It’s often said that freedom isn’t free. In Japan, Free Tea isn’t either.

As we’ve seen before, you can’t always take Japan’s English signage and labeling at face-value. When Engrish rears its head, the results often end up as a mix of baffling and comical, but Twitter user @domoboku recently witnessed some odd use of the English language touch off a fierce argument inside a Japanese convenience store.

@domoboku, who’s Japanese himself, stepped into the store in the afternoon when a non-Japanese Asian had been openly drinking from a bottle of tea he’d grabbed from the shelf without paying for it. Engaged in a heated verbal disagreement with the store clerk, the Asian man shouted “What did I do that was wrong?”

Curious as to what room there could be for debate in what seemed like a clear-cut case of shoplifting, @domoboku took a look at the exact type of tea the man had been helping himself too, and suddenly understood what had caused the misunderstanding.

Splashed across the bottle’s label in large, English text were the words Free Tea, identifying this as a brand produced and distributed by Japanese beverage company Pokka Sapporo.


So how did the drink end up with this unorthodox name? Well, its big selling point is that it contains GABA extract. Pokka Sapporo claims that this gives the tea relaxing properties, and bills Free Tea as “The beverage encouraging that people be free from a stress-filled society,” using the Japanese word kaihou (meaning “free/liberate” and written 解放 in kanji characters) in its advertising.

Unfortunately, in English simply tossing the word “free” in front of an inanimate object generally implies not that it’s liberated, but that it’s complimentary. “It’s written right there on the label, so let me have it!” the man insisted. After an explanation that “Free Tea” was simply the brand name, he changed his stance to “Then the store should change the label!”

Of course, as @domoboku points out, the store really isn’t in a position, or even legally allowed, to go changing product labels on items its bought from a distributor. “This tea ended up causing a stressful problem for both a traveler who came all the way to Japan and an honest shopkeeper,” he mused. “How ironic that it’s supposed to be ‘The beverage encouraging that people be free from a stress-filled society.’”

Language barriers and Engrish aside, though, the slot the bottles of Free Tea occupy on the shelf is pretty clearly marked with a price of 130 yen (US$1.26), so the customer might want to pay a little more attention to his surroundings in the future. After all, convenience stores aren’t generally too keen on customers just helping themselves to a refreshing drink without paying, unless maybe said customer is the Dalai Lama.

Source: Jin, Twitter/@domoboku
Insert images: Pokka Sapporo