Misuse of foreign languages in fashion reveals cultural inappropriateness


Sixuan Wu

The British fashion brand Superdry has its logo printed in both English and Japanese. However, the translation is not accurate and the Japanese part looks more like “(be sure to) dry your clothes to the utmost extent” rather than the intended “super dry,” according to native Japanese speakers.

Sixuan Wu, Staff Writer

From tattoos of Chinese characters to sweatshirts featuring random messages in Japanese, elements of East Asian cultures seem to be seeping into teenage fashion in the U.S. However, many people only view these designs as a means to pursue the edgy and exotic without knowing the meanings behind these messages.

Many people use such cultural elements in their daily fashion to express their love toward certain media, like names of fictional characters or lines from anime. Others may pick messages simply for their structural beauty, such as the intricacy of a Chinese character, even though the message may be weird or meaningless to speakers of that language.

While featuring foreign language in fashion without understanding the meaning is generally harmless, some people may find it unsettling or even offensive. For instance, in New York City, one of the most common messages conveyed on shirts reads “now accepting applications for Japanese girlfriend” in Japanese, as reported by Japan Today. Another concerning example involved an intoxicated college student wearing a shirt that says “I will buy a disagreement” in a bar.

In order to pursue the “cool” aspect, many fashion brands purposefully translate the messages on their clothes into foreign languages, regardless of accuracy. The British brand Superdry, which combines vintage British and American outfit styles with bright Japanese-inspired graphics, is famous for the Japanese text they feature on their products. However, according to native Japanese speakers, the messages are often gibberish. Some examples include “堅い天候の会社” (hard, as in “solid”, weather company) and “会員証な” (membership card na, in which the “na” is meaningless), according to an article written by a blogger who is fluent in both English and Japanese. Even the Japanese part of the brand’s logo is improperly translated and does not make sense.

Simply viewing a culture as a trend and appreciating it only because it looks different and unique also reveals the superficial nature of the fashion industry, as people overlook the meanings weaved into words in the process. As explained in an interview by Highsnobiety Magazine with designer Sasa Li, who had worked on a T-shirt project to challenge cultural appropriation in 2016, when meaningless messages of other languages are used only for the cool effect and brushed off as an inside joke, it does not treat the culture with the respect it deserves.

There is nothing wrong with incorporating foreign languages into one’s fashion style. It shows that under the development of globalization, more people are embracing different cultures. But misusing cultural messages due to lack of comprehension, intentionally or not, may still end up being inappropriate, concerning or even offensive.

To avoid these outcomes, one should educate themselves more about the culture they would like to feature in their fashion choice. This does not require digging into all of that culture’s history and customs. It can be as simple as looking up that one word or sentence that is written on a sweatshirt, determining whether there are implied meanings that may cause misunderstanding and deciding the occasions it would fit into. Some apps, such as Google Translate, offer translation between multiple languages through taking a picture.

Cultures are not exclusive; they are open for all to share. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to learn about different cultures, especially in a country like the U.S. that has such great diversity. Showing interests through fashion is a good place to start, as long as proper understanding and respect is demonstrated.