Use the rest room beautifully

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This is a photograph of a sign above a urinal at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies taken by Joseph Williams who was there for a Japanese test.  Besides the Japanglish, it’s interesting that spaces are added between the words.  And there are no kanji.

Toire wa kirei ni tsukatte kudasai
トイレは  きれいに  つかって  ください

The correct translation will emerge in the course of the following discussion.

First of all, although the Japanese may look strange because it is all in kana (no kanji) and has spaces between words, there is nothing unusual about the wording.  While this may not be the most exemplary Japanese, one can perfectly well state the request as it appears.

A more traditional and elegant way of saying the same thing would be:

Toire wa kirei ni tsukaimashou
トイレは綺麗に使いましょう

“Kirei ni tsukau 綺麗に使う” is standard wording to express “to use something cleanly”.  The sentence might well have been translated as “Please keep the restroom clean.”

The sign is targeted at language learners (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test [JLPT]), which explains the spaces. Picture books and even textbooks used in Japanese elementary schools have spaces for early readers.  I do not know when word separation like this began, but it was probably fairly early into public education in Japan, since it may be seen in prewar and wartime textbooks:


I don’t think that there is any rule against putting spaces between words, and providing them makes it easier to understand, especially because there are no kanji in this sentence.

The only mistake in the translation is the result of choosing “beautiful” instead of “clean” from the two main meanings of kirei きれい.

You see signs like this all the time (Google Images).

So this is just a case of misunderstanding that, while cleanliness is next to beauty, it’s not the same thing as beauty.

To sum up, the spaces between words and the lack of kanji on this sign are clearly for non-Japanese speakers who come to take the lower levels of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test.  All levels of the JLPT are administered on the same day.  The kanji requirement for the lowest level (Level 5 or N5) is quite light:  tsukau 使う (probably) and kirei 綺麗 (definitely) are not included.  It’s interesting that, if the same sentence had been posted with kanji and no spaces, it is assumed that students in the lower levels of Japanese would not have been able to understand it.  Written all in kana and with word spacing makes the sentence understandable to students who are testing for all five levels of the exam.  Writing in rōmaji and with spaces would make it understandable to an even greater range of Japanese language learners.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, and Miki Morita]



16 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 12:47 am

    When I studied abroad in Japan, our restroom had a sign that had the same English on it. So I think this may not be an uncommon translation.

    One thing to point out is that although kirei does have kanji, it is pretty uncommon to see them used: I’ve only seen the kanji used a very small number of times. But tsukau is definitely a common kanji.

  2. Joseph said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 3:06 am

    The adverbial use of cleanly in the example “please use the rest room cleanly” seems so unidiomatic to me, a native speaker of American English. I’m puzzled why the dictionary keeps this definition, as “use cleanly” is always expressed as “keep clean.”

    These links show that other test takers had been off-put by the same sign in May-

    http://www.excite.co.jp/News/chn_soc/20150514/Recordchina_20150514002.html

    http://en.rocketnews24.com/2015/05/16/japanese-language-test-takers-flip-out-over-engrish-bathroom-sign-get-correction-happy/

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 5:01 am

    How common is the use of a dot instead of a horizontal stroke in the first kanji in nihon, which makes the character looks like a Japanese flag? (You can see this down at the bottom of the sign.) Very clever.

  4. Emily H. said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 7:55 am

    My experience is different from Alex’s; I feel like 綺麗 is very common in novels、and I remember it being one of the first difficult kanji compounds I learned, so I might have picked it up from manga. (Though 綺 is non-joyo; the word is also written as 奇麗 to only use Joyo kanji, but I think I’ve seen that even less commonly.)

  5. kktkkr said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    I love that this Japanese sentence splits nicely into groups of four kana, giving it a nice rhythm and symmetry that the alternative wording doesn’t have.

  6. Jon W said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    綺麗 has twice as many ghits as きれい、so it’s in common use. That said, both 綺 and 麗 are grade 8 or 9 kanji and JLPT level 1 (according to my dictionary).

