Both Chinese and Japanese; neither Japanese nor Chinese

« previous post | next post »

An ad for a new product of a Hong Kong cake shop went viral for taking pseudo-Japanese to the extreme:

It is my custom in Language Log posts always to provide Romanized transcriptions of writing in hanzi / kanji / hanja, but in this instance I will forgo the Romanizations for the simple fact that, in many instances in this text, I wouldn't know whether to read a word in Chinese or Japanese.  Even more troublesome, since this ad is from Hong Kong, I wouldn't know whether to read the Chinese characters (traditional 漢字 / simplified 汉字) as Cantonese hon3zi6 or Mandarin hànzì.  Moreover, the text displays an odd mix of Japanese simplified forms of the characters and traditional Chinese forms.  I'm not absolutely certain, but I think that the combination of traditional forms and simplified forms are as they would appear in Japanese writing.

It should be fairly easy for all readers of this post to spot the more than a dozen kana scattered throughout the ad.  Whether for grammatical (mostly) or lexical (only a few cases) purposes, the kana are used more or less correctly as they would be in a Japanese text.

I hasten to point out that I have no difficulty whatsoever in reading every word of this ad, but that is probably because I know both languages moderately well.  I must confess, however, that the mixing of Japanese and Chinese causes me to have the strange sensation of not feeling confident about how to pronounce each syllable.  I wonder how Cantonese speakers, Mandarin speakers, and Japanese speakers, especially those who are monolingual, would read off the whole text of this ad.

The following remarks come from Mengnan Zhang, who IS bilingual in Mandarin and Japanese:

1. Chinese
Words such as 為, 甜度,味道,微酸,甜味,每一口,留有,甜品,均屬,  etc. are Chinese, which do not circulate in Japanese.

2. Japanese
色沢、光沢、良い、極めて、香り、定番 are definitely Japanese.

3. Neither Japanese nor Chinese
赤苺 is not a word in Japanese, but it could be understood based on the two characters, which makes it more interesting. (Of course, 苺 is the kanji for strawberry, but the word usually appears as ichigo イチゴ or いちご).

4. Used both in Japanese and in Chinese
It's always hard to say whether certain words are Chinese or Japanese, since they are used in both languages (if we don't trace the origins of these words):
美味,兼具,果物,逸品,絕妙,濃厚,全然,享受, etc..

In addition, the grammar here is totally messed up. I am not sure how much of this advert a native Japanese speaker could understand. But as a native Chinese speaker with some knowledge in Japanese, I would see this advert as something built up mainly on a Chinese foundation with only the addition of several apparent particles such as と、な、の to make it look like Japanese.

A few closing remarks:

1. For a long note on words for "strawberry" in Sinitic languages, see this comment on Language Log.  I seem to remember having a discussion of how to say "strawberry" in Taiwanese, but can't bring up a record of it now.

2. Yixue Yang observes that "Dung1hoi2 tong4 / Dōnghǎi táng 東海堂 ('Arome') is a  Hong Kong brand, but it takes on a Japanese look. I tried their cakes. They're good, but also expensive. There seems to be a culinary hierarchy where Japanese food products are deemed to be among the high class, sitting luxuriously at the top."

3. Here's the online home page for Arome Bakery.  It includes a glitzy video touting the wonders of their "Strawberry Cake in Ginza Style".

4. The name of the bakery is interesting.  When I do a web search for "arome", I find that it is used all over the world for restaurants, perfumeries, and so forth.  I suppose that it comes from French arôme, where it means "aroma; flavoring").  In French it would be pronounced with two syllables, but in this Cantonese-Japanese-English version, I'd read it as having three syllables (as though it were a Japanese word).  I have no idea how Hong Kongers, including the owners of the bakery, would pronounce "Arome".

5. In Japanese 東海堂 would be pronounced "Tōkai dō".

6. Pride of place on the packaging is given over to English.

7. For those who are curious about what the text is saying, it describes the world-renowned delicious sweetness and succulence of the Japanese strawberries on the cake, as well as their beauteous luster and wondrous flavor, and, yes, their delicate, subtle fragrance, and so on.  I've moved some of the adjectives around a bit and left out a few superlatives here and there.  Anyway, the wording is more than enough to make your mouth water and cause you to want to eat one of those Arome Bakery Ginza Style Strawberry Cakes right now.

[Thanks to Christopher Christophe]


  1. Hilário de Sousa said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

    Pronunciation attempts:


  2. Tom Nicholls said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

    I am a Hongkonger and love this ad! I can read the entire ad without any problem. The key is just ignore the katagana except の and everything makes perfect sense. Every HKer knows the meaning of の but may not know the rest of the katagana unless you have studied Japanese. When reading this, we usually pronounce の as 之. Some of the words in the ad are also deliberately "Japanized" to give a more Japanese feel, e.g. 濃厚, 全然, etc.

    We love Japan and everything Japanese in HK. This ad really makes the product way more attractive…… I wish I could try one now :-)

  3. Max said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 8:22 pm

    Interesting that they didn't mimic Japanese punctuation, which would be at the baseline rather than centered. And I don't think Japanese makes a distinction between a pause mark comma ( 、) and a regular curly comma (,).

  4. Chris said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    I would say 果物 (kudamono), though it is not uncommon in Chinese, is a Japanese word that's used only when someone wants to give a Japanese flavour to the text. Normally, one would use 生果 (saang1gwo2) in speech and 水果 (soei2gwo2) in writing.
    As a native speaker of Cantonese with limited knowledge in Japanese, I understood almost everything in the ad without difficulty, except for 定番 (teiban), which I had to look up. I'm not sure whether an average person from HK would understand this.
    Regarding pronunciation, speakers of Cantonese with no knowledge in Japanese would probably not feel any hesitation in reading the characters out loud. But there are other cases of imported Japanese characters which people are not sure how to pronounce, such as 駅 (eki). I've heard people pronounce it as cek3 (from 尺) or even zaam6 (from 站). This is interesting as people would seem to have no problem in pronouncing 沢 in 光沢, although it shares the same simplifying principle with 駅. (澤 zaak6 ->沢, 驛 jik6 ->駅)

  5. Eidolon said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    The original founders of Arome had definite commercial ties to Japan, as they were also the founders of the Hong Kong branch of Kumagai Gumi, an actual Japanese construction company. But in a twist, the bakery was acquired by Dairy Farm International Holdings in 2008, which itself belongs to the Jardine Matheson group, a British holdings company dating back to colonial times.

  6. V said,

    January 13, 2016 @ 10:09 pm

    > Some of the words in the ad are also deliberately "Japanized" to give a more Japanese feel, e.g. 濃厚, 全然, etc.

    @Tom, what do you mean by this / how would they be in "true" Chinese?

  7. Hiroshi said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

    For me, I would agree that words like 濃厚, 全然 have distinct Japanese feel to them. Even though they are also Chinese, but I have rarely seen them used in such situations, e.g. 濃厚 for taste, 全然 in modern colloquial/semi-formal or non-formal context. In particular, 全然 seems so ubiquitous in Japanese that I would usually assume it to be a Japanese word.

RSS feed for comments on this post