I must confess, I never paid a great deal of attention to the warning messages and disclaimers that adorned packaging in Japan until 1972, when tobacco companies first got around to printing health warnings on packs of cigarettes. This was six years after the practice was adopted in the U.S., and the warning was so feeble as to be laughable. It read, 「健康のため吸いすぎに注意しましょう」 (“Kenkō no tame, suisugi ni chūi shimashō,” “For the good of your health, be careful not to smoke too much”).

Japan, it seemed, was always playing catch-up, but from 2005 it began to give its warnings real bite, such as 「喫煙は、あなたにとって肺がんの原因の一つとなります。疫学的な推計によると、喫煙者は肺がんにより死亡する危険性が非喫煙者に比べて約2倍から4倍高くなります」 (“Kitsuen wa, anata ni totte haigan no genin no hitotsu to narimasu. Ekigakuteki-na suikei ni yoru to, kitsuensha wa haigan ni yori shibō suru kikensei ga hi-kitsuensha ni kurabete yaku nibai kara yonbai takaku narimasu,” “Smoking can be one cause of lung cancer. According to epidemiological estimates, the danger of lung cancer for smokers compared with non-smokers is two to four times higher”).

For better or worse, our modern existence has become chock-full of such cautionary messages.

If you purchase stamps or other services at a Tokyo post office, the bottom of your receipt might carry a triangle with an exclamation point in its center, signifying either 警告 (keikoku, warning) or 注意 (chui, caution). Beneath that message may appear another: 「レターパックなどで現金送れはすべて詐欺です」 (“Retā pakku nado de genkin okure wa subete sagi desu,” “Any instructions to send cash via letter packs, etc., are a fraud”).

It seems that in reaction to banks cracking down on scams where perpetrators request money over the phone — targeted mostly against elderly people — some tricky swindlers have switched from bank transfers to moving cash via the postal system.

In the eyes of some discriminating consumers, adorning a box with a lip-smacking Michelin four-star-restaurant-quality photo of a tasty bowl of noodles (or whatever else) may also be construed as fraud — unless customers are informed in the fine print that this is just a 調理例 (chōri-rei, example of preparation). Recently more companies have been replacing that term with イメージ写真です (Imēji shashin desu, [This is] a representational photograph).

The Feb. 26 issue of 女性セブン (Josei Sebun, Women’s Seven) magazine reported that since the passing of the 製造物責任法 (seizō-butsu sekinin-hō, product liability law) in 1995, Japan has been awash in overcautious 注意書き (chūi-gaki, warnings) on products and their packaging, in owner’s manuals and so on. Some manufacturers have become hypersensitive to assaults from troublemaking クレーマー (kurēmā, literally “claimers,” i.e., chronic complainers).

To poke fun at this topic, the magazine ran a two-page article titled 「注意しすぎな注意書き」 (“Chūi shisugi na chūigaki,” “Warning messages that over-warn”).

Many of these messages state the obvious, such as some packages of cup noodles that bear the following warning: 「お湯を入れると熱くなります」 (“Oyu wo ireru to atsuku narimasu,” “Becomes hot when boiling water is added”).

On a package containing surgical masks, the message reads 「耳かけを引っ張りすぎると、ゆるくなることがあります」 (“Mimikake wo hippari sugiru to, yuruku naru koto ga arimasu,” “Pulling at the ear loops too much will result in them becoming slack”).

Then there’s the weird message on a tube of toothpaste that read, 「ハミガキが飛び散って目に入らないように気をつける」(”Hamigaki ga tobichitte me ni hairanai yō ni ki wo tsukeru,” “Take care so that toothpaste doesn’t spurt and go in the eyes”). Well, I suppose, if you’re unlucky enough, anything is possible — even an eyeful of toothpaste.

A housewife who purchased an ice cream for her 5-year-old told a Josei Sebun reporter she noticed its container carried the warning 「長時間持つと手が冷たくなります」 (“Chōjikan motsu to te ga tsumetaku narimasu,” “Holding it for a long time will cause the hand to feel cold”).

Pointing out the absurdity of such a warning, the housewife remarked, 「長時間持っていたらそもそも溶けちゃいますよね」 (“Chōjikan motteitara somosomo tokechaimasu yo ne,” “In the first place, it’ll melt if you hold it for a long time”).

If I were asked to guess what was the single most common warning, it would have to be 高温を避け、直射日光の当たらない湿気の少ない所に保管してください (Kōon wo sake, chokusha nikkō no ataranai shikke no sukunai tokoro ni hokan shite kudasai, Please avoid high temperatures and store in a place away from direct sunlight and with low humidity). This applies to practically any product one can think of — except maybe 太陽電池パネル (Taiyō denchi paneru, Solar battery panels).

Just as in the health warnings on cigarette packs, it’s always interesting to compare the approach of different countries to the contents of warnings and disclaimers. I have long suspected hardly anybody ever bothers to read them. Do you?

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