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While riding a train, I read a public service announcement that said:

たばこを持つ手は、子供の顔の高さだった。

Underneath, the English translation said:

A lit cigarette is carried at the height of a child's face. 

The Japanese is in the past tense while the English is in the present tense. As a native English speaker, I cannot easily see why the Japanese was written in the past tense.

In what situations is Japanese written in the past tense when it would seem more natural to be in the present tense for English speakers like me?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, what sounds natural in English is of no relevance to what sounds natural in Japanese as the two languages are completely unrelated.

This "advertisement" is a creation of Japan Tabacco Inc., which is a private company; therefore, it is not a public announcement (at least by the Japanese standards). Since it is advertisement, it can have more freedom in its style of expression than real public announcements by a local or the national government, which would often tend to sound stiff.

Trust me, using the past tense is NOT a common practice in catch copies in Japan, either.

By saying 「たばこを持つ手は、子供の顔の高さだった。」, it makes us Japanese-speakers feel like we are readng prose --- a line from a novel or something. It kind of sticks in my mind, which is a good sign of success with mottos, catch copies, etc.

On its website http://www.jti.co.jp/tobacco-world/torikumi/manners/index.html , Japan Tabacco Inc. states, regarding this phrase (at bottom left of page) :

「○○はやめましょう」という広告ではなく、たばこを吸われる方が身近に感じられる、日々よくあるシーンをピックアップし、たばこを吸われる方自身がマナーのことに気づき、考えられる広告としました。

My freehand TL: "Instead of an ad like 'Let's stop ~~~!', we made an ad by selecting an ordinary scene that smokers would feel an intimate connection with and that would have them reflect on their manners and really "think"."

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I think where you say "what sounds natural in English is of no relevance..." is a defense against something the asker was not proposing. By stating they are an English speaker, the asker is not expecting Japanese to be like English in any way, only that they hope an answer can decode the Japanese thinking in a way that can be sensibly communicated to an English speaker. I believe the asker emphasized this precisely because they understood the Japanese thought process would be different enough that they would not be able to make any assumptions drawn from their experience of English. –  Dave M G Jan 3 at 7:38

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