Sunday, September 29, 2013

Using Commercials For Language Study and Survival

(BMG: I Feel Coke by Inoue Daisuke, 1987)

I Feel Coke  

Not 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.
Step 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 phrases.
Step 3: Watch the original commercial again, mimicking the speed and intonation while repeating the key words along with the commercial.

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 American 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.

In 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.

Japanese 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!)

On 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).

And 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:
Commercial033's Channel:
Kbigstone's Channel:

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.

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