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Localizing for Japan: Why a Professional and Experienced Japanese Translator is a Must

Daniel Chang
Daniel Chang
Posted in Zoom Sep 5 · 8 Sep, 2022
Localizing for Japan: Why a Professional and Experienced Japanese Translator is a Must

If you want a strong market presence in Japan, you need the best Japanese translator in your localization team. Almost every global brand has a strong presence in the Japanese market. With its robust economic policies, high-tech infrastructure, and one of the world’s largest spenders, it’s not surprising to see the number of companies entering the local scene every year. 

Unfortunately, localizing for the Japanese market isn’t a walk in the park. Along with a culture so different from the West, Japan has a language like no other. 

Effective Japanese translation is a must if a company wants to succeed in one of the world’s premier economies. Although you might shrug off this requirement as something that Google Translate can handle, the only way you can ensure effective communication in the Japanese market is by hiring an experienced professional translator.

Join us in exploring why localizing for the Japanese market takes more than a fair understanding of its culture and economy. You’ll also understand why a professional and experienced Japanese translator is an absolute must.

Japanese Translator

Why Global Brands Love Japan

From the ashes of World War II, Japan stood up to regain its honor in the ever-changing world, made more competitive by global commerce. The nation and its people persevered, giving us Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Uniqlo, Nintendo, Lexus, and other iconic Japanese brands recognized and respected the world over. 

Global brands recognize the value of a Japanese presence in the world market. Ask any seasoned Japanese translator, and he might give you these reasons for companies to invest in Japan.

Large and Stable Economy

With an economy worth $5.2 trillion, Japan has the globe’s third-best economy. The Tokyo Stock Exchange lists more than 3,700 companies, accounting for a combined market cap of $6.674 trillion. It’s one of the surest signs of economic activity, allowing investors to continue pouring money into the economy.  

Easy for Foreign Direct Investments and Businesses to Enter

Did you know the Japanese government offers many things to attract foreign businesses and investors? You can get your business up and running within four days using the Japan External Trade Organization’s (JETRO) One-Stop Business Establishment Center. 

Even if you don’t course your application through this agency, you can still set up shop within 14 days. Moreover, many global brands in the Japanese market can expect an ROI within three to five years.

We asked a seasoned Japanese translator about logistical issues. The expert says Japan has five international airports and twenty seaports, all of which are efficient and well-organized. Moving materials in and out of Japan is never a problem.

Japan has free public Wi-Fi in major cities, allowing global brands to communicate and engage their customers with ease. Restaurants and local retailers have no language barriers, enabling foreign brands to do business with them. 

Regional airports are also expanding, receiving business jets worldwide. Expat children can enjoy an enriched educational environment, while foreign companies can rely on reinforced consultation services.

Foreign direct investors can leverage Japan’s simplified business regulations, improved living environments, and shortened permanent residency requirements.

Japanese Translator

Innovative People

If you’re a company thinking of new ways to do things, you can rely on the Japanese people’s innovative and creative spirit. Who knows if you might discover the next Sakichi Toyoda, Kokichi Mikimoto, Jokichi Takamine, or Kikunae Ikeda from your Japanese workforce?

Global brands love creative and innovative people because they drive the organization’s growth. And since you’ll be employing local Japanese, their knowledge of their nation’s history and culture should bring more fortunes for your business.

Premium-minded Consumers

Japanese consumers aren’t your ordinary shoppers. According to Expert Japan, local consumers in the Japanese market have exceptionally high disposable income levels. Disposable income is the amount of money people receive after the mandatory tax and fee deductions. 

What separates Japanese consumers from other nationalities is their preference for high-end, premium services and goods. They are never shy about spending more money on something they think has the highest possible quality. So, don’t go stingy on your local Japanese translator because their quality service is unquestionable.

More than eleven out of twenty (56.4%) Japanese have at least $100,000 in their savings, numbering more than 70 million of the 125.4 million 2021 Japanese population. More than four million (4,389,000) Japanese have wealth worth at least $1 million.

Hence, it’s safe to say the Japanese have the means to buy luxury goods and avail of premium services. That’s good news for global brands localizing in Japan.

Localizing for Japan: Key Language Issues

Japan makes it easy for foreign businesses to set shop in the country. Entering the Japanese market is a cinch only if you prepare for it. And one of the most significant preparations is your language content. After all, Foreign Policy says only two percent of the Japanese population speak fluent English.

It’s unwise to think that the Japanese are stubborn in wanting to learn English. A noted Japanese translator said that their people don’t like to lose their national identity. Unfortunately, mastering the Japanese language is trickier than studying Bahasa, Latin, French, or other languages. The following language issues can make localizing for Japan an uphill climb. 

