It is not a subculture

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From Peter Durfee via Twitter:

Oh, my, this is one of the nastiest translation failures I have ever encountered.

Sonaetsuke no toiretto pēpā igai wa,
mizumore/tsumaru gen'in to narimasunode
nagasanaide kudasai.


Because [anything] other than the supplied toilet paper
causes leakage/blockage,
please do not flush [anything other than the supplied toilet paper].

Alternatively, "Please don't flush anything other than equippd toilet paper since it may cause water leakage or clogging."

Or, more colloquially: "Don't flush anything other than the toilet paper, as it may cause leakage, etc."

Nathan Hopson further explains:

I think the best version of this I've seen in English is:
"Please flush only toilet paper and what nature provides"

The "excluding the toilet paper of equipment" is a slight, but intelligible, mistranslation of "the equipped toilet paper" (sonaetsuke no toiretto pēpā). After that, the forces of evil clearly take over…

I agree with Nathan that the last part of the English is a mistranslation of the first part of the Japanese.  The rest of the English (the first five words) amounts to sheer gibberish, perhaps some sort of copy-paste catastrophe from an online translator.

You can see where they got the "equipment".  It comes from the sonaetsuke 備え付け ("equipped; supplied") at the beginning of the notice.

I suspect that "It is not a subculture" may have morphed from something like "uncivilized", "uncultured" they had in mind.  In Chinese we would say "bùwénmíng 不文明", "bùwénhuà 不文化", or something like that.  Not knowing for certain how it would be said in Japanese, I asked Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and she replied:

I don't know how the strange translator got a word like "subculture", whether he meant it to be "uncivilized" or "uncultured." There is no word corresponding to that in the Japanese notice.

Also, just to respond to your explanation, we don't use f ubunmei/myō 不文明 or fubunka 不文化. We understand these words but they are not in our daily vocabulary. For "uncivilized" we use words like "mikai 未開" or in conversational Japanese "okurete iru 遅れている" meaning "he's behind." If he is very behind, he would be called "yaban 野蛮" which is really savage! Okurete iru 遅れている can also be used when a person is intellectually challenged. But you can also say tokei ga okurete iru 時計が遅れている。("the clock is slow / behind").

[Romanizations supplied by VHM; ditto for the translation of the last sentence; forgive any errors.]

I would say that the best part of this English notice is that it functions like a Zen koan and will help you keep your mind free of the mundane reason why you are sitting in that location in the first place.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Hiroko Sherry and Miki Morita]


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    The Cantonese equivalent of buwenming is mou man "lacking culture" (wu wen in Mandarin), and was a phrase I learned very early–my field assistant translated it as "ignorant" and I found this inadequate, since it clearly described behavior that was downright immoral, not just ignorant. Turned out it really means "uncouth and boorish." Great phrase to know. Another useful bit of lore is that Cantonese, at least back in the day, rarely described anyone as "bad"–they would more politely (?) say "m hou" "not good." Or else just forthrightly cuss, and describe the individual by one of the countless colorful phrases that Cantonese has evolved….

  2. John Chew said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    I wonder if 流さないで下さい somehow got conflated with 下流 in the sense of lower class, or if the meanings "to wash away/flush" and "class/school of thought" of 流 were otherwise mixed up.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    Excellent suggestion, John Chew!

    I was sort of thinking along those lines too.

  4. V said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    yeah, I think 流 is what was interpreted as "subculture", + ない –> "not a subculture".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 2:09 pm



  6. EndlessWaves said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    Before I read the japanese translation I thought it was saying something along the lines of 'Stealing toilet paper from the dispensing equipment is not a subculture'.

    i.e. Petty thievery isn't clever, don't do it.

    Also, the image of the toilet seems a bit random. Is it common for japanese warning/advisory notices to have such iconography?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 3:06 pm


    Do you want me to change "japanese translation" to "English translation"?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

    From a Japanese colleague:

    The Japanese sign says "Please do not flush any paper other than provided toilet paper to prevent water leaks and clogging." This is one of the most difficult Japangrish sentences I've ever seen. I tried several Japanese-English translation apps, yet none of them resulted in "subculture." Buwenming 不文明 would be hibunmeiteki非文明的 in Japanese.

  9. Rachel said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

    If it were Chinese, I would know exactly where the problem comes from: trying to express the sentiment that "There is no underground equipment [i.e,, sewage system] to prevent blockage by things other than toilet paper, [so please don't flush anything else]", with an incorrect expression of "underground" plus a bit of confusion in how to compose this rather complex noun phrase. 地下 has both figurative and literal equivalents in English ("underground", "subculture", probably others) and it's understandable that someone might choose the wrong gloss.

    Maybe that's what was happening with the Japanese, too?

  10. Rubrick said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    I think all we can really say is that it is not a subculture yet.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    Exchange between Nathan Hopson and me (spread out over half a day between Nagoya and Philadelphia):


    Somehow, Nathan, I think that the part of the bathroom notice about "It is not a subculture" is morphed from something like "uncivilized", "uncultured".

    In Chinese we would say "bùwénmíng 不文明" or "bùwénhuà 不文化".


    I feel that's unlikely. If anything, it might have to do with the kanji 流. 亜流 could be the source of subculture, I think, but if course it's not there to draw from… But 流さない could, by a stretch, get us closer. I'm far from confident; grasping at straws.


    Several of the commenters are in line with what you're saying.


    If that's the case, it's the negative 流さない ("doesn't flow") deprived of its imperative (で下さい) that is the root cause of the problem.

    Here's why:
    本流 (honryū) = mainstream
    亜流 (aryū) = "substream"
    Usually, aryū means something more like epigon, a cheap knockoff. But by some real mental gymnastics, it's possible to see it as "sub-" in opposition to "mainstream," which could, again by some stretches better described as contortions, be linked to "subculture."

    That said, how what is clearly such a poor translation could ever have arrived at such a convoluted place so many times removed from both dictionary definitions and machine translation is a mystery.

    To illustrate my point:

    Google Translate

    Other than the built-in toilet paper, do not shed it will be water leakage and clogging cause.

    Bing Translator

    Otherwise provided toilet paper, water, please do not be packed.


    Other than attached toilet paper, please do not drain it in a water leak, one caused by at a loss for.

    Nowhere is there anything close to culture or subculture.

    I'm left wondering whether by grasping at straws we'd would be putting too much significance in coincidence. In other words, I'm at least as confident in my first hypothesis (copy-paste error) as my last (亜流).

  12. MC said,

    February 20, 2016 @ 3:24 am

    My old version of Eijiro gives "流" as one translation of "subculture". It's probably from a context like アメリカ流 ("American-style”). I would guess this is the work of a spectacularly incompetent human, not a machine translation (which is why it has excluded the ので clause altogether).

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 20, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    I agree with MC that it's most likely "the work of a spectacularly incompetent human". In this case, the machine translators (as documented by Nathan Hopson in the previous comment) would have done a better job. And, as shown by John Chew and V, as well as by MC, the mistakes made are the sort that can be explained as the result of bad judgement on the part of a human.

  14. Rodger C said,

    February 20, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    When grasping at straws, don't put them in the toilet.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    February 22, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    I assume that someone thought it was the same sub- prefix as in substandard and subhuman.

  16. Rodger C said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    @Philip Anderson: The word is often used that way in English. Heard snarled on a cop show in the 80s: "Those people have a subculture!"

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