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  • Writer's pictureFrancis Fung

Why you MUST localize for the Japanese market

Translation is NOT the same as localization (localisation)


For businesses wanting to break into the Japanese market, the first and most obvious barrier that comes to mind will be the Japanese language. But that's ok, we can handle that. We can hire Japanese interpreters, we can have a bi-lingual team and we can translate all our documents from English to Japanese language. It might not be easy, but it'll be ok and it'll work.


Personally, I've seen many cases of such thinking, and when allowed to continue in such a manner, leads a business to not meeting Japanese customers' expectations, a lack of trust with Japanese clients and audience, and more realistically a collection of material in strange Japanese translation styles which either read like direct translation, machine translation or non native Japanese language. Ultimately, leading to a lack of success in the Japanese market.


All this, stemming from issues with translating content, communications from English into Japanese? The simple answer is yes. And the simple reason is: Translation is NOT the same as localization (localisation) Also, notice how the word Localization already is facing it's own problem in English. Do I use the American spelling of the word or the British spelling - localisation? When businesses wanting to break into the Japanese market say they need translation, what they actually need is localization.


So, what is localization for the Japanese market?

These are from my own experience only, and am sure I'm still missing lots of points on localization strategy, what's best for search engines and market trends. However, will share key points from my years here.

Localizing any of your business' English content for the Japanese market and Japanese audience means, adjusting your existing English content, marketing materials, website, tone of voice, writing styles, in order to sound natural to Japanese people, Japanese audiences and Japanese users.

Well, that's obvious you might think. Yes, it is, but it's also not being actioned as it should be. Japanese localization needs to take into account Japanese customers, Japanese culture, ways of thinking, what Japanese consumers tend to do, say and how they act. What works for your home market or other markets may not always work for the Japanese market. What humour, tone of voice, look and feel that works in other countries might not also work in a Japanese local context. This is what we'll look into next. Why content that is translated directly won't work for Japanese people, why Japanese might seem a complex language and why Japanese localization is a must. If you only remember one thing, it's that Japanese localization is an extremely important key to breaking into the Japanese market successfully.

Japanese is unlike English. Very unlike English.

There are 3 alphabets in Japanese. Hiragana (phonetic spelling of Japanese words), Katakana (phonetic spelling of borrowed or loan words from other non Japanese languages) and Kanji (a writing system which is logographic based. Tens of thousands of Chinese characters taken from the Chinese script and used in the writing of Japanese. At any given time and context, any of these writing systems may be used individually or combined, or based on preference or just plain what looks better on an Ad. In short, rules which only those who have lived in Japan long enough, or Japanese people will understand. That sounds like a excuse to say there are no rules. However, the main focus isn't on when to use which one. It's more about Japanese is NOT the same as English, and one cannot expect to simply fall back on "Well, in English it's clear and written this way, why doesn't the client or customer understand?"

Aside from the writing of Japanese, we've not even touched on the deeper layers of politeness and varying spectrum of using the Japanese language in casual through to business situations. The varying levels of politeness depending on how close you are, social, economic, business status differences. These are some basic points of what makes the Japanese language so complex, and why a translation agency cannot simply be called upon to "translate" or run it through machine translation, such as Google Translate or DeepL and then simply "fix it up". All of your English content needs to be culturally sensitive, appropriate, respectful and not be literal translations. So again, Japanese is very much unlike English.

You cannot just run the English through Google Translate or DeepL, and then "fix it up"

One of the more recent and common phrases of our time, "We don't need website localization, just turn on Google Translate". As already established, Japanese being one of the most complex languages, you cannot simply use machine translation. I mean, you can, but the results you get will definitely be a difficult language to understand, unlike the Japanese language and definitely not localized.

Not only is Japanese sentence structure different to other languages (Western languages), when using automated, or machine translation tools, they very often are unable to capture the nuances, leading to awkward or incorrect Japanese sentences, unknown Japanese nouns with idioms, humor, and cultural references do not translate well. All in all, leading to not only a strange user interface, or experience, but a sense that this site, product, content was originally not made for a Japanese audience. Thus reducing trust and credibility. Any why is that such a huge issue? In any other country, a loss of trust in a company or brand is huge, but one important aspect that I've personally felt about Japan is that the consumer is more risk averse.

Trust is huge in Japan

People in Japan (sweeping generalization) prefer established brands in Japan that they know and trust. Usually starting with Japanese domestic brands, and then acceptance of huge global brands, which have taken time to localize their content for Japan. (Notice it's not just translation, but localizing). As establish above, English is of course a barrier and any strange sounding Japanese might be off putting. But if even the tiny things, like user interfaces, (UX/UI), wrong date format and calendars on a website, how addresses start on form fields etc. All of these either add to or deteriorate trust in Japan.

Users might think "If this non-Japanese company did not want to take the for translating or localizing, and I'm unsure where to type my family name, or which writing system to type in, then how can I trust them with my credit card details?" So it's double edged, not only is trust important for a use in Japan to accept your company, but any lack of trust might block them from using or purchasing from your company which might spiral in negative word of mouth, social reviews or just not even giving your products a chance.

Trust is hugely important, so don't let something as small as user interface put everything at risk.

In summary, translating into Japanese should be a localization project

There's no other way to say it. It's not translation, and you should view it as a localization project. Not just for search engine optimization, but in order to feel like other Japanese websites, like a company tailored for Japan, "translated" well, right keywords, proper use of kanji and all the above. Not only does this show a deep understanding of the Japan market, but more importantly, to establish trust, through a localization effort, a willingness to understand, to serve properly, to communicate properly (whether with clients or customers) and to be of valuable service.

This is why you MUST localize (localise) for Japan.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please like or feel free to share. If you want to know more, our expert localization team for Japan localization services are ready to help. Sloane Japan | Translation Localization Interpretation

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