My apologies to the Vapors, whose 1980 hit “I Think I’m Turning Japanese” was the number one song in Australia, but only climbed as high as number thirty-nine in the United States. I swear this will all start to make sense a few paragraphs from now.
But let’s set this up wth a trip back to Irvine, California, circa 1994.
As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I’ve had several Japanese girlfriends in the past. That’s how I happened to add a few very basic Japanese words to my vocabulary.
I knew that “hai” meant “yes.”
That “konnichiwa” meant “hello.”
That “domo arigato gozaimasu” is the formal way of saying “thank you.” But one of the Japanese girlfriends taught me that it often gets shortened to just plain “domo” in everyday conversation.
And, finally, I knew that “sukoshi” means “a little” (it’s the root of the American word “skosh” as in “I’d like a skosh more.”)
That’s it. My Japanese vocabulary consisted of four words.
(Truth be told, I knew a smattering of other words in Japanese. For example, I knew that besuboru meant baseball. I knew that hakujin meant white guy. That nihonjin meant Japanese person. That mizu meant water. And that gaijin meant foreigner.)
In those days, our ad agency had a very prominent Japanese client. He was a very cool guy who had been born in Japan, but had grown up in America. He ran the American branch of his family’s multibillion dollar multinational conglomerate. I was in the lobby one day bullshitting with our receptionist when he finished a meeting in our conference room. He passed through the lobby and as he opened the door to leave he paused, turned to me and said, “You guys are doing great work for us.”
“Domo,” I responded.
He was shocked. Absolutely shocked. His eyes widened in surprise and his mouth dropped open. “How do you know to say, ‘Domo?’ he asked. “Do you speak Japanese?”
“Skoshi,” I replied.
He was very impressed and mistakenly assumed I knew far more than I was admitting to.
If I’m being absolutely honest, the secret to success in advertising is the opposite of the secret to success in any other business. Other businesses require someone to have a deep understanding of a specific subject, but in advertising the secret to success is knowing just enough about any particular subject to fake it. You need to learn a little bit about a lot of subjects, but you don’t need to become an expert in any of them. Your knowledge level about any client’s product is like Mark Twain’s description of the Mississippi River: It’s a mile wide and an inch deep. If you’re handling a dozen different clients in a dozen different industries, it’s impossible to become deeply knowledgeable about all of them. You might be writing an ad about hamburgers one day, guitars the next day, and semiconductors the day after that. You learn just enough to get by.
And that brings us to yesterday’s Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Sydney. The service was incredible. The Japan Airlines flight attendants were truly unbelievable. They wanted nothing more than to take care of us and to do everything within their powers to please us. They made it one of the best flights we’ve ever taken. They doted on us. They bowed constantly. One of the flight attendants came to us just before we landed. She stood beside us, gave us a polite bow, and told us how much she had enjoyed serving us.
“Domo,” I responded.
Her reaction was identical to the reaction of my Japanese client thirty years earlier.
She was shocked. Absolutely shocked. Her eyes widened in surprise and her mouth dropped open. “How do you know to say, ‘Domo?’ she asked. “Do you speak Japanese?”
“Skoshi,” I replied.
“Yes, you speak Japanese,” she said enthusiastically. “You speak Japanese.” She could not have been more pleased.
So consider this an expert travel tip. Fake it. Learn a few basic words in a foreign language and you can convince a native speaker that you are fluent in their language. Or at least to convince them that you put in enough effort to learn the basics. And that will make them very, very happy.
And as a special bonus, you will be well on your way to success as an advertising copywriter.