Why Is Minako Bad at Japanese?

Don't feel bad, Mina-P! We all have weak points...

Don’t feel bad, Mina-P! We all have weak points…

As odd as I’m sure it sounds, this is actually an article I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Quite simply, it combines two of my favorite activities: talking about Japanese and looking at the minutia of the world of Sailor Moon.

If you’ve got a moment, why not join along as I throw out a possible theory as to why Minako seems to occasionally struggle with the intricacies of the Japanese language.

Okay, okay, sorry I said 'bad.' How about 'not good at'?

Okay, okay, sorry I said ‘bad.’ How about ‘not good at’?

First off, some ground rules as for what I’m actually talking about with regard to Minako being “bad at Japanese,” since I’m pretty sure some of you are already aggressively typing on your keyboard with annotated proof1 of how Minako is actually an ace at Japanese, I’d like to first clarify what it is I’m talking about.

What I mean here is Minako’s curious habit in the anime of always getting Japanese idioms wrong.

Of course, this could all be easily explained away by being yet another case of the anime taking liberties to make characters funnier, but whenever possible I always think it’s better to look into in-universe explanations. And fortunately, in this case, we have one. Or make one up.

I should mention that what follows is just a theory on my part with the evidence laid out below, but I’ll let you make up your own minds.

Basically, the crux of this theory ties into the story line following Minako’s adventures as Sailor V in the anime.2 In this episode, we see Minako traveling to London to handle a Dark Kingdom threat and befriends Katarina – an INTERPOL officer – and Alan – a… guy – during her stay.

Before I continue, I’d like to go on a quick tangent here and mention that there is no such thing as a law-enforcing INTERPOL officer.3 The organization simply serves as a touch point and a method of coordination between law-enforcement officers of each member nation. INTERPOL agents don’t actually have any law-enforcement abilities of their own. But I digress.

Minako, Alan, and Katarina

Minako, Alan, and Katarina

Anyway, during Minako’s incredibly short stint in London – which was a maximum of five and a half months, not accounting for rounding4 – she had apparently learned English so well that she was able to communicate easily with Alan and Katarina. In the episode, Minako remarks that Katarina taught her some English.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent 13 years of my life learning Japanese, and it was pretty slow going for the first 5-6 years before I could easily carry on in conversation. Watching Minako carry on with Alan and Katarina, it seems incredibly unlikely that 13-14 year old girl could pick up English so easily in such a short time.

Sailor V!

Sailor V!

So, my theory goes, what if this wasn’t Minako’s first experience with English? What if Minako actually grew up abroad, or at least spent a portion of her childhood outside of Japan?

There are several reasons for thinking this, actually. One being that Minako actually claims to have already had a relationship with Alan prior to her meeting with Katarina, so I think we’re able to rule out Katarina having super-amazing English-teaching skills.

The obvious counter for this is the implausible explanation that Alan and/or Katarina speak Japanese. I mean, the episode does start with Katarina and Minako speaking in English, right?

A better interpretation of this scene, however, would be that it – and all other conversations between them – took place in English, and that we’re seeing this in Japanese for the sake of the viewer.

Why do I say that? Well, for starters, we see that the little girl Minako saves from the youma in London says thank you to Sailor V… in Japanese. I don’t think I need to point out to you how unlikely it would be for a child in 1991-1992 London to be a native Japanese speaker. Later in the episode, when Katarina is convinced that Minako was just blown to smithereens,5 she and Alan speak to each other in Japanese as Minako watches.

I’m gonna say that isn’t too likely.

Now, the problem is, we don’t really have anything in the way of proof to argue that Minako was able to speak English, which is where we go into “baseless theory” territory. But what we can do is explain how it could have happened.

We know from the Code Name: Sailor V manga that Minako’s father works for a trading company.6 We also know that trading companies send a lot of employees abroad to work in their local foreign offices. In fact, out of the top 10 companies which dispatch their employees to work from international offices, four of them are trading companies.7

Pretty much how I'd look if I had to move abroad

Pretty much how I’d look if I had to move abroad

This is no small number that we’re talking about here, either. Back in 1992, there were 425,131 Japanese employees dispatched “long-term” abroad.8 When it comes to families, 48.6% of respondents said that their whole family came with them when they were dispatched to work abroad.9

In cases where there were school-aged children involved, 24.9% went to local schools. However, when talking about western nations (e.g., North America, Europe, and Oceania), this number jumps up to 65.2% (with North America leading the pack at 93.7%).

So what does this all mean, and what does it have to do with Minako’s language ability?

Well, we could argue that it’s possible that Minako may have spent her early years abroad due to her father’s job, where she picked up English in school from a young age. This would help explain how she got along just fine in London and also where some of the finer nuances of the Japanese language, such as with popular idioms, are lost on her.

One mark against this is that Minako’s official profile notes that the subject she hates most in school is English, but that’s not entirely unheard of, actually. Anecdotally, I have many Japanese friends who either grew up abroad or were raised bilingual and hated English class in Japan because it had nothing to do with actual language ability and was purely based on rote memorization.

Obviously, there’s really no proof for this theory, but it does have some traction among Japanese fans, who often refer to Minako as being a 帰国子女 (kikokushijo; repatriated child).10 So if I’m insanely wrong, at least I’m not wrong alone.

There's a story behind this, I'm sure.

There’s a story behind this, I’m sure.

