Thursday, July 20, 2023

"Years ago... I was Chinese" | Translation Analysis

In the past we have analyzed a number of memorable English translations from Shenmue that have tickled the funny bones of fans everywhere, including the classic "Let's Get Sweaty" and of course "Especially since you bought merchandise" which requires a mini lesson in Japanese grammar to unravel!

Today, we're diving into another humorous phrase that has a worthy place in this collection. It occurs near the start of the game, with the owner of the Mary's Patches & Embroidery store on Dobuita Street, the elderly Itoi-san.

Itoi-san's quirky wording here in the English version earns this phrase a place in our "Say What?" series of posts: "Years ago... I was Chinese."

Let's dig into it!


After learning from his friend Tom at the hot dog truck that his father's killer appears to be Chinese,  and subsequently about the existence of the "Three Blades" businesses, Ryo wastes no time in heading along to Mary's Patches & Embroidery to interrogate Itoi-san about this.

As usual, Itoi-san is found hunched over his counter during the day, ready for a spot of conversation.

Ryo approaches Mary's Patches & Embroidery, determined to extract a hint as to his next move by engaging with as many local shopkeepers as it takes

After Ryo awkwardly catches his attention, he proceeds to get straight to the point with his trusty ice-breaking opener.
Ryo: Um...
Itoi: Yes.
Ryo: Itoi-san... Do you know about the Three Blades?
Itoi: Who told you about that, son?
Ryo: I heard it from Tao-san.
Itoi: I see, I see.
Ryo: That's why I'm looking for Chinese people that are members of the Three Blades.
Itoi: In that case... I suppose you could ask Liu-san.
Ryo: Liu-san?
Itoi: That's right. Over at the barber's...
Ryo: I see. But, Itoi-san... how do you know about the Three Blades?
It is then that Itoi-san unveils his secret past:
Itoi: Years ago... I was Chinese.

Well, that certainly wasn't what Ryo had been expecting!

Ryo digests Itoi-san's information

What exactly does Itoi-san mean?

Itoi-san's Revelation

The first line of enquiry that springs to mind is to see how closely the original Japanese line matches this translation:

Itoi: 昔、中国人だったからだよ (Mukashi, chūgoku-jin dattakara da yo)
It's because, long ago, I was (a) Chinese.

As can be seen, the literal meaning matches closely with the line used in the game. But still, something feels a little "off".

Let's look into why this is the case.

Firstly, it should be noted that Itoi-san continues on to provide some clarification, which provides enough of an explanation for the player to connect the dots:

Itoi: Now, I'm a naturalized Japanese. In China, my name was Su Jian Ren.

The player realizes that he was talking about having been born in China, and later on receiving Japanese citizenship under a different name. However, with a tweak of the translation, potential misunderstanding could have been avoided.

Although not stated explicitly, it appears that Itoi prefers to keep his personal history to himself, as he chose to reveal his Chinese background only after Ryo enquired further. Perhaps he has encountered discrimination in the past, although his reasons are not touched on in the game. Certainly in his conversation with Ryo, he only opens up about his background when Ryo questions him on how he knows about the Three Blades.

Ethnicity vs Nationality

Returning to the translated line once more, the cause of the issue likely stems from ambiguity around the use of the word "Chinese" in the translated line. 

The term for "Chinese" in the Japanese language (chūgoku-jin 中国人) is generally taken as referring to someone's nationality - so here specifically, a person's legal status as a citizen of China - rather than their ethnicity. In English, on the other hand, if someone were to say they are Chinese, it is often assumed that they are referring to their ethnicity i.e. that they were born in China.

Since one's ethnicity is generally an unchanging attribute, Itoi's phrasing in the past tense sounds peculiar. In English, if you announce, 'I was Chinese,' people might wonder if you have a time-traveling past as a citizen of ancient China!

The translation could have been improved to remove this ambiguity by differentiating between ethnicity and nationality:

Ryo: でも、糸井さん…どうして三刀を…
But, Itoi-san... how do you know about the Three Blades?
Itoi: 昔、中国人だったからだよ。日本に帰化したんだ。
Because I'm originally from China. Now I'm a naturalized citizen of Japan.

Japanese Citizenship

Something that mainly only Japanese players of Shenmue would be aware of, is that Japanese nationality law does not allow dual citizenship for people above the age of 22, apart from under special circumstances. In general, acquiring Japanese citizenship typically requires renouncing one's existing citizenship.

Hence, when Itoi speaks of having become a Japanese citizen, there is an implication that he would have had to give up his Chinese citizenship in order to do so - something else that gets lost with the translation "I was Chinese".

Itoi-san's Profile

Itoi-san's official character profile gives some further information about his background, including his age:
"This elderly man owns Mary's Patches and Embroidery Shop, the sole maker of embroidered patches in Dobuita. Itoi-san has the spirit of a true workman and is proud of his profession. Previously, until his son moved to Kyushu on business, he lived with his eldest son; now he lives alone. He turned 73 years old this year. Now a naturalized Japanese, he is originally from China where his name was Su Jian Ren."
Itoi's profile (from the Suka Pass app)

As a side note, the new surname Itoi-san took on becoming a Japanese citizen (Itoi, 糸井) consists of two written characters, the first of which means "thread / yarn" (and the second, less relevantly, "a well"). It is a nice touch that he chose a surname that contains a nod to his choice of profession.

Regarding Chinese populations around Yokosuka in general, the large city of Yokohama to the north has historically been a city with a significant international presence, including a notable Chinese community. Chinese immigrants and residents have been living in Yokohama for many years, and their presence has contributed to the city's cultural diversity. Yokohama's Chinatown is one of the largest in Japan.

Final Comment

The line "I was Chinese" is another line that serves as a source of amusement when quoted by itself, but it makes a lot more sense after learning about Itoi-san's background. In the end, though, it's these occasional quirky gaming moments that make Ryo's adventure all the more memorable and enjoyable for players of the English version!

Translation Analysis of Other Quirky Shenmue Lines

If you enjoyed this post, here are some more from previous translation analysis posts:

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  1. Lol one of the most classic Shenmue lines.

    Btw, what Wordpress theme do you use? (Assuming you use Wordpress.) Think my blog needs a makeover...

    1. Definitely one of the greats.

      This blog actually runs on Blogger. Hope you're able to find a new theme you like for Wordpress!

  2. Great post as usual, Switch. Thank you for making these. This was certainly a memorable line, and your explanation and the provided context do make a lot of sense. Please take care!

    1. Thanks for your comment, and best wishes on this Shenmue Day!