You have decided to enter the Japanese market. You have a great website or app ready, that has already been tested in your own country — all you need is for it to be translated so that your potential Japanese customers and clients will be able to understand it. This is an all-too-commonly played out scenario when it comes to organizations entering the Japanese market and it pretty much always ends in failure. Before you head to Google Translate or post an ad searching for a freelance translator, there are a few things you should know about marketing in a foreign language.
When your organization begins to consider expansion into an international market, the first, and most obvious, obstacle you may face is the language barrier. In some cases, your organization might be tempted to use machine translation for a faster turnover time and less cost. However, machine translation, which is essentially translation completely done by computer and is equivalent to copying and pasting something into Google Translate, has serious limitations. Because machine translation typically translates word-for-word without looking at overall context, the resulting translation is usually poor quality and unusable for professional purposes.
The next step up in quality from machine translation is computer-aided translation. This process involves the use of software that does most of the translation through translation memory tools. Translation memory tools have databases of set phrases, called segments, that the computer uses to piece translations together. In the end, the translation is checked by a human translator who is using, or initially created, the databases for accuracy and flow. Computer-aided translation is most often used in specialty translations, such as technical or scientific fields that have highly specialized vocabulary and jargon. However, the software itself can be an expensive investment, and translators who are not full-time translators may not own the programs themselves or be familiar with their use.
Of course, there are translators who complete all of their translations with only the use of dictionaries and minor tools, such as Spellcheck. These translations tend to have the best flow and sound most natural to native speakers in the target language. However, human error can never be avoided, and the ability of the translator is now a variable that must be carefully considered.
Where Localization Comes In
One pitfall that some translators fall into is direct translation, also known as literal translation. Like machine translation, some translators may try to translate text word-for-word without going back to look at overall context. The result is a text that is likely to be accurate but is not the best possible version of the text. This is where localization comes in.
Unlike translation, which is the changing of a text from one language to another, localization is defined as, the process of making a text more suitable for a country, area, etc. With regards to Japanese localization specifically, examples include: changing the tone of a text to make it sound more professional and polite; choosing the best format for your information, such as whether the text should run horizontally or vertically, as well as changing dates to go from largest to smallest, i.e. year, month, then day; and checking to make sure that the language being used is up-to-date and appropriate for your company’s target audience. But, not only that, superior localization efforts combine the fields of translation with marketing.
While a translator might be able to translate a company’s messaging with no grammatical errors, sometimes adapting (i.e. localizing) is necessary to elicit a similar feeling in the Japanese language as with the original, source language. In other words, localization is needed to appeal to the Japanese aesthetic.
Furthermore, there are certain precautions one must take when entering a foreign market, especially one as unique as Japan’s. Being unable to recognize, understand, and adapt to cultural differences between your country’s market and your target market could cause major problems for your branding in the long run.
Three Reasons You Need Localization in Japan
Localization is especially necessary when entering the Japanese market for three major reasons: the difficulty of the target language, the idea of “politeness” in Japanese society, and a lack of English skills among the Japanese population.
Japanese is well-known for being a difficult language to master for speakers of English or other European languages. The Japanese language consists of three scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. With kanji (Chinese characters) there are thousands which must be memorized in order to be considered literate. Further complicating things for non-natives is the fact that although words usually have a “set” spelling, sometimes the Japanese purposefully spell words using a different character set. This can often be seen on the Internet, on Twitter and other social media, and in advertisements around the city and on TV. Also, writing styles may change to suit a target audience, such as advertisements aimed at the elderly full of complicated kanji and ads for children full of hiragana with some katakana, to make them easier to read for those individuals.
Japan has a reputation around the world for being a polite society with strict adherence to rules and social norms. This is reflected in the Japanese language itself which has three broad categories of politeness levels: informal, used with friends and family; polite, used with classmates, coworkers, and strangers; and keigo, super polite speech which can be further broken down into two styles — sonkeigo, used to place the person you’re speaking to on a “higher” level than yours, and kenjougo, humble speech used to emphasize that you are “below” the person you are talking to.
With so many different styles of speech to choose from, one must be careful so as not to unknowingly insult someone in the Japanese language or for there to be a strange disconnect between your image and way of speaking or writing. For example, using polite speech (keigo) in advertisements or on your website might help make your customers feel comfortable, knowing that you respect them as a customer. On the other hand, being too formal might make your company seem stiff and outdated. It totally depends on a number of variables, such as your industry or your brand’s identity.
If you had the chance to walk around Tokyo, you might be surprised at how much English there is on signs and billboards. Seeing this, it may give off the impression that Japanese people, especially the younger generations, are English savvy. However, Japan is nowhere near where it wants to be in terms of English prowess. Even though students are required to start learning English in fifth grade and will start learning from third grade in 2020, in 2018 Japan ranked 48th in English proficiency out of 88 countries and has been steadily slipping lower and lower down the list each year.
That is why the use of or reliance on English in your marketing in Japan is not recommended, because in many cases it simply won’t be understood, and your messaging will not be conveyed.
Benefits of Localization
To summarize, here are all the benefits of localization that we have mentioned, as well as a few others:
・Your website, app, or advertisements will be error free and will read in a way that flows naturally to Japanese natives
・The politeness level and tone will be appropriate for your target audience
・You will invoke the feelings in readers that you are aiming for with your messaging strategy
・The person doing the localization will bring cultural and linguistic knowledge to the table and can offer advice to make your entry into the foreign market a success
・Doing things right the first time means no surprise costs when you have to redo a website, app, or advertisement because of zero localization
・Showing Japanese customers that you understand and value their culture is the perfect way to build and maintain a customer base
Having Japanese customers and clients trust your brand is well worth the investment that localization entails. With proper localization you will find your entry into the Japanese market made that much easier, as you are able to connect with the people of Japan in their own language, which they are infinitely more receptive to.
Some companies may be tempted to skip the localization process and simply settle for a translator who has experience translating into Japanese, who may not even be a native Japanese speaker. However, localization is a necessary part of marketing in a foreign market and should be given proper consideration at the outset of any major project or undertaking for new markets.
Have questions or want to talk about localizing your ecommerce site? Contact us to find out how Wasabi can help.