So, there you have it! One theory about how Minako could be totally proficient in English and how her lack of finesse over the finer points of Japanese is actually intentional, and not just another comedic ploy.

Just a theory, of course, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on it. Criticism and fatal flaws with it are also welcome, of course!

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  1. For what it’s worth, I prefer bibliographies in APA style. Thanks!
  2.  See episode 42 of the original anime
  3.  See What do INTERPOL agents really do?
  4. Minako states that this all happened “half a year ago,” so assuming that this is six months and accounting for time for her to get back and setup to reveal herself as Sailor V, plus time needed since her reveal, I’d say five and a half would be the absolute maximum
  5. Did you know that smithereens is a real word? Wow…
  6. This is a rather vague term, but it’s described as a 商社 (shousha); see 商社 (Jisho.org)
  7.  See this top 200 companies with workers dispatched abroad
  8.  See Annual Report of Statistics on Japanese Nationals Overseas
  9.  See this report by The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training
  10.  See Kikokushijo (Wikipedia)

10 thoughts on “Why Is Minako Bad at Japanese?

  1. Mina also had trouble in the Sailor V manga. I do like this theory, since we don’t really know much about her early past. But I thought that she also struggled with English exams just like Usagi?

    It’s also interesting in the Sailor V series how comfortable she was at airports. Maybe she had some experience flying out of the country?

    Another note is that Mina was extremely self-centered prior to learning her identity as Sailor Venus. She may have just been so wrapped up in herself that bothering to understand basic social context was lost on her, especially since she was not seen as a typical Japanese girl. Everyone else seemed to have better manners, understood how to act appropriately, etc. She may have just not cared enough to pay attention to what other people were saying, because she was only focused on herself or her own goals.

    • If I recall correctly, Minako was made to do extra English problems for homework as punishment in the Sailor V manga, and it is in her official bio that she hates English. So that makes all of this an even more confusing issue.

      With that said, though, I do have friends who speak English really well and even speak English every day for work, but they still failed English tests in school and hate it as an academic subject. It’s only anecdotal, sure, but being able to speak the language and having a strong grasp of the grammar rules, etc. can be two totally different things.

      • I agree with style of teaching foreign language – it’s pain even here. I am non-english speaker and like many of us I have been learned by style “There is vocabulary and you will memorize it with changes. Then you fill it in correct form there”. Nothing about real basics. When there is parsing sentences in our language – why it is not used for teaching foreign ones? To display diffrences? And then came things like “past perfectum” – who for the gods use it in regular conversation on shopping or with friends?! Present, past, future – that’s all. I must add it doesn’t happen only with english – by my info it’s same for german, french, spanish, … It’s about learning style and IMHO it’s shitty style. And yes, I hate it too.

        For english it’s about simplicity. Someone posts that everyone with decent level realized that primitive, less inteligent second-class english is in reality the way the native speakers talks. And it’s based on analytical roots because the british barbars who use it first was no complicated folks. Their way of describing of things was and until today still is like some beginner try to make world-class quality art. No, german or spanish is not better. “A little round apple” – has it taste?

        The real levels of communication skills are different from educational ones.
        None – words at max.
        Basic – you can make a sentence, but you need to overthink everything.
        Medium – you can talk with others, but still translate it internally.
        Advanced – you do not need to translate intrenally, you think in that language, but things like idioms are lost to you.
        Native – you think in that language and use most of idioms correctly.
        You can get the good grade event with basic communication set or horrible even when you speak like native. Depends on the dirt what the teacher prepares.
        Multilingual people can switch between languages without a ton of problems, yet their levels of communications are usually still different for each language.

        In manga Minako was in China and Greece and has no problems there. So her teachers are pedants on real-life unnecessary things, yet they did not explain things the interesting way for Minako.

  2. I don’t know for sure, but I also think idioms is some kind of curriculum requirement in Japanese schools. it pops up in other anime as well. There was just a new episode of Card Captor Sakura Clear Card Hen where Sakura takes out a text book to look up an idiom meaning.

    If that is the case, she’s just bad at it like all her other subjects haha!

    But i do like this theory. I am a native English speaker and I am not sure how well I could do on English tests for grammar and spelling…

  3. This makes sense to me. Considering there are 4 areas of language fluency (reading, writing, speaking and listening), I could see Minako, especially with her bubblely and outgoing personality, developing strong conversational skills in English, particularly if she lived abroad, but struggling with spelling and grammar, especially because English has so many irregularities in those areas. I imagine the tests for English class in Japan would have a strong emphasis on written English, rather than spoken English, and even when they do practice conversational English, being forced to follow a script, which would bore Minako. Not to mention, even some native English speakers struggle with spelling and grammar, myself included.

  4. I love all of the above meta! Just a quick thought- if Minako was the business equivalent of an “army brat” and moved around a lot as a child, she probably experienced a lot of disruptions and interruptions in her schooling. It might explain why she’s rather book dumb (as you pointed out, doing even worse than *Usagi* on tests) but possesses an amazing set of street smarts.

  5. I like this theory a lot, but I honestly think it’s just because she’s spacey, haha. Another of my favorite manga/anime/drama series is Boys Over Flowers – there, the main male character Domyouji is ALWAYS messing up idioms and confusing words for other words. It feels like it’s more a goof on the nature of her character in that same way, rather than a testament to her time in other places.

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