Aiming high in Japan for successful localization

Arle Lommel is a senior analyst for
Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research).

Arle Lommel

Arle Lommel is a senior analyst for Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research).


espite decades of localization to and from Japanese, many organizations struggle to find the right approach to address the third-largest online language market. Japan enjoys a reputation for being a difficult country to enter and sell in, but many of the problems enterprises encounter with translation there are self-inflicted. When they push localization off until late in the process and fail to optimize their content, the Land of the Rising Sun can indeed pose extreme challenges. However, other companies plan ahead for success and are able to obtain excellent results.

Part of the problem is that the Japanese language, writing systems and culture differ from European and American expectations in fundamental ways. Assumptions that create no problems going from English to German or even Basque to Armenian break down when going to Japan. Although other East Asian markets pose similar difficulties, Japan’s famous obsession with quality means that problems will be more apparent there than they will be in China, Korea or Vietnam. As a result, you have to be spot-on in terms of content, tone and appearance.

For those that succeed, Japan can offer big rewards. High internet penetration rates and income make it an attractive market for outside investors. Analysis from CSA Research showed that in 2017 Japanese accounted for 7.7% of the world’s online-accessible gross domestic product — an amount exceeded only by English and Simplified Chinese — and 3.2% of the online audience. These numbers make it one of the top localization destinations around the world and encourage enterprises to invest in the market.

What can organizations do to succeed in localizing content for Japan? CSA Research has identified seven steps enterprises and language service providers (LSPs) should keep in mind:

1. Consider dual authoring or transcreation for marketing and other nontechnical text.

Technical text is relatively easy to translate, but for marketing or anything that represents an organization’s brand, it should look to transcreation or even re-authoring for the Japanese market. Why? Persuasive text in Japanese uses very different structures than in European languages. You can translate a marketing campaign, but no matter how skillful your translator, it will fail to resonate if you consider it a simple version of the source campaign. Effective results require careful customization for Japan. LSPs should present this as an option and guide their customers to the best solution for particular content.

2. Plan for more adaptation and collaborate.

As a close corollary to the previous point, allow time and work with translators to find the best solutions for Japanese. Expect that Japanese will take more time. Give translators the freedom to adapt content as needed and be open to suggestions about how to improve outcomes. Japan is definitely one market where you cannot simply “throw your content over the wall” and still hope to succeed.

3. Decentralize and work with local vendors.

Most enterprise buyers of translation today opt for a centralized strategy that involves working with a single multiple language vendor (MLV) or a handful of regional providers. However, Japanese benefits from a direct approach that bypasses middlemen in favor of a direct connection. The collaboration you need works best when content creators can communicate directly with the linguists working on content. If buyers do work with an MLV, they should make direct contact with the LSP’s Japanese team and LSPs should ask for and support active collaboration.

4. Plan for customer service from the beginning.

Japanese customers expect and demand a top-notch customer experience. Make sure that support channels live up to promises. Treating support as an afterthought will only create more problems down the road. Enterprises need to plan how to meet these requirements and LSPs can offer real value to their customers by helping them deliver what Japanese consumers require.

5. Improve your source content.

Many localization problems — regardless of language — reflect issues found in the source. Because Japan requires more adjustment than most other locales, these problems are frequently more apparent there than they would otherwise be. Managing your terminology, using consistent style and following other content source optimization techniques can deliver huge benefits. Engage “picky” reviewers with knowledge of the Japanese market to check your original documentation before you translate.

6. Define document requirements and build Japanese-specific templates.

Decide in advance how to handle the specificities of Japanese localization. Content creators and LSPs should collaborate to define templates for that market rather than simply sending and hoping that source documents will work. Start this work early on so you have it ready for the content you work with, rather than spending the money to retrofit it after projects begin. Define Japanese-specific styles and adjust layouts to support Japanese typography, for example, by increasing line height and avoiding small font sizes. Follow content source optimization guidelines to improve your source. Figures 1 and 2 show how Niconico, a popular video sharing site in