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It seems that many anime and manga aired or printed in Japanese, before they are dubbed or localized, contain English text or lyrics.

I've tagged a couple of examples here.

The first is from Digimon Tamers, wherein there are a couple English lines within the otherwise Japanese title sequence:

Digimon: Tamers

And another example from Neon Genesis Evangelion, where the text on the monitors is printed in English:

Neon Genesis Evangelion

There are countless other examples (one I couldn't find was another scene from Tamers in which a beer can reads "BEER"); so, my question is:

Why do these English words make their way into otherwise entirely Japanese productions?

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To expand on all the great answers a little: This is somewhat of a false perception. I'm sure there are Japanese people wondering why Americans get tattoos that say "Soup" and "Ugly". Or French people that wonder about the American fast-food place "Au Bon Pain". It sounds better than "The Good Bread". –  DampeS8N Dec 31 '12 at 15:27
@DampeS8N Except it's not only things like that: In North America, there are not cartoon songs that randomly have lines in French or Spanish, nor are the computer displays in Norwegian when the characters are still in their homeland. It may be somewhat a false perception, but Japanese have far more immersion in English than we do in other languages. –  キルア Dec 31 '12 at 17:22
Computer displays and things should occasionally feature English in other countries for the same reasons that an American film should feature French on street signs in Paris. Because English is common on these devices. Also, the Japanese do what we do with Chinese and Japanese, for mostly the same reasons. It is different and cool. –  DampeS8N Dec 31 '12 at 18:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 34 down vote accepted

There are two different ways that one can use English words in Japanese.

The first is through loanwords. The Japanese language was more-or-less standardized during the Meiji Restoration, in the late 19th century. Before that, Japan was a very isolated culture for a very long time, so a lot of concepts simply didn't exist in the language. As a result, it was decided that rather than creating new words for all of these concepts, they would just borrow the words from other languages. Most of the words came from English, though there are also some from other western languages.

In this case, the words are written in katakana (カタカナ). There are a very large number of loanwords, but it's fairly standardized what is a loanword and what is not. Also, some of the words are pronounced differently in Japanese than English (e.g. energy becomes エネルギ (enerugi) with a hard g sound). In case it's ambiguous how to pronounce English words in Japanese, these are also usually standardized.

That doesn't really represent a use of English, though. The loanwords are borrowed from English, but both the meanings and pronunciations can be radically different from the English words. They're better described as Japanese words which are based off English words. The examples you've given don't really fall into the above category, but there are many examples like this so it's worth mentioning.

The other way they can use English is just by writing/speaking in English. The examples you've given seem to fall in this category. This is done to sound/look cool, because most people in Japan only hear and see Japanese for most of their day, so it stands out. Since most Japanese people have at least a passable knowledge of English vocabulary (it's part of the standard curriculum), it's a way to make a statement, sort of like how stylized fonts would be used in English except a bit stronger.

Now that we've made that distinction, we can answer the question. The answer to your question "Why do these English words make their way into otherwise entirely Japanese productions?" is that English is fairly common in Japan, not just in anime/manga. This isn't solely a phenomenon about anime/manga, nor am I convinced that it's particularly common in anime and manga. For instance, you can probably spot several instances of English in this picture of advertising in Tokyo (I found 3, with another 2 cases of the Roman alphabet being used to write non-English words, and quite a few katakana loanwords as well):

enter image description here

So in summary, it's because English is common in Japanese culture. But that's not a very satisfying answer by itself. Rather than answering the broad question of why modern Japanese culture often uses English (which I think might be better posed at Japanese.SE with some modifications) I'll address the particular cases you have mentioned, in part because a full answer to the former question is probably impossible and in part because it's off-topic.

Using English is very common in music, where whole lines may be written in (oftentimes broken) English. This is not solely a Japanese phenomenon, as Korean and Chinese pop artists also often use English (Indian pop artists do so very frequently as well, but English is a fairly common language in India). As far as I can tell, it isn't particularly common in anime songs, though of course I don't have any statistics to back that up.

Essentially, it's done in music to sound cool, for the reasons I listed above. It also somewhat expands their audience, since people around the world speak English. I don't know if there's an analogy that would be familiar to people who only speak English, but the closest I could come up with is that Latin is occasionally used in English-language music.

In fact, English use in Japanese music predates J-Pop itself (which is the genre that most anime music falls in). Japanese rock musicians in the 1960s and '70s were mostly inspired by their western counterparts, most notably the Beatles. For a time, Japanese rock singers believed that the Japanese language was too restrictive to be able to sing rock-style, so most of them sung in English (see here). The first really successful band to sing in English was Happy End, but even after that, people continued using English at least occasionally. It's possible to write long academic papers on the use of English in Japanese music, but I'll stop here for brevity.