More Complicated than Other Languages

Did you know that the Japanese have three character sets or alphabets? English and other languages only have one, making learning so much easier. On the other hand, most foreigners find it challenging to shuffle between “hiragana,” “katakana,” and “kanji.” 

“Hiragana” and “Katakana” are unique to the Japanese. “Katakana” deals with borrowed words or loanwords from other languages. On the other hand, “hiragana” focuses on native Japanese words. Meanwhile, “Kanji” closely resembles Chinese characters, making them easier to read for the Chinese and other people with knowledge of the Chinese language.

“Karate” is a term native to the Japanese. Hence, it always uses the “hiragana” phonetic characters. On the other hand, “kamera” is a loanword from the English “camera.” Writing this term utilizes “katakana” characters. 

Although this distinction is straightforward, there are a few exceptions. A seasoned Japanese translator will always write some animal names in “katakana,” even though they are native words. 

Advertisers and marketing professionals also use “katakana” characters instead of “hiragana” to add emphasis. You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent to writing materials in ALL CAPS.

“Kanji” characters can only replace “hiragana” elements, not “katakana.” Hence, you can write “karate” in “hiragana” or “kanji” characters. Complicating matters is when you see tiny “hiragana” characters above the “kanji” elements.

We call this character set the “furigana,” and it is rare. You can see this in Japanese children’s books to facilitate easier reading. Thus, you might want to use “furigana” if you’re eyeing young children as your customers.

Most Japanese write sentences combining “hiragana” and “kanji.” It’s also possible to write a single word with both characters. Unfortunately, these language peculiarities make Japanese translation more tedious and laborious than other languages. It’s also more prone to errors if the Japanese translator you hired is not up to the task.

It also doesn’t help that many Japanese words don’t have a direct English translation. You cannot rely on Google Translate or other neural machine translators to transform an English term to its Japanese equivalent as accurately as possible.

Japanese translator

Pronouns Take Several Forms

Pronouns are a cinch to use in English. It’s not the case in Japanese. Some expressions make it challenging to decipher whether you’re referring to a boy or a girl. The “I” and “you” pronouns can also take several forms, further complicating the Japanese translation process.

For example, if you’re delivering a speech in a very formal gathering and you must use the pronoun “I,” you’ll say “watakushi.” On the other hand, saying “watashi” is sufficient in formal meetings. For informal situations, Japanese males say “boku,” while Japanese females say “atashi” for the pronoun “I.” Meanwhile, you can say “ore” to refer to “I” when with friends. 

The “you” pronoun can also have various forms. For example, we use “otaku” in very formal conversations and “anata” in formal interactions. On the other hand, “omae” or “anta” is more appropriate when talking with Japanese males or females in a very informal setting. “Kini” is suitable for informal talks.

A professional Japanese translator can help you distinguish what pronoun forms to use in your localization materials.

Different Word Ordering

We always follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) agreement in English and other languages. Unfortunately, the Japanese observe the SOV rule or subject-object-verb. If you’re clueless about this language peculiarity, there’s a good chance you’ll confuse your Japanese customers.

For example, Google translates the sentence “I think that the girl who wears glasses is beautiful” to “Megane o kakete iru orinanoko wa utsukushi to omoimasu.” Reversing the translation on Google Translate results in “Orinako wearing glasses I think it’s beautiful.” 

On the other hand, a professional Japanese translator will write it as “Watashi-wa megane-o kaketa onnanoko-wa kireida to omou.” When you translate this into English, the sentence doesn’t make any sense –  “I glasses wore girls is beautiful that think.” Google Translate’s version is even more ridiculous – “Handing over-Wa glasses-The girl you put on-Wa I think it’s beautiful.”

Don’t laugh because these mistakes can occur if you’re not careful about your localization and translation procedures.

Challenging and Confusing Verb Tenses

Here’s another Japanese language peculiarity that will have you scratching your head in disbelief. English grammar always has past, present, and future verb tenses. Would it surprise you that the Japanese language only has the past and non-past? Verbs in the present and future tenses fall under the non-past category.

 Nonexistent Plural Nouns

English speakers always add “-es” or “-s” to nouns to make them plural. For example, we say “houses,” “schools,” “stores,” and “offices” to denote these nouns with a number greater than one. Unfortunately, Japanese nouns are challenging to identify whether they are singular or plural. Hence, readers must decipher the message’s meaning by studying the sentence context to determine whether the noun is plural or singular.

