Michaelsoft Binbows

By Shamus Posted Sunday May 23, 2021

Filed under: Random 38 comments

I apologize for the lack of content this past week. I really thought I was going to get home from the hospital and get right back to work. But it turns out I’m mortal like everyone else and I needed a few days of extra rest. I’m currently working on a video to promote my book and also suicidally dump on Mass Effect 2. I don’t imagine the YouTube audience will be receptive to that message, but after twelve years and 190,000 words, I think I’ve proven I’m more stubborn than the fandom.

But over the last week of trying to stay awake long enough to write a complete sentence, I found a YouTube video that warmed my heart. It’s the story of Michaelsoft Binbows.


Link (YouTube)

I really suggest you just watch the video. Author Nick Robinson is a great storyteller and the video is worth the time. But if you’re one of those people that’s just here for the text and won’t click on videos, then here is my shorter, less-charming version…

For years, this image has been making the rounds on the internet:

This frequently gets reposted to r/CrappyOffBrands, and also gets passed around among fans of engrish-based humor. The usual assumption is that this is some horrendous “Chinese Windows” style bootleg / knockoff.

Except… Robinson didn’t think that was the real story. For one, the text around the sign (which is actually Japanese) is talking about PC parts and service. This isn’t an advertisement for a knockoff operating system, but a PC repair shop. The name isn’t mangled English, it’s a very deliberate (and clever) pun.

Fist, let’s tackle the “Michaelsoft” bit: The joke in the Anglosphere is that “Most Chinese guys are named Chin”. In Weird Al’s video Fat, he claims that “I’ve got more chins / than Chinatown”. There’s a similar Joke among Japanese people that most Americans are named Mike. So “Michaelsoft” is just a joke about those crazy Americans.

Furthermore “Binbows” is a portmanteau. It joins the Japanese “binbo” meaning ‘poor or cheap’ with the English ‘windows’. Imagine if someone in the USA had a gaming store that promised to fix your gaming console for $10, and it had a logo that looked like “Nintendo”, except it said “Nintenbucks Repair”. The owner isn’t trying to make a knockoff Nintendo, and they’re not cluelessly mangling foreign words. They’re obviously making a joke on purpose.

So now we get the sign. Or at least, we get it as well as a gaijin can. But now Robinson found himself wondering… was this place real? Did it ever exist? Does it still exist? Could you go there today?

This is somewhat more difficult. The original image has been floating around for ages, reposted to various meme sites while being resized, cropped, watermarked, compressed, and converted between different formats. There’s no way you could follow this trail back to the “original”. You can see a pile of CRT monitors in the window of Michaelsoft Binbows, so it’s obvious this image is old. But how old? Without further clues this image could originate from anywhere between 1992 and 2005.

Robinson did some date-targeted searches for the phrase “Michaelsoft Binbows” and finally zeroed in on a Japanese site called Alf’s Room and a post from 2002 as the first known mention of the phrase.

I’m not going to attempt to explain the magic of Alf’s Room here. Watch the video if you need to know. The important thing is that it’s a very old, very large, and very idiosyncratic site by a single Japanese man. And on that site, Robinson found this:

A second, previously unseen angle on Michaelsoft Binbows! It’s kind of funny that there are only two photographs of this place. One is an ancient global meme and the other is so obscure that it never even showed up in any of the Google Image Searches that Robinson did.

In any case, this shows that Michaelsoft Binbows is probably a real place and not an old Photoshop job. According to Alf’s Room, this picture was taken in the Koaigimachi district of Maebashi Japan, and the shop closed in 2002.

Mystery solved, right?

No. Robinson still wanted to see the building for himself. This sounds impossible. The Koaigimachi district is not a small place. The shop vanished 20 years ago. How on Earth could anyone hope to find the place? We only know what two sides of the building look like. We don’t have a street address. We don’t have any landmarks. Both pictures are taken from ground level and pointed up, which means we don’t even have any clues regarding the particular street or neighboring buildings. The most distinctive marking of the building is the sign, and it’s a safe bet that’s been gone for decades. For all we know, the building could have been radically changed in the intervening years. Heck, it might have been torn down. This search is hopeless.

But Robinson was undaunted. He stuck his head inside his VR headset and fired up Google Earth VR, perhaps hoping the VR version would be more helpful than the typical web-based interface.

This is such a ridiculously hopeless task. Just wander around a massive area, randomly looking for the one recognizable face of a building that may or may not be long gone. It’s absurd to even try.

