It’s hard to overstate what an excellent job Disney does with its marketing in Japan. In a country that produces more mainstream animation than anywhere else on the planet, Disney still manages to stand out from the domestically made competition, winning the hearts of Japanese audiences and turning them into life-long fans.
At least part of that success is thanks to the company’s willingness to adapt to local tastes, as Disney’s two Tokyo-area theme parks put a greater emphasis on shows, parades, and seasonal events than their counterparts in the U.S. On the merchandising end, there are not only high-class items created specifically for Japan, but entire retail divisions.
Still, everyone makes mistakes, and Disney made a big one when it sent out a message from its official Japanese Twitter account declaring the date of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki to be Nothing Special Day.
On August 9, Disney’s Japanese Twitter account, which has some 275,000 followers, Tweeted “Happy Nothing Special Day.” The problem with that is that August 9 was the day on which the U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. Coming three days after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, estimates of the bombing’s immediate death toll start at 39,000, and six days after seeing the devastation to human life and industry caused by the new American weapons technology, Japan announced its surrender.
Making the now-deleted tweet even more embarrassing was the fact that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the bombings.
▼ Regardless of which side of the debate over the justification of the bombing you stand on, it’s hard to think of this as “Nothing Special Day.”
So how did this startling marketing misstep come about? Through an extremely unfortunate combination of a classic Disney film and dubbing choice.
The tweet was accompanied with a picture of Alice in Wonderland’s Alice holding a cake with a candle, captioned in English with “A very merry unbirthday to you!” For those who haven’t seen the 1951 theatrical feature recently, as young Alice wanders through the strange surroundings she finds herself in, she stumbles upon the Mad Hatter and the equally dispositioned March Hare, engaged in a lively celebration. When Alice voices her assumption that it must be a birthday party, the two are quick to correct her, telling her that it’s actually an unbirthday party.
The deranged duo explain their logic in song, informing their new friend that:
“Now, statistics prove, prove that you’ve one birthday
Imagine, just one birthday every year!
Ah, but there are three hundred and sixty four unbirthdays
Precisely why we’re gathered here to cheer!”
It’s just the sort of senseless optimism that endears the characters to the audience. After all, who can’t get behind the idea of celebrating life more than just once a year?
When Alice in Wonderland was translated into Japanese, the same music was used for the scene, and the title of the song’s Japanese version is “O Tanjoubi Ja Nai Hi no Uta,” or “The Song of the Day that Isn’t Your Birthday.”
However, when dubbing animation, direct translations are often impossible, as a phrase may take a much longer or shorter time to say in one language than another. For example, “unbirthday takes just three syllables, while its Japanese equivalent, “tanjoubi ja nai hi,” requires a whopping nine. Because of this, the lyrics had to be reworked for the song’s Japanese version, and so the English “unbirthday” became “nandemo nai hi,” or “a nothing special day.”
It’s likely whoever was running Disney’s Japanese Twitter account noticed the company didn’t have any major news to announce in Japan on August 9 (which isn’t a surprise if you keep the day’s historical context in mind). Still, it’s the middle of the summer holiday season, so why not send out a fun tweet saying that today is as good a day as any to let loose and enjoy yourself?
Thus, the tweet that went out read Nandemo nai hi omedetou, or “Happy Nothing Special Day.”
But as online commenters quickly pointed out, it’s actually also one of the saddest days in Japanese history. Before the day was over, Disney had deleted the tweet, and also sent out the following message.
ディズニー公式 (@disneyjp) August 09, 2015
“With sincerest apologies,
We would like to offer our deepest apologies for any discomfort caused by the inappropriate tweet sent out by the Disney Twitter account on August 9. In the future, we will operate this account with greater care.”
In the two days since posting the apology, the account is yet to send any other tweets. Considering the respectful and delicately nuanced phrasing, and the technically flawless Japanese language used in the hundreds of tweets preceding it, it seems likely that the account is run by native Japanese employees, and not a shortsighted foreign social media coordinator. Nevertheless, this should serve as a strong reminder that while there’s nothing wrong with making escapist trips to the wonderful world of Disney, it’s important to take the time to learn about real-life history, too.