The Finagle Factor

by Doreen Simmons

This time our lovable old tabby takes a rather jaundiced look at the great “Finagle Factor” of Japan: that which, added to any equation, makes it come out in the speaker’s favor. In other words, how do we cope with people who are always right?


Dear Aunt Eva,

I am a professional sub-editor, and as a sort of donation I proofread the bulletin of an organization I support. The secretary faxes it; I find a dozen or so minor errors or infelicities and fax it back. Lately we have been featuring different countries, with a presentation on the history and culture. The Australians sent theirs for checking, as did the South Africans. In fact, everything went smoothly until it was the turn of the Japanese. No fax arrived. The presentation was an artistic success—but frankly, the handout was somewhat below standard. Internal evidence (incorrect spelling of a common Tokyo place name, for example) indicated the possible assistance of a native speaker whose skills did not include proofreading. When I raised the question afterward, one of the Japanese ladies “explained” at great length that “Japanese people would not like to cause you trouble by asking you to check it. We think it is inconsiderate to ask people to do things for us.”

What do you think of this line of reasoning, Aunt Eva?

Mona Lott

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Mona,
What you can do about this situation is beyond Aunt Eva’s frame of reference; she can, however, assure you that what was actually meant was: “I don’ want the embarrassment of being told I’m wrong, so I will avoid showing my work to someone capable of correcting my mistakes.” “Consideration” or, at another level, “respect” is the Finagle Factor. It makes everything sound right. In other words, this tatemae rationalization is the exact opposite of what is really meant.

When a Japanese person says “I don’t want to inconvenience you by asking you to check my English prose,” he or she really means “Back off.” If pressed, the same person will even scout around for someone simpatico who will do a light check as a favor—the only requirement is that the native speaker approached should not know right from wrong and moreover should have been warned not to offend Japanese friends by doing something so crass as telling them the truth.

There is a sliding scale depending on how badly your Japanese friends want something of you. People who perceive the need for a competent check are likely to play down the magnitude of the favor: “It will only take you ten minutes or so to skim through my thesis—I know I occasionally confuse the definite and indefinite article.” (Your dear aunt’s tail starts twitching irritably when this is said of a piece that quite obviously involves a total rewrite.) And when a Japanese person really, really wants something of you, such as free English lessons on demand, he or she will insist that nothing at all is required of you but to “speak your own language”—implying that you can relax and enjoy yourself while your Japanese friend is doing all the hard work.

In the world of tatemae (the habit of dressing up the true motive to make it sound better), the tendency to ask the incompetent to undertake specialist work is widespread. Equally widespread is the tendency to avoid the attentions of the competent by using the excuse that the competent is so worthy of respect that he/she cannot possibly be inconvenienced or insulted by being asked to do such a simple job. Tolerant and diffident Aunt Eva is insulted only by being offered paltry sums—or by having her assistance declined when she is donating it to a good cause.

At the other end of the scale there is the recent advertising campaign of a major Japanese cosmetics company. One of Aunt Eva’s ever-vigilant language police reports: “Back in April, two right-hand, full-page newspaper and magazine ads appeared on the same day in publications across North America (including Canada) to announce some new face lotion or other. The reason I can’t even remember the product is this: the ghastly English in the ads completely distracted me from paying any attention whatsoever to the product! The copy in the ad was a dreadful literal translation filled with Japanese-English. It was truly a bad translation of the worst kind. No professional copywriting whatsoever. Imagine the money this campaign must have cost: not one but TWO right-hand, full-page ads on the same day in numerous newspapers and women’s magazines! Couldn’t they have spent a bit of money hiring an ad agency to do the writing?”

Thank you, ever-vigilant Watcher, for sending this news. In all fairness I should say that it was not, this time, Kanebo, the company whose CEO many years ago proudly produced the slogan “For beautiful human life.” There was an outcry at first from the native speakers: it isn’t English. This was stilled, however, by a fiat from the top: “The slogan is intended for the Japanese, not for native speakers of English; it is a very effective slogan in Japan.” It must be; it is still in use. Aunt Eva is completely defeated, however, when trying to justify the same attitude when another company is targeting not Japanese consumers, who think it’s classy to have a bit of “English” in one corner of the ad, but the largest English-speaking, newspaper- and magazine-reading community in the world. Unless, of course, they have managed to hire the Kanebo man as a consultant.

Correctly identifying the consumer of one’s English (or any other product for that matter) is vital. Take the position of the University of Tokyo in the English-speaking world. How many language specialists or other literati of the Western world would say, “This was in the Todai English entrance exam, so it must be right!”? Yet inside Japan, and especially inside the Ministry of Education, this is very much the prevailing attitude.

Nor is it confined to Japan, nor to the present day. The attitude is encapsulated, for Aunt Eva, in the pronouncement of an academic in Singapore back in the 1960s. He was in charge of oral exams and had hired some young expatriate teachers as interviewers. In unison they insisted that certain answers in his scripted oral test were incorrect English. In the cold tones of assured authority, he pronounced: “I am the most senior professor of English in Southeast Asia. I decide what is correct.”

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter No. 91 (December 2000)