Shima instructed me to call another number.

When I got through to that person, my Japanese ran out of steam. Could I talk to someone who speaks English, I asked. The man on the other end of the line said no one there could. "Honto ni?" ("Really?"), I replied. No, he repeated. Then we sat in silence for about 45 seconds. Then he hung up on me.

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This report has been updated to reflect that Tomohiko Taniguchi did not attend Yale University and to correct the spelling of Kiyoshi Kurokawa.