Even more absurd: Robinson pulled it off. He found the building, which is unmistakably the site of the long-gone Michaelsoft Binbows shop.

The video explains many details to demonstrate this is the correct place. The brickwork, window pattern, front awning, window proportions, building proportions, and (lack of) background buildings all indicate this is the right place.
The video explains many details to demonstrate this is the correct place. The brickwork, window pattern, front awning, window proportions, building proportions, and (lack of) background buildings all indicate this is the right place.

You can even jump into street view and look around for yourself if you like.

So that’s fun, even if the building looks a little depressing these days. It’s nice to know the story behind this dusty old meme.

 

Footnotes:

[1] In Weird Al’s video Fat, he claims that “I’ve got more chins / than Chinatown”.



From The Archives:
 

38 thoughts on “Michaelsoft Binbows

  1. baud says:

    Funny, I don’t think I had ever seen that picture before. But that kind of ‘detective’ work is fun

    1. Lino says:

      Same. Although this does look like a very meme-able image. But just like all memes, sometimes the story behind the picture is just as interesting (or even more so) as what the Internet ends up doing with it.

    2. Retsam says:

      My favorite example of this sort of detective work (though with very dubious motivations) was when Shia LaBeouf setup a livestream of an political flag and 4chan kept taking it.

      After a few “rounds”, LaBeouf eventually set it up in the middle of nowhere, with the livestream just showing the flag and the sky, and 4chan used air traffic, constellations, and (once they had narrowed the location down a little) someone driving around honking their horn to track it down and take it again.

      Again, not endorsing 4chan or the politics behind it, but I really have to respect the cleverness of tracking down a flag based on basically nothing except a livestream of the sky…

      1. Mikko Lukkarinen says:

        My favorite example, although maybe not as impressive, was when Tom Scott and Matt Gray filmed a total solar eclipse somewhere in the US, took a GPS reading, and asked their viewers to guess their coordinates.

        Some of the closest guesses included stuff like:
        – identifying insects on the video for a very rough area to start searching
        – timing the eclipse
        – figuring out the angle of the sun
        – measuring shadow lengths
        – “Using temperature, landscape and the star left of the sun in the totality picture, I figured you were near Perryville…”
        etc.

        And the closest guess was only 2.75 meters away.

      2. Chris P says:

        The four Internet Historian videos in this playlist sum it all up in hilarious fashion:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p4h3jwJob0&list=PLHTeAiqTTlUgv17EkpWRX9vHIelEvOJVm

  2. Crokus Younghand says:

    For any one who has used Google Earth VR, do they keep previous versions of a place’s records (like a geographic Wayback Machine)?

    Being able to travel across time like this would be really amazing, and a great resource for future sleuths.

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      Don’t know about VR, but Google Street View does keep archival photos. It’s a little obscure, when you’re in Street View you look in the little upper left box, at the bottom there’s a clock symbol with with text that says “Street View”, click it and it’ll let you change the date.

      Dates will naturally be dependent on how often Google runs their photo capture vans through the area. In my neighborhood, we’ve got photos for 2011 and 2019. In comparison, in the center of my metropolitan area, there’s a total of 9 runs between 2011 and 2019.

  3. Abnaxis says:

    OMG I remember that meme from high school. That is *wild* he was able to find that building

  4. Paul Spooner says:

    The thing that makes me sad about this story is that the space is still vacant. Why put the shop out of business if they could have just stayed rent-free? I suppose there are still utility costs and the like, but it’s still a shame.

    1. evilmrhenry says:

      Just because the space is vacant now (well, when Google Earth rolled their van through) doesn’t mean it was vacant for the last 20 years.

    2. Joe says:

      Around my way, you can apparently get some kind of government handout if your commercial property is empty. So the owners jack the rent up to unsustainable prices, especially since everything is cheaper online. There are many vacant properties. More shops and offices vanish every year.

      I know there are many woes in the world, but this is one I see every week. It’s one that I’d fix if I could. Reduce the payout so owners got more money by renting out their properties at affordable prices.

      1. Richard says:

        Around here it’s the exact opposite.

        If your rental property is empty, you get three to six months of zero local property taxes (depending on the building’s commercial purpose), and then the landlord has to pay the normal, commercial rate of property taxes.
        (There’s a few methods to get further extensions, but not beyond a year or so)

        The reasoning is indeed that the landlord should be getting a tenant in, so it’s going to cost them if they don’t.

