Billboard advertising the Japanese food fair at Isetan

I’ve never felt more welcome in a foreign city than where I am at the moment – Bangkok! It has to do with Thai people’s gorgeous smiles, but there is more to this city that makes me feel at home. It is Bangkok’s amazing multilingual landscape, including the pervasiveness of Japanese! Before I left Sydney, I had a vague idea of Bangkok’s linguistic diversity, and simply assumed that English would be the default foreign language of public signs as Thom Huebner’s research has shown.However, I never expected to find so many Japanese businesses, products and services that target Japanese people here. The signage of Bangkok is simply overflowing with Japanese!

It all started to make sense after I learned some interesting statistics. According to Japan Tourism Marketing Co., 886,783 Japanese tourists visited Thailand in 2010. In addition, there are more than 7,000 registered Japanese businesses and over 47,000 registered Japanese residents here (the largest Japanese population in Asia outside Japan). Japanese signs are pretty much everywhere, but they are particularly concentrated in three areas – Sukhumvit, where many Japanese expats live, Sala Daeng, one of the financial hubs with many Japanese companies’ offices, and Pathumwan where two major Japanese department stores, Isetan and Tokyu, are located.

Let me take you to some small streets off Sukhumvit Road in Phrom Phong. You are now walking past a large range of Japanese restaurants, Fuji Super, beauty salons, real estate agencies, Japanese flower shops, bakeries, cram schools, one-dollar shops, Shimako and Fuji hairdressers, second hand book stores, all predominantly catering for Japanese customers. Moving into Thaniya in Sala Daeng, you also find many Japanese restaurants, but what stands out in this financial area is the large number of hostess bars (different from Bangkok’s famous go-go bars, and similar to those you find in Japan), whose clientele are mainly Japanese business men, their clients from Japan and male tourists.

Up-market Japanese unagi restaurant in Phrom Phong

Having said that, none of these businesses have monolingual Japanese shop signs. Even though their main clientele is Japanese, their shop signs are usually multilingual in Japanese, English and Thai. Obviously English serves the purpose of creating an international image as well as attracting non-Japanese who are into Japanese products and services. By contrast, the inclusion of Thai in shop signs is a different story. Thailand has a ‘sign tax’, which is apparently quite complex even for business consultants here, but basically, you pay much less sign tax if your commercial signage includes Thai on top of other languages. As a result, many shop signs include Thai, even if the font size is relatively small. I assume that businesses such as the upmarket Japanese restaurant in the picture have a relatively small Thai clientele. At the same time, it seems the sign tax works well to maintain the presence of the Thai language in Bangkok’s increasingly multilingual landscape, against the increasing prevalence of other languages, particularly English and Japanese.

Snacks with Japanese brand names and catch phrases

It is not only in areas with many Japanese residents and tourists that you find Japanese signage and advertisements. Just like Dubai, Bangkok has seen a ‘Japan boom’ in recent years, and as such, the Japanese language is widely used to boost the image of various local businesses and products for Thai consumers and foreign residents. A good example of this is snacks. There is an amazing range of snacks and sweets with Japanese brand names and catch phrases, even though many of them are not produced by Japanese companies. These snacks can be found practically everywhere, including small local markets where Japanese customers are unlikely to shop.

In contrast to static shop signage, Japanese signs printed on packages are always on the move: they are constantly moving from factories to trucks to shops to customers’ hands to rubbish bins, powerfully integrating Japanese into Bangkok’s public space as well as hundreds of thousands of workplaces and private homes in Bangkok.

Huebner, T. (2006). Bangkok’s Linguistic Landscapes: Environmental Print, Codemixing and Language Change International Journal of Multilingualism, 3 (1), 31-51 DOI: 10.1080/14790710608668384

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Lachlan Jackson

    Great post Kimie. Your post is really timely for me. Having just finished reading Peter Backhaus (2007) Lingusitic landscapes: A comparative study of urban multilingualism in Tokyo last week, the notion of a linguistic landscape is something that I find really interesting. I enjoy reading your observations. And keep the amazing pics of Bangkok coming too!

    • Thanks, Lockie:-) I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about the analysis by Peter Backhaus. Recently I read an interesting paper by Sachiyo Fujita-Round about multilingual landscape of Shinookubo in Shinjyuku (Korean is pervasive, but other languages are also everywhere), which is part of Yukinori Watanabe’s project on Korean residents in Shinjyuku (funded by the Toyota Foundation). I only have a hard copy at the moment, but I will pass it onto you once I have an e-copy.

  • Sheila Pham

    Wow, so there’s a sign tax? That’s interesting, because in the post I just put up, I mention that in a lot of touristy parts of Thailand, you never see Thai script used anywhere, including signs. So perhaps the Thai script is not as devalued as I thought, with the Thai government putting in place measures to support its use. There’s a massive Japanese presence here in Chiang Mai as well, which has been a huge surprise. Both because of a large local Japanese population (permanent as well as students), and also because Japanese culture is popular here, like it is throughout other parts of Asia. I’ve lately been thinking that there’s a direct link to the economic crisis in Japan and the Japanese have since been moving to other livable and affordable places in Asia. I often think that there are some common cultural traits between Thai and Japanese, such as some of the politeness norms, which is not found in other Asian countries.

    • The way the use of the Thai language in business signs is policed is another interesting issue that keeps coming up in my conversation with foreign business owners in Bangkok. I heard about an increasing presence of Japanese retirees in Chiang Mai, too. NHK recently featured a Japanese man in his fifties and his family who moved to Chiang Mai so that they could provide a proper care to their elderly family members by hiring a few locals as house helpers and renting a large enough house for the family. They said they couldn’t dream of being able to do this in Japan, obviously for the financial reason. Have you heard that Chiang Mai University just hosted a Japanese speech contest in which hundreds of Thai secondary school students participated? I’d be interested in looking at the ways in which the Japanese eldercare tourism intersects with the spread of Japanese and local economy in Chiang Mai.

  • Fabian

    Dear Kimie,

    As a student who does an internship it Thailand for half a year, I’m looking for an option to further my studies in the Japanese language.

    Unfortunately, the Japan Foundation in Asok only offers language courses which cater to Thai students. Do you know any good address for Japanese-English lessons? I would also be interested in meeting Japanese native speakers in order to be taught by them.

    Yours sincerely,

  • Manish Bharti

    i love japanese people but i want to bangkok this year.