Localizing Japan Part One: 3 Factors to Consider

Shinji Yoshitake (儀武真二)Shinji Yoshitake is Senior Director, Japan, at Welocalize. He lives in Tokyo where the Welocalize Japan office is located. In this blog, he share’s some insights on Japan and localizing into Japanese. Shinji also shares some thoughts on how language service providers (LSPs) can adjust their business model and approach to ensure they deploy success localization strategies for companies looking to do business with this complex and prosperous economy. (First Blog in Localizing Japan Series)

Japan consists of several thousands of islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoko are the four largest. Although there is only one Japanese language, there are three forms in which you can write it, as well as four different levels of honorific speech styles depending on who you might be speaking with or writing.

There are 125 million speakers of Japanese, most being in Japan. With the recent spread of Japanese popular culture, the number of students learning Japanese has increased dramatically.

You would think there is an abundance of translation resources. However, we often experience a lack of capacity because there are not enough capable resources. It is also true that localizing and translating into Japanese is often perceived as being difficult and expensive. Why?

There are a number of reasons, including:

Culture: The Japanese culture expects much more detail and functionality than the West. When they buy products, they want detailed user manuals. The Japanese are big readers and there are more product reviews and product comparisons than any other country in the world. When you conduct business in Japan, the approach is more formal than the etiquette you may experience, for example, in the USA. Trust is a big deal here. There is a code of conduct that is only known and understood if you have lived in Japan for a while. Therefore, making absolutely certain of the culture of the seller and the target audience is crucial for the translators right from the start.

Quality: Perfection is expected, regardless of the content type. Whether it be marketing, on-demand, traditional, legal, or your “average” IT content, quality will hardly ever come second. When content is translated into Japanese, near-perfection is expected. Higher quality requirements can result in higher costs and more review cycles can mean more time. It is extremely important that your translators (both internal and external) get a chance to meet with the client reviewer to really get a feel for what is expected. An up-to-date glossary and style guide is always important; however, relying too heavily on these assets and being systematic about it (via automation and tools) may not get you the best of marks. Make sure all ideas and rules are talked about in advance and agreed upon together with the client. NO assumptions and generalizations should be made, such as “we have a global program that automates all this so Japanese should not be an exception.” Such shove-it-down-the-throat behaviors will only create an opposite reaction to it (Newton!).

Language: The language itself is incredibly complex, even to native Japanese – both old and young. There are always several different ways to say and write something that may in the end give a similar meaning, but will have subtle differences and may cause confusion to the listener/reader. Sure, we can say all this is subjective to whoever reads what is translated and depends on that individual’s likes and dislikes. However, this still means that a translator must think through all the different options first and then provide the best fit translation. You can see how this would take time, lower through-puts (especially for marketing material), and therefore bring up costs in the end.

If you have feedback or would like to share any experiences you have with localization and Japan, I’d love to hear from you.


Check out Localizing Japan Part Two: How LSPs Help Clients Successfully Do Business in Japan