        Some landlords ‘get around’ this by demolishing the building.

  5. Mr. Wolf says:

    I’ll level with you: whenever somebody links a half-hour video and tells me to watch it, I roll my eyes and go do something – anything – else. Good thing I’m actively procrastinating right now, or I’d’ve missed out on one fantastic, albeit pointless, video.

    That moment he found the place… wow. I’m still not convinced VR is a great thing, but I’ll admit the natural reactions – the body language – that VR recordings capture provide a better insight into somebody’s emotional state that standard inputs or even audio can.

  6. Dreadjaws says:

    I really suggest you just watch the video. Author Nick Robinson is a great storyteller and the video is worth the time. But if you’re one of those people that’s just here for the text and won’t click on videos, then here is my shorter, less-charming version…

    I’m with Mr. Wolf here. It’s not like I won’t click on videos, the problem comes when the video is over half an hour long. I have this weird problem where I’ll binge-watch six 15 minute videos of the same channel in a row, but watching only one of half an hour is something I find really hard to do. It’s weird, I know.

    I’ll watch the video because I am a bit curious about a few things that this article doesn’t mention, but usually I’m just content with your written summary.

    Also, don’t feel bad about having to take a week to rest. I’ve had to do the same lately and I’m not even sick. Just really, really tired,

    1. Echo Tango says:

      YouTube has fast-forward playback – you could cut the time in half! :P

  7. Broc27 says:

    « But if you’re one of those people that’s just here for the text and won’t click on videos »

    Oh, you know me so well. I’m not watching a 34 minutes video on « Michealsoft Bimbos » thank you. Thanks for the 4 minutes read, feels like time better invested :-)

    P.S. I hope you feel better, you got us worried last week.

    1. Michael says:

      > « Michealsoft Bimbos »

      There’s an interesting thing going on here. The Japanese word is obviously “bimbo”, not “binbo”, because the second of those is impossible.

      The older systems of Romanization reflected this, and you can see that today in the English spelling of words like “tempura”. By modern standards, that would be “tenpura”.

      But why? Well, that’s because the Japanese writing system uses just the one symbol for any syllable-final nasal consonant, whether the sound be [n] (as in “con”), [m] (as in “com”) or [?] (as in “Kong”). Those are all the same sound, if you’re Japanese, so they’re all written the same way.

      At some point somebody decided that the English spelling of the word should match the Japanese spelling, and we threw out all the Ms from Japanese words, even though the difference between syllable-final N and syllable-final M is significant in English.

      1. Michael says:

        I used the symbol for a velar nasal in my comment above, but it looks like that’s not allowed. So if you want to see it, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_velar_nasal .

        1. Shamus says:

          Test:

          HTML: ŋ
          Direct paste: ?

          Interesting: If you type “ŋ” then it’ll work. But the comment box turns all extended characters into ????’s. I always assumed this was a problem with WordPress database, but I wonder if it’s actually the HTML input form.

          Hmmm.

          1. Michael says:

            Potentially neither? I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but there’s certainly a real difference between your server sending me the 6 bytes 26 23 33 33 31 3B (pure ascii, HTML escape sequence) or sending me the two bytes C5 8B (not valid ascii, not an escape sequence, UTF-8 encoding of unicode point U+014B). It sounds like the first of those pathways works and the second doesn’t?

          2. Retsam says:

            Yeah, I just looked at the HTTP payload of a comment with a unicode character, and the client is sending the payload with “?” in it, not the actual unicode character. So it’s almost definitely the client-side form submission that’s the problem, not the backend data.

      2. Retsam says:

        Yeah, this is a difference between [traditional Hepburn Romanization and modern Hepburn](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hepburn_romanization#Syllabic_n).

        The wiki doesn’t give a reason for the change, my guess is that it just wasn’t considered necessary; it makes the system a bit more complicated (obscuring the underlying Japanese syllabary a bit) and doesn’t meaningfully improve pronunciation as people will naturally pronounce “np” with more of an “mp” sound, anyway.

        (By contrast, the other major system, Nihon-shiki/Kunrei-shiki, which is more commonly used by the Japanese, doesn’t try to match English phonology at all, so it’s always rendered ん as “n”)

        1. Michael says:

          my guess is that it just wasn’t considered necessary; it makes the system a bit more complicated (obscuring the underlying Japanese syllabary a bit) and doesn’t meaningfully improve pronunciation as people will naturally pronounce “np” with more of an “mp” sound, anyway

          Interesting theory, but it definitely didn’t work out. Now you have thousands of people who are convinced that “senpai” is some subtle, difficult-to-prounounce Japanese word, when in fact it’s just sempai.

