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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

The Trouble with English in Japan

Company rebrand to a troubling name

This week, the entertainment behemoth Johnny and Associates will change its name to “Smile-Up.” If you haven’t been following the news, the talent agency founded back in the 1960s has been mired in scandal, stemming from accusations of abuse lodged against its late founder, Johnny Kitagawa, by young male entertainers under his charge. With victims numbering in the hundreds, the “Johnny” name has become tainted, and the group’s leadership team opted to replace its founder’s name with something else.


I watched the press conference where the name change was announced. When I heard the new “Smile-Up” name, I turned too my Japanese wife and said, “There is no way that name would ever fly in the United States.” My reaction had nothing to do with the creative mashup of two English words. Rather, it was the use of overtly positive words to provide distance from truly horrific acts.


My feelings were confirmed by others from English-speaking countries. The responses online leaned toward, “How dare they try to cover this up!” and “They won’t get away with this!” When I queried my own English-speaking acquaintances about the name change, they viewed it as an attempt by management to pretend nothing wrong happened, or to find a way to evade responsibility. In short, the new name evoked anger and shock.


When I asked my Japanese friends about the new moniker, however, I received a very different reaction. They were equally disgusted by Kitagawa’s abuse of his position and just as likely to insist that the company make things right. But while they didn’t always think the new name was the best choice, they did not associate it with attempts to hide or obfuscate the truth, or to evade responsibility. Instead, they viewed it as part of the overall process of rectifying the situation. As one friend put it, “Smile-Up is image-up.”


This friend went on to explain that “Johnny’s Jimusho,” as the company was known in Japanese, is a massive, powerful force in the entertainment industry. With the name now sullied, every interaction that invokes that name is likewise viewed with contempt. This includes projects that involve entertainers still represented by the firm, most of them certainly innocent, some of them perhaps even victims. Perpetuation of the Johnny name would be a burden on these individuals and on those from other businesses who would be working with them. The “Smile-Up” name removes these people from the sphere of shame created by Kitagawa. In a country that places an emphasis on saving face, anything that corrects the superficial image of those wronged is seen as a net positive.


The Smile-Up name itself comes from a fundraising project started by the organization during the pandemic. It came with the tagline, “Bringing Smiles and Sensations to Your World,” which somehow seems even worse in retrospect. The Japanese version of the motto, “笑顔と感動の輪を、世界に,” conveys the same meaning, so this entire brouhaha has nothing to do with mistranslation.


Ignoring the name change for a moment, the company is (finally) facing the truth about its founder and is openly submitting to the consequences. The entity formerly known as Johnny and Associates will soon be terminated, its assets liquidated and used to compensate victims. Any managed talent still under contract will have their accounts transferred to a new organization that, at least in theory, will be stripped of all associations with Kitagawa and his reputation.


So, by all accounts, it looks like the company is trying to do the right thing, and selecting a name that employs “positive thinking” is part of that effort. But the leadership failed to consider the impact that an English name would have on those who used those terms natively. For those brought up speaking English, words like “smile” trigger emotions and sensations that are less accessible for those acquiring English as a second language. This is one reason why the “F” word is banned on American broadcasts, but unrestricted on Japanese TV. Terms like “yummy” and “yuck” are just sounds when learned later in life. You can look up the meaning in a dictionary, but without the childhood experience of hearing those words in action, the impact will always be limited.


My grandmother was Swedish by ancestry, and when I was still a kid, she tried to teach me a bit of Swedish, including a few bad words. She taught me the well-known term “uff-da,” a mild curse that one dictionary I referenced translated as, “Oh, for gosh sakes.” She also taught me another word that I can’t repeat here, on par with the English “F” word. Years later, when I happen to meet someone from Sweden, I told her about my grandma’s lessons. When I mentioned the second term, the Swede’s face turned white, and the conversation came to an abrupt end. Apparently, the word brought with it intense feelings, but for me, raised in English, it was just a random sound.


The leaders of Smile-Up may have been well-intentioned, but there is always a danger of being misunderstood when using words from another language. In this case, the English-speaking community took it wrong, assuming that the word “smile” was used to cover over a multitude of sins. Johnny and Associates may have been better served by choosing a neutral Japanese term, such as みどり (midori, “Green”).


That being said, this name change is not as bad as it seems to Yanks and Brits. Maybe the issue isn’t with a poorly chosen English word, but with my assumptions about how English must be used in this non-English nation. It turns out that the word “Smile-Up” isn’t an English word at all, but something that came to be in the Japanese language. The Smile-Up team made their decision in the context of Japanese culture and communication standards. While I found the name lacking, the Japanese citizens I spoke with didn’t seem bothered, perhaps because the word wasn’t preloaded with English nuances. Even if there was an attempt to whitewash Kitagawa’s crimes, the opportunity to reduce the shame of those innocently linked to the Johnny’s organization was seen as an important corrective step, certainly more significant than my quibbles about English-language usage.


[Image Credits: Beryllium Transistor/Wikimedia]

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