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