  7. V said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    綺麗 is common in novels but not on signs and other notices referring to cleanliness.

    I have a picture of the exact same sign from when I took this exam in Osaka last winter. It’s amusing that the JLPT administrators evidently find it necessary to have a standardized sign encouraging bathroom cleanliness, with which to defend test-proctoring host institution bathrooms from notoriously messy foreigners.

  8. R. Sode said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

    Bob,
    It does look like a hinomaru flag – I didn’t realize it until you pointed it out.
    The line that says 日本語能力試験 ‘Japanese Language Proficiency Test’ is a logo used by the JLPT. The dot instead of line is not anything common in standard writing but a matter of lettering/ graphic design.

  9. krogerfoot said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    @V
    I think you’re right about the kanji 綺麗. Japanese editors that I’ve worked with seem to feel that the kanji looks weird when it means “tidy” as opposed to “attractive.” However, it seems uncharitable to think the JLPT people had messy foreigners particularly in mind, since signs urging cleanliness are absolutely ubiquitous in public restrooms in Japan.

  10. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    December 29, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    If you look closely at the logo, you can see that the P of “JPLT” has also been turned into a hinomaru, in this case on a flagpole. Very clever indeed.

  11. Usually Dainichi said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 1:21 am

    The Kotonoha corpus (which I trust more than ghits) has twice as many きれい as 綺麗. I agree that 綺麗 feels “literary”, probably because of its non-joyo-ness. I also agree it feels a bit strange to use it to mean “tidy”, possibly because the use of kirei to mean “tidy” itself feels a bit non-literary.

    The order of the textbook pages is wrong. Maybe not too important, but it kind of ruins the nice story about how the West used to do bad things in Asia, but Japan stood up to take Asia back. Apart from that, some points about the language names (I’m ignoring the vanilla spelling reform changes):

    オーストラリヤ o:sutorariya for modern オーストラリア o:sutoraria
    I’ve always maintained that there’s no real phonetic difference between /ia/ and /ija/ in Japanese. I wonder if there’s a pattern here. Maybe /ija/ used to be common, and later a more true-to-western-spelling approach took over.

    ニューギネヤ nju:gineya for modern ニューギニア nju:ginia
    I’m wondering what languages both of these names are from, since they don’t seem to be from English.

    チュウクヮミンコク chu:kwaminkoku for modern ちゅうかみんこく chu:kaminkoku
    According to my mother, my grandfather had a /kwa/-/ka/ distinction. I met him many times and don’t explicitly remember him distinguishing. Maybe he only used it in some registers or maybe I just didn’t notice. He was from Shikoku, born around 1920. According to the internet, it disappeared first in Edo dialects, but existed in some dialects until at least the late 20th century, so it’s definitely possible.

  12. Bmblbzzz said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 5:57 am

    “Use the rest room beautifully” sounds a little odd but in many ways is more meaningful than “cleanly”, which as is pointed out above, would almost always be expressed as “keep … clean”. Slightly off topic, I’d like to say that I find “rest room” a rather ugly euphemism. I don’t think my reaction is solely because it’s not used in (my native) British English, but in the fact that it’s not really used for resting. It seems to be an example of the linguistic prudery which, from this side of the Atlantic, is perceived as typically American. Not that I want to start a transatlantic war of euphemisms, I see this as a linguistic trait.

  13. DWalker said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 10:55 am

    I like that translation! It sounds nice and it conveys the meaning quite well.

  14. Rodger C said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    ニューギネヤ nju:gineya for modern ニューギニア nju:ginia
    I’m wondering what languages both of these names are from, since they don’t seem to be from English.

    I’d hazard either German, or the kind of simple misreading that makes Japanese chocolate rhyme with late.

  15. BZ said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    Actually, keep X beautiful is a common enough English slogan for “don’t litter”, so if it said “keep the restroom beautiful” it could almost work as intended, except that it’s a bit pretentious for a restroom.

  16. Ice said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 12:17 am

    Are there any maps of where the preferred term is of “bathroom”, “washroom”, or “restroom”? (I see “washroom” here on all signs and in polite speech)

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