For Digimon Tamers, and indeed many series, the title is displayed in English. In fact, most series now have both an English and a Japanese title, which do not always mean the same thing. In the case of Digimon, the word 'Digimon' comes from two English words, 'Digital' and 'Monster'. Tamers is also an English word. The title could be written 「デジモンテイマーズ」, but it's more authentic-looking to use the English title. As for why the title was chosen in English to begin with, again, this is best explained via the rule-of-cool, since English sounds different and interesting. Of course, not all shows do this, and it's mostly a stylistic decision, so it's probably impossible to give a better explanation.

As for Eva, most computer systems, even in Japan, are based on English. Most programming languages are also based on English. As a result, it seems more authentic (or at least, it did at the time) to have computers and technology things entirely or mostly in English. I don't know if this is changing, now that there are Japanese-language programming languages, operating systems, etc.

As for "BEER", it is not uncommon in Japan to advertise beer in English. This example is a fairly small company which I found from reading Moyashimon, but it's certainly not uncommon for beer to be written in English. I don't really know why. My suspicion is that this is because beer originated as a western drink.

I could probably go on for a while, but I think this answer is already too long and there's no point to continuing to list examples, so I'll end it here. As I said above, this might make a good question on Japanese.SE if you phrase it appropriately. It could also make a good question on the proposed Japanese Culture site.

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Excellent answer! I'd like to add that Japanese highscool students are required to follow atleast six years of english courses during their junior and senior years. English is also part of the entrance exams to universities( The difficulty of these tests in some cases seem to be on the low side though ). These two variables also add in popularity among the Japanese. –  Rohan Dec 29 '12 at 0:41
It's a pity you didn't mention "Engrish" in your answer. That also supports your claim that it's rather common in everyday life in Japan. –  user314104 Dec 29 '12 at 3:34
This is potentially the most fantastic answer I've ever seen on any StackExchange. Bravo to you--you hit every point, hit it well, and even covered the more broad topics. Thanks so much! –  キルア Dec 29 '12 at 3:48
@user314104 Engrish is also very common, especially in music. That's where the "broken English" comes in. Japanese people generally have a pretty good knowledge of English vocabulary, but not as good for grammar (this is just on average, and of course there are many exceptions) which results in the broken English that we often call Engrish. The term Engrish itself is sometimes seen as a bit insulting in Eastern cultures (though not usually in the West) so I tried to avoid it in the answer. –  Logan M Dec 29 '12 at 22:04
Just a note: “エネルギー” comes from German, not English (like the word “ベクトル” for “vector”), where it does have a /g/. Most loans from English still resemble standard (southern) English pronunciations. Were “energy” and “vector” taken from English, they'd be “エナージー” and “ベクター”, respectively. Note the lack of coda /r/ in both (from non-rhotic English). –  James Wood Jun 25 at 18:21

Japan was and is very influenced by Western culture, and Japanese song composers sometimes add in English lyrics into their songs as some sort of "special effect", even though it may not grammatically perfect.

As for Japanese appearing in anime, the producers may be trying to invoke a "foreign" feel to the scene or objects (like the "BEER"). Science-ish elements of an anime (especially computers and monitor text) are most frequently represented in English, using all kinds of technical English nouns and adjectives (as well lots of numbers and symbols), because it invokes the stereotype that Science is this "cool and complex process that cannot be understood".

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It should be noted that this doesn't just happen in anime. If you were to go to Asian countries where they use Chinese characters (China, Japan, etc.), you will see English text on things such as food products or T-shirts. Sometimes the text is gibberish and makes absolutely no sense at all. They do this in order to make the product more appealing, to have variety. There is not as much variety for Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana in fonts, e.g, in English, we have fonts such as Times New Roman or Impact. On the other hand, Kanji characters and the like can get confusing if it follows a certain font. It would be easier to read standard Kanji as opposed to reading Kanji in, say, Courier New (if that's even possible).

So, in order to make the characters bigger, to have more impact on their viewers, they use English instead of their own language. You can make the curve on "D" on "Digimon" bigger and you'd still be able to read it as "D" or you can change it to a certain style to fit the anime's genre, but you can't change any part of the character "デ" without it retaining its meaning.

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It seems that katakana are more flexible than kanji and hiragana, even if less so than Latin. See logos for No Game No Life, Kill la Kill and Nisekoi. –  James Wood Jun 25 at 19:06
Of course, many of these are going to be English names transcribed into Japanese. –  James Wood Jun 25 at 19:44

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