07.09.09
Lena Dunham | Slideshows

On the Street in Tokyo


The major internal conflict I experienced on my recent trip to Japan was whether to explore the old-world — Zendos, philosopher's paths, Kabuki, tatami mats, visits to ancient spaces; or the new one — anime, arcades, bars that serve liquor while also selling puppies, artfully-packaged convenience, an industry of fluorescent fun. These two Japans run parallel to each other, seducing and dividing Western tourists. Ultimately, I chose to dive into the Harajuku mayhem that Gwen Stefani has only scratched the surface of, and made my home base 109 — a teencentric mega-store in Tokyo's Shibuya district. 

Sailor Moon lookalikes hang out there buying keychains shaped like chickadees and having their cell phones custom-bejeweled. You can buy a tiny top hat meant to sit jauntily just above your left ear, or have fake nails applied (the best set said "I LOVE PUDDING" on each acrylic talon, a tiny smiley face leering just below the words). But my favorite product was a wide range of T-shirts with inexplicable English phrases written boldly across the chest. As soon as I spotted this one — NATURALLY PRETTINESS THE BUTTERFLY SEEKS FLORAL HONEY — I was instantly smitten. After all, the T-shirt has become what Esperanto once aspired to be: an international language. On the surface, these particular T's capitalize on the Lost In Translation comedy of a website like Engrish.com. But on a deeper level, they are the spiritual cousin of the haiku, freed from syllabic constraints but still elegant, economical, unknowable: they're experimental poems worn by people to whom the meaning may not be important. The "Paris Hilton: Vote Hottie" T-shirt might not fit so neatly into this category, but couldn't "HEART OF STATION" be a Ginsberg poem?

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When I asked a Japanese novelist about the T-shirts she laughed at my desire to take them seriously. "Some of us butcher your language. But Americans are no better." To her, the T's occupy a role not unlike the inexplicable Asian characters tattooed on the lower backs of blonde teens on spring break in Cabo. (According to legend, Britney Spears thinks her tattoo means "Mystery" when, in fact, it says "Strange.")

My obsession with T-shirts in Tokyo opened my eyes to a whole universe of off-kilter translations, leading to a finer appreciation for things like the charmingly-titled gourmet grocery store Cheese On The Table and the nearby watering hole, The Bar of Corn Barley. But it was the T-shirts that stole my heart, and I found myself perpetually on the lookout for the most extreme, loopy examples. On Harajuku Street I spied one that said YOU MISSED TRUE LOVE, but this didn't seem like something a supportive friend should buy for someone they claim to care about. Instead, I nabbed a few for my girlfriends with sayings like HUG IT WITH PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD and I LOVE MILK OF CANDY BABY. For my sister, I found a soft pink hoodie with seafoam bubble letters: IT WAS LIKE A WORLD DREAM.

My traveling companion (who happens to be my mother) maintained an interest in historic Japan and one afternoon she dragged me to Tokyo's Imperial Palace. I absorbed little of the well-groomed gardens, the peaceful Koi ponds, the immaculate marble walkways. Instead, I was eager to return to Razzleberry, the frozen yogurt chain that offers a flavor called "Morning Love" in three sizes — Cute, Sexy and Gorgeous. But I was glad we went to the Palace, because as we left a very old, very creaky Japanese woman in a straw sunhat hobbled past me. Her plain white T read simply, EVERYBODY LIKE SHOPPING.




Posted in: Cities + Places, Culture


Comments [11]

writing about this is about as dated as seymour chwast's work. c'mon, guest observer, it's summer but try to 'work' a little harder.
ronald perel
07.13.09
11:06

These really made my day. The slideshow is probably the funniest that DO has ever published.
Dave
07.13.09
03:00

Lena's take on these charming language mishaps is captivating. Out of context, some of these phrases can be quite beautiful. "A Very Close Friend," and "Cheese on the Table" would make great Ed Ruscha paintings.
Teddy
07.13.09
03:11

a) Post Party Depression is an amazing name for a band.
b) I have a shirt that says "I am girl. 16. My boyfriend is amazing dance player."
c) It is seemingly easier to make poetry if you have only a vague understanding of what the words actually mean.

Igor
07.13.09
03:17

Oh Leena! You've stolen our hearts agian! My favorites come to the "I love Jewlery I want to feel your warmth Want to feel you since 1879" and Naive Lady. I wonder, is she naieve because she thinks that these paper towels won't end up in a landfil, or because they are in fact not made with post consumer recycled product, i don;t know i just fill my heart with glow from excrement i mean excitement!

And let me tell you, you come in all sizes... cute sexy and goregous!
R.Lord
07.13.09
04:14

i totally agree, this is about as relevant and new as Friendster

but also, yeah! let's start that band, Igor!
bobby
07.14.09
08:21

"I Love Pudding" would make a great Ed Ruscha painting, too. Fabulous post, Lena!
Audrey
07.14.09
01:40

I just got back from Japan myself!

I had the notion on the train whether I was seeing the 'real' Japan, because our original plans were to bike through the country. Instead, we at Kobe steaks in Kobe, and did other western touristy things. Hiroshima, four museums, and six galleries.

I did see a shop on the way home everyday that apparently sold "used babies" presented by the in-store "quizzical elephant." It was an antique shop… I think.

Jam
james Kwon
07.14.09
03:54

I live in Japan (not Tokyo), and I get a kick out of Engrish too. One thing that you may not have noticed as much is that a lot of the Japanese "SUVs" (these are tiny Mitsubishi's like the Pajero Jr. and Mini that look small even compared to an American sedan) have really awesome Engrish phrases on the spare-tire cover. My favorite is a Terios Kid that says "Mustle bound yet refined." Others, however, are indeed poetic. I've been meaning to do a photo set of the tire covers... some day!
S!
07.14.09
08:44

@ronald perel. You're just too clever for everyone else here, sir. Ironically, your criticism itself is about as irrelevant or more than anything else on this page.

Fantastic article. I know that Engrish has been an internet phenomenon for a long time, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some charm to it. I have an eternal and abiding love for the purely nonsensical... thank you Japan.

Thanks for the thoughts and experiences from your trip.
Collin Cummings
07.15.09
01:24

Japan isn't the only place where you will find these Engrish shirts. My friend Gabe Ostley is currently exhibiting a series of paintings and drawings of people wearing Engrish T-Shirts he spotted when he was out and about in Hong Kong (where he currently resides). It's amazing to see how some of them, despite the bad translation, still make us chuckle, or touch our hearPr
Lila
07.20.09
12:16



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