Translating and Localizing for Japanese Market

by | Mar 19, 2021

The islands that make up the country of Japan contain the world’s third-largest economy. If you plan to enter this lucrative market, you need to understand the importance of translating and localizing for Japan. Because Japanese is considered to be one of the most complex languages worldwide, translating and localizing for Japan can present a real challenge. However, the effort is totally worth it because:

  • Japan’s economy ranked as number two (behind the US) from 1968 until 2010, when China overtook it.
  • The country’s large and affluent population (126.9 million) means it is one of the world’s largest consumer markets
  • .Japan has an industrious and well-educated workforce.

Step one of your Japanese localization project is to translate your content into Japanese. You may end up in a complete state of shock when you discover that this process takes much longer than for most other languages, and it’s much more challenging to achieve a high-quality translation. One thing is certain – translating and localizing for Japan can be pretty tricky! Here’s why:

localizing for Japan

The Japanese Language Is Complicated

Japanese is a unique and complex language in that it has three character sets that can coexist in one sentence:

  • the phonetic hiragana,
  • the phonetic katakana,
  • the logographic kanji

Hiragana and katakana are each made up of 46 characters. However, things become more complicated regarding kanji, which consists of 2,136 characters that depict concepts. Kanji does not rely on words and phrases to represent meaning. Instead, it uses different strokes that indicate their meanings from how they are placed within a set of characters. 

Another problem is that kanji is often used in different ways depending on the word or phrase. This means that the same kanji character may end up in different places. 

In Japanese, Context Is Everything

Japanese is described as a topic-prominent language because it organizes its syntax around the topic of the sentence. This means that the subject is always the main focus of the sentence and the sentence structure underlines it. For example, Japanese has no way to indicate the singular or the plural, so the translator must rely on the context of the words. 

Pronoun Choices Are Often Not Obvious

In English, it’s simple to choose the correct pronoun. However, this is frequently not the case in Japanese. Since some expressions do not supply context clues regarding the gender of the person being referenced, it is often not easy to know which is the correct gender-specific pronoun to use. 

How to Say “I” in Japanese

There are different ways to say “I” depending on the situation and to whom one is speaking (e.g., a superior or a close friend).

  • watakushi わたくし — very formal
  • watashi わたし — formal
  • boku (male) 僕, atashi (female) あたし — informal
  • ore (male) 俺 — very informal

How to Say “You” in Japanese

There are also different ways of saying “you” depending on the circumstances.

  • otaku おたく — very formal
  • anata あなた — formal
  • kimi (male) 君 — informal
  • omae (male) お前, anta あんた— very informal

Separation of Words Is Different

In Latin languages, spaces are used to separate words. East Asian languages such as Japanese, Chinese, and Korean do not because they are character-based languages. When translating your application, you cannot rely on your usual word wrapping algorithms and line breaking to display text. Your user interface will have to be adjusted.

Localizing for Japan: Japanese Is Different From Latin Languages

It should be evident that English and Japanese have entirely different and separate linguistic origins. This means that many words in English don’t have a direct translation in Japanese and vice versa. While you can have difficulties finding the right words that epitomize the meaning of a concept, there is yet another challenge – the issue of tone. While English is regarded as a somewhat informal language with some formalities only used in certain situations, the Japanese language is rich with a wide variety of nuances and tones.

Word Order is Different

The majority of European languages follow the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) arrangement. However, Japanese (and Korean) use SOV (Subject-Object-Verb). This means that the order of words in Japanese is completely different from that of English. Here’s an example:

  • English: I think that the girl who wears glasses is beautiful.
  • Japanese (when translated into English): I glasses wore girl is beautiful that think. (Watashi-wa megane-o kaketa onnanoko-wa kireida to omou.)

Tenses Pose Difficulties

In the Japanese language, there are only two tenses – past and non-past. To describe either the present or the future, the non-past tense must be used. 

Two More Helpful Hints

1. Don’t Be Afraid of Transcreation

Transcreation involves translating and recreating the original text in a different language while ensuring it is still appropriate in the intended context. Some words and brand names can have a completely different meaning in another language, and sometimes the meaning might be seen as offensive. 

  • Example: When Taco Bell created its Japanese website, “cheesy chips” was unfortunately translated as “low-quality chips.” It gets worse! The slogan, “We’ve got nothing to hide,” was translated to read, “What did we bring here to hide it.”

You need always to be ready to transcreate your marketing materials for the Japanese market, although this may present challenges thanks to the Japanese language’s nuances and intricacies. Transcreation will go beyond translation and sometimes even beyond localization. However, effective transcreation will help you adapt your brand message to the Japanese language and culture. 

2. Aim For Perfection

While Westerners are more likely to shrug off minor imperfections in translated content, the Japanese expect perfection. To avoid getting a major headache when translating and localizing for Japan, hire the best Japanese translator you can and use an appropriate style guide and glossary

Localizing for Japan: Conclusion

Translating and localizing for Japan can be much more challenging than translating into Western languages. This is why you need the help of an advanced translation management platform like Localize. Because of the variety of challenges associated with Japanese translations, the translator’s expertise in the particular subject matter is critical to ensuring a successful translation. Your expert Japanese translators can work seamlessly with Localize’s state-of-the-art platform to ensure that your content is effectively translated and localized for the Japanese market.