The football World Cup is almost upon us. I care less about this as I get older, but it’s still a pleasantly diverting way of killing time over the summer months. I think not living in the UK makes it a bit easier as I don’t have to deal with all the hubristic triumphalism that invariably attends the England team’s entry to the tournament, nor the weak-assed post-imperial wailing and self-abuse which accompanies their inevitable exit on penalties in the second round.
Unfortunately, however, The Japanese FA seem hell bent on screwing with the pleasant state of affairs induced by my willful linguistic ignorance. They were more than happy to nickname the women’s team the Nadeshiko – a nice traditional Japanese word referencing the nice traditional values of Japanese womanhood. And while you can and should argue about the applicability of ‘traditional Japanese values’ for a group of women who continue to make their male counterparts look like a bunch of underperforming pricks (figuratively and literally) it was at least in a language where I could pick and choose my level of engagement. Not so for the men’s team. No. Their official nickname is Samurai Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as vaguely racist gay porn.
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Not The Samurai Blue, you’ll note. Not even The Blue Samurai (which would have been the coolest Smurfs episode ever). Nope, just plain old Samurai Blue, which must now join the long and inglorious list of occasions when someone at some point really should have thought to consult a native English speaker or two. It is though, as ever, a question of target audience. Despite the team being about to depart for an international tournament (‘World Cup’ you see; the clue’s in the name) the real audience are the fans back home. Even the most dedicated football hipster is unlikely to choose Japan as their second team, not when there’s Chile or Belgium, so the only people who are really going to get exposed to this nickname are Japanese punters on whom the unfortunate overtones of cosplay smut are likely to be entirely lost (but who would find the Onion’s AV Club hilarious, for exactly the same reasons). Samurai Blue is, as far as they are concerned, not really a linguistic feature at all; it’s just another design element meant to signify a vague sense of international engagement and sophistication by association even if in practice it quite explicitly fails to engage on the international stage. It’s the sociolinguistic equivalent of pictures of showbiz reporters palling around with celebrities: the intended audience is meant to understand that these hacks are part of the in-group, even as the very act of signaling this supposed belonging actively excludes them from it.
There is though, however slowly and belatedly, a growing appreciation within Japan that maybe just pretending to engage for the benefit of the folks back home isn’t really going to cut it now people have access to most of the world’s knowledge sitting in the palms of their hands. Maybe, at some point in the not so distant future, it’s going to be necessary to move beyond merely appearing to engage and actually, y’know, engage with the world at large. I’m referring, of course, to the decision of Kinki University to rebrand themselves as Kindai University, thus simultaneously flying in the face of decades of ‘naughty co-ed’ porn convention and destroying the higher education ambitions of literally some American weeabo otaku-wannabe teenage boys.
I’m inclined to view this as a generally positive decision. Of course tertiary education in Japan is generally a joke, and merely changing a slightly ribald, mirth-inducing name isn’t going to fix the deep-seated structural problems that riddle the entire system, but the reasons given for that change at least suggest an awareness of the bigger picture that’s sorely lacking in much of the rest of the national discourse. The lack of young people in Japan; the subsequent need to attract kids from overseas and reach out; the need to slough off parochial pride if ‘tradition’ stands in the way of making tangible progress; the realization that internationalization is a two-way street (and indeed a double-edged sword) and that if you want to invite people in it can’t be entirely on your terms: all these factor into the decision to rebrand and all these are, I think, very welcome attitudes.
Of course, there’s a completely reasonable counterargument that the university shouldn’t have to rebrand, that if people – meaning English speakers – want to live and study overseas they should be willing to adapt to local customs and traditions, faintly amusing names and all, because that’s the whole point of going abroad. And there’s an even stronger case to be made that this is just another instance of linguistic imperialism, the painful homogenizing pressure exerted by English to which all other languages and cultures must inevitably yield, or face the consequences.
Well, yes. But here’s the thing – language is a means to communication, not the end itself. It’s a perfectly reasonable decision if Kindai want to change their name to appeal to a wider base. And while there are more problems with labeling a group chosen explicitly to represent your country on the international stage purely for the folks back home, Samurai Blue operates with a similar view to its target audience. It’s the (all too predictable) leakage of meaning to other audiences which is the problem. So while I will obviously mourn the passing of opportunity for innuendo in one instance, and revel in it in the other, both these branding exercises are are uses of language with clear (if not particularly strong) underlying communicative logics. And both are instances where if you have a problem with the language then you’re probably not the person it’s aimed at anyway.
Besides, we’ll always have Fucking.