 No Between-word Spacing

One of the most challenging aspects of Japanese translation is determining the beginning and end of a single word. We don’t have such issues in English because we leave a space in between words. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the Japanese language. Only a veteran Japanese translator can identify the discrete words in each sentence. 

Why Professional Translation Matters

Even seasoned translators can get the message wrong, producing costly translation errors. Don’t believe us? Let’s look at some of the priciest translation blunders to date.

·        “Zementfrei”

The Berlin-based Sankt-Hedwig Hospital introduced two US-manufactured knee prosthetic devices in 2006. One was “zementfrei” or cement-less, while the other was a non-modular cemented type. 

Unfortunately, faulty localization procedures mislabeled the non-modular cemented knee prosthesis as “zementfrei.” Orthopedic surgeons used the product on 47 patients when they should have performed the total knee replacement with cement.

·        Radiation Overdose

Four cancer patients died at a French hospital in 2004 and 2005 because of a massive radiation therapy overdose. The problem was the US manufacturer failed to localize its medical device for French use. Unfortunately, the radiation treatment machine also didn’t include a French manual.  

·        “Infertile” Pens

Even well-established brands suffer from translation blunders. Many people love Parker pens because of their quality craftsmanship, especially their tendency never to leak when slipped into the pocket. Unfortunately, Mexican consumers got a different message when the writing instrument brand mistranslated its slogan to mean “.. it won’t make you pregnant” when what it wished to convey is that its pens will never embarrass you.

·        Drink Beer to Get Diarrhea

Like many American brands, Coors loves to play with slang. Although most people understood what Coors meant by “turn it loose,” Spanish beer drinkers interpreted it as “getting or suffering diarrhea.” Would you want to drink beer if it means heading to the toilet frequently?

·        Do Nothing

Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) spent $10 million globally rebranding itself after mistranslating its otherwise harmless “assume nothing” slogan into “do nothing” among non-English-speaking countries.

Please don’t laugh at these translation blunders because they might happen to your brand when translating your English materials to Japanese. Hence, it would be wise not to underestimate the value of a credible Japanese translator aiding you in localizing for Japan.

Challenges Facing a Professional Translator 

Not all Japanese translators can do an excellent language transformation job. Their performance depends on how well they navigate the following challenges facing a professional translator.

Translation Difficulty

The Japanese language is a tough nut to crack. Even the smartest artificial intelligence cannot accurately translate Japanese texts. A single word can contain “kanji” and “hiragana” characters, while the absence of spaces that separate terms can make identifying distinct units challenging. You can always try your luck with Google Translate or any other neural machine translation. But if you ask a Japanese person to translate it for you, you’ll get a different result.

Some Japanese words don’t have an English translation, making the language transformation more complicated. Translating the term into the nearest English equivalent might impact the contextual messaging. Only a well-respected, seasoned Japanese translator can guarantee high quality and accuracy.

 Alphabet Complexity

Japanese translators study not one but three alphabet or character sets. It’s effortless for us to learn ABCs. However, if you’re memorizing thousands of complex characters to create a meaningful phrase or sentence, it could take you years.

The “hiragana” is one of the easiest to learn, with only 46 characters or about 20 more than the English alphabet. Each symbol represents sounds. On the other hand, “katakana” Japanese characters are only present in loanwords – words borrowed from English or other languages. 

“Kanji” is the most perplexing to master. We’re talking about at least 2,000 complex characters representing concepts or ideas. If you’re familiar with Chinese writings, the “kanji” is no different. It’s easy to mistranslate a term and confuse your Japanese customers. 

A Japanese translator can navigate the Japanese alphabet complexities without a hitch.

Cultural Context

Americans love communicating in slang and idiomatic expressions because they’re more fun and stress-free. 

On the other hand, the Japanese language calls for politeness and formality, especially when talking to people in authority, well-respected community members, and the elderly. Translating your localization materials into informal language might offend your Japanese customers, shooing them from your business instead of attracting them.

Veteran and well-respected Japanese translators have an excellent command of Japanese language nuances. They know which Japanese terms to use to convey a message of respect and honor while encouraging the local population to try and patronize your brand. You can fine-tune your corporate messaging if you have a local professional Japanese translator onboard your organization.

Final Thoughts

Localizing for Japan is a breeze with a seasoned and reputable Japanese translator in your localization team. You’ll never worry about language errors or mistakes, leveraging Japan’s business-friendly policies and economic environment to gain a substantial foothold on the Japanese market.

Choosing a Japanese translation professional can be tricky, if not challenging. However, some companies provide you with several choices in translating your internationalized materials to suit the local Japanese market. You can trust us to transform your English content into Japanese with the highest possible quality and accuracy.