(BMG: I Feel Coke by Inoue Daisuke, 1987)
I Feel Coke
to brag. I still have an incredibly long way to go to attain fluency.
But many a Japanese person has told me that I speak with little to no
American accent. My secret? Commercials! They've also helped me to get
adjusted quite easily from the get-go as an ex-pat in this country.
I saw my very first Japanese
commercial in high school back in the '80s. Our teacher used a video
series that included a couple of commercials in each lesson (I forgot
the name of the series. If any of you know the one I'm talking about,
please leave me a comment!) After learning the basic grammar and
dialogue points for each unit, we were asked to do the following:
Step 1: Watch the commercial once, all the way through, trying to guess the content.
2: Watch a subtitled translation of the commercial and have a follow-up
discussion of what we learned/observed, taking note of key words and
Step 3: Watch the original commercial again, mimicking
the speed and intonation while repeating the key words along with the
A wonderful thing about Japanese
commercials (or 'CMs' as
they're called in Japan), is that many of them are relatively short,
some lasting only 15 seconds long (much shorter than the average
commercial). It's just long enough for the brain to comprehend the
images without getting bored. Combine that with a very catchy jingle and
stunning graphic images and you've got yourself a very powerful tool
for language learning. They're just perfect for learning key words and
phrases in the context of their usage. Plus the audio/visual impact only
helps to aid memorization. It's easier to learn words from an exciting,
entertaining CM than from a contrived skit or boring vocab list in a
traditional textbook. For someone like me who learns a word faster by
hearing it a few times, this technique is a godsend!
Can you guess within the first five seconds what this commercial is all
about? Suntory CM
I couldn't either until I saw that whiskey bottle at the very
end. Strange, foreign images, bright colors and art, randomness that
keeps you guessing -no detail is overlooked, no matter how tiny.
Japanese commercials are more than just advertisements. They're
perfectly packaged little journeys that catapult you over the wall of
monotony to a land where anything is possible and everything is
beautiful. It's almost as if the Japanese spend far more on their
commercials than they do their everyday network programming! But
whatever they're doing, they're doing it right. Every single person in
Japan seems to have a favorite commercial. In a country where the
average household has at least 2 TVs, it's bound to happen.
the '80s and '90s, all we had was VHS technology. Back then, many Asian
grocery shops rented out videocassettes of TV programming for ex-pats
living in America who weren't able to access their favorite shows
(global home satellite TV was a financial impossibility for many). I
would hoard the old tapes for a buck each when the stores were done
circulating them, and transfer the commercials onto blank cassettes so I
could focus on just the CMs while giving them a longer shelf life. I
left them on for BGM (background music) while doing homework, housework,
exercise, even while sleeping! I thought my family would get sick and
tired of them but they often found the CMs more entertaining (and less
stressful) than American TV! Who knew! Some CMs in particular, like this one from DeBeers, became part of the actual soundtrack to my life!
The older I got,
the bigger my collection grew. At one point, just before I
left for Japan, I had over 5,000 Japanese commercials stored on VHS.
(They're all gone now, lost to mildew and old age). But through the CMs,
I was able to keep up with consumer trends, current news, pop culture
and music much more effectively than waiting for the rare once-a-week
Japanese feature to grace the likes of CNN. At one point, my Japanese
ex-pat friends were asking to borrow my tapes so they could see what was going on back home! As
Japanese food items became more popular at American supermarkets, I would
instantly recognize any new product in the Asian food section and
already know how to use it. First came Pocky (pronounced /poe-key/ NOT /paw-key/)
and Kameda arare crackers. Then came soba noodles and bonito soup stock . What's
that on the top shelf? House Wasabi paste? Instant curry base? No sweat!
I knew how to use and enjoy these products while my fellow Alaskans
just left them there on the shelf to get dusty.
My favorite CMs usually advertised traditional Japanese products like sake rice wine (pronounced /sah-keh/ NOT /sah-key/),
soy sauce, green tea and miso paste. They tend to reflect the seasons
at the time of airing and often feature special cultural traditions and
locations. They are always so exquisitely made that after watching them,
I felt I had actually visited Japan. This one in particular for Gekkeikan Sake still takes my breath away after almost 20 years. I still
catch myself humming the BGM tune (Ano Koro E by Anzen Chitai), whenever I get the chance to stroll around the temples of Kyoto.
commercials are interesting for their social insights as well. Some are
quite notorious for making Western celebrities do
embarrassing things that would literally kill their careers were they to
act the same way at home, as foreigners in Japan are culturally
expected to go over-the-top more than their Japanese counterparts.
Here's one of my favorite commercials for an
energy drink starring former California governor "Arnie." Of course,
commercials that exploit the 'strangeness' of foreign people have their
obvious drawbacks. I'd like to save this discussion for another post but
for now, let's have a nice guffaw on Arnie, shall we?
(Ha ha ha!! I can't understand what he's saying, but it sure sounds funny!)
a more serious note, perhaps the biggest, most practical benefit I got
from studying Japanese commercials was the way it helped me to quickly
adjust to my new lifestyle as an ex-pat. My brain full of knowledge
concerning Japanese products and services would prove indispensable the
moment I arrived in Japan. I already knew by name the stores I needed to
go to and the products I wanted to try out! Everything from laundry
detergent to cosmetics, even for ailments like athlete's foot or
indigestion, I was ready. I'm sure this knowledge saved me weeks and
weeks' worth of time not having to ask people what items were good for
what, or asking clerks to interpret the writing on miscellaneous
packages. I probably also saved myself a lot of embarrassment, spared
from making those easy mistakes like buying shampoo instead of body soap
(easy to do when the bottles look exactly alike).
now that we're in the glorious age of the Internet, we language
learners have absolutely no excuse not to take full advantage of this
free and globally available media source. It's been a great source of
joy to find most of my lost collection uploaded online by other viewers. I
also love watching these old clips to find that I can understand all of the
contents without subtitles; a great measure of my own progress! And
what used to cost me a dollar a tape is now free online thanks to the YouTube
community. Commercials from all over this amazing world are finally
available to all; you don't need to be of a certain ethnicity to
access them. (It does help if you can enter the correct language into
YouTube's search engines, though).
Tip: To get more than just 15-30 second blips, if you use Japanese font on your global IME, enter: ＣＭ集 (the Chinese character shuu 集 pronounced /shoe/ means 'collection').
Here are some interesting YouTube channels with hours and hours of retro Japanese commercials from back in the day:
Soikll3's Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/soikll3?feature=watch
Commercial033's Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/commercial033?feature=watch
Kbigstone's Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/kbigstone?feature=watch
Happy viewing, happy learning! Have a good day/night wherever you are. -Robynn
Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog
(written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the
expressed permission of the author. All video content is used strictly for educational purposes in accordance with the Fair Use Act.