          It’s not so easy to just assume that an M has been written as an N for no reason.

          1. Michael says:

            To expand on this, just look at the comment below, where RamblePak64 assumes that, because “binbo” is written with an N, it must be pronounced with an N too.

          2. Retsam says:

            I don’t think I understand your starting premise. You’re saying stuff like “‘binbo’ isn’t a Japanese word, but ‘bimbo’ is”, but, if we’re being pedantic (and apparently, we are), then neither is a Japanese word, and only “びんぼ” is.

            “binbo” and “bimbo” are just two possible English renderings of the Japanese word. The word isn’t “obviously” bimbo, that’s just one way to render it in English characters. You seem to prefer bimbo because English speakers are more likely to pronounce that spelling closer to the way a native Japanese speaker would pronounce びんぼ. That may be true, but I’m not sure “binbo” is a problem because:

            1) Most English speakers are naturally going to give that n more of an m sound, anyway, because of the mouth movements involved. (Thats why it’s pronounced ‘m’ in Japanese in the first place, it’s not some arbitrary rule someone came up with)

            2) Even if someone does say “binbo” with a definite n sound, no native Japanese speaker is going to be confused by this because the distinction between “binbo” and “bimbo” doesn’t exist in their phonology.

            3) Someone learning Japanese is going to pretty quickly pick up on the correct pronunciation anyway. A combination of #1 and being exposed to native speakers will pretty quickly cause most learners to pick up a more correct pronunciation (and even if they don’t… #2 says it isn’t a real problem).

            And telling people they should ignore the rules of the most commonly used (by Westeners) romanization system because you don’t agree with it just seems… kinda unhelpful. (And, incidentally, the other system, the one used by the Japanese themselves also renders ん as “n”, so that’s no help either)

      3. RamblePak64 says:

        I’m not certain if I’m getting an accurate read of what you’re saying here. I can write “binbo” in hiragana as ???. In katakana, it should be ???. I haven’t gotten far enough in my learning to confirm that ? is the katakana for the “n” sound, but they certainly have an “n” sound because that’s what ? is. It’s how you get a word like “genki”, where pronunciation is “ge-n-ki”.

        Okay, rereading what you’re writing, you’re assuming it’s “bimbo” because they don’t have a solid “m” sound, so if they were trying to pronounce the word “bimbo” they might pronounce it as “binbo”. I think that’s less likely, and you’d more likely hear them say “bi-mu-bo” than “bi-n-bo”.

        Regardless, in this instance, I trust the original reading that it’s a pun on the Japanese word “binbo” (which is probably spelled with kanji anyway). And if I misunderstood your comment, then apologies.

        EDIT: Son of a gun all the Japanese characters I typed are question marks, which makes a good chunk of this comment awfully pointless.

        1. Michael says:

          I don’t think you understand; I’m not really following your comment.

          In Japanese, there is a concept of a syllable-final nasal consonant. It is always written the same way. It is not always pronounced the same way; it is pronounced “n” by default, “m” before m/b/p, and “ng” before g/k.

          That difference has no significance in Japanese, but it does have significance in English. “Binbo” is not a possible Japanese word – only “bimbo” is possible. Or to be more detailed, “bimbo” is the only possible pronunciation, and “bi?bo” is the only possible spelling, where ? represents “whatever nasal consonant fits into the context.” Spelling and pronunciation are different concepts!

          > Okay, rereading what you’re writing, you’re assuming it’s “bimbo” because they don’t have a solid “m” sound, so if they were trying to pronounce the word “bimbo” they might pronounce it as “binbo”. I think that’s less likely, and you’d more likely hear them say “bi-mu-bo” than “bi-n-bo”.

          This is the exact opposite of what I’m saying. A Japanese person attempting to pronounce “bimbo” would encounter no difficulties with the M, because that is already the pronunciation mandated by the rules of Japanese. They would produce bi-m-bo. They would definitely not produce bi-n-bo, because bi-n-bo is not legal Japanese.

          1. RamblePak64 says:

            So I’m going to have to confess to being wrong here. I did some consultation on a Japanese learning Discord I’m in, while simultaneously consulting with Tofugu, and see that the problem relies in the romaji used for a bunch of the different words. When I asked a Japanese acquaintance about “binbo” being a word, they did not hesitate to confirm it in kanji, hiragana, and its definition in Japanese. But when I asked for it, they did clarify its pronunciation with “m”, not “n”.

            I had not yet read that far in the pronunciation guide, so it was actually I operating off of misinformation. However, because I’m a prideful monster, I will also note that your initial comment made it sound to me as if you were saying the suggestion of the word as a pun, where “binbo” or “bimbo” were to mean “poverty” and insinuate cheap, low-cost products, was also not the correct reading. In other words, when I read it, it sounded to me like you were saying the suggestion that the name was a pun was impossible because “that word couldn’t exist”. Which, it does, just with a big fat asterisk in regards to why it’s an “n” there.

            Regardless, I admit defeat, but in defeat I gain experience points and level up anyway.

        2. BlueHorus says:

          EDIT: Son of a gun all the Japanese characters I typed are question marks, which makes a good chunk of this comment awfully pointless.

          Yeah, I have to say that in some ways your post makes me feel very ??? .

  8. dr134 says:

    “Most Chinese guys are named Chin” – This made me remember my college days fondly.

    One of my good friends in our college friend group was a Chinese guy named Peter (he went by Pete). After we got to know him for a while, he told us that his parents immigrated to the US when he was a small child and didn’t know English at the time. When they immigrated, they gave up their Chinese names to assume American sounding names. Unfortunately, they only knew a couple. As in 2. Pete’s father, younger brother, and himself all took the name Peter, and his mother became Mary.

    Over time they informally became known as Peter (father), Pete (my friend), and RePete (younger brother).

    I know this might sound like a joke, but it is 100% true. Thanks for letting me relive some funny memories.

  9. Tamsin says:

    I’ve been following and enjoying your site since your very first Escapist post, and even I disagree with nearly every opinion you have on Mass Effect (plus I think 1 is the weakest, 2 is where it becomes great and 3 is a masterpiece), so I can only imagine how that video is going to go, but hopefully people can be open to opinions that don’t completely align with theirs (although it is Youtube, so…) When inevitable hatred comes your way, though, I hope you remember there are huge ME2/3 fans like me who really respect your opinion and analysis and love all the stuff you do. In the end no game is worth hating another person over and we all love parts of Mass Effect so I hope it just leads to good conversation. Good luck, Shamus!

    1. BlueHorus says:

      My god, what are you doing on the internet?! Don’t you know that it’s powerered by pointless bickering?
      Quick, disagree with someone before the servers shut down and the website crashes!
      ;)

      1. Tamsin says:

        Oh god, oh god, uh – s-something about your mother!

        1. BlueHorus says:

          That’s more like it! Now, compare someone to Hitler and you’ll be all set!
          :-D

  10. RamblePak64 says:

    It’s funny you referred to Nick as being a good story-teller. My inner editor was thinking about how unnecessarily long the video was due to the emphasis on autobiographical detail. In some ways I get the point of it, to emphasize the limited odds of finding the shop, but there was still a lot of unnecessary digression. Or rather, he inserted a separate video (the wonders of going to a place in VR) into a video with a far more straight-forward topic.

    That said, still appreciated a sight of Japan I’d never heard of, and the overall story is really neat and cool. Oddly, the tale of Alf’s Room feels far more intriguing than that of Michaelsoft Binbows. A good way to chill on Sunday night, I suppose.

    So “Michaelsoft” is just a joke about those crazy Americans.

    Ahh, and thanks for reminding me of those days you wrote about anime… which then led me to think of Genshiken and its own pair of “those crazy Americans”.

  11. pseudonym says:

    I’m currently working on a video to promote my book and also suicidally dump on Mass Effect 2. I don’t imagine the YouTube audience will be receptive to that message, …

    What is the title going to be? “Mass Effect 2 was NEVER a good sequel”? I always understood from your articles that you liked the game, except for the moronic main plot. The tone of the very succesfull fallout video was also: I like these games, but they are not successors to the original fallout. You offered an interesting perspective by explaining retrofuturism as well.
    I think a similar approach to ME2 could work as well. It will draw in people who love the Mass Effect trilogy, and give them something interesting to think about. I am curious how it turns out!

  12. bobbert says:

    For what it is worth, the first time I ran into the word ‘binbo’ it was part of a joke about how it rhymed with ‘bean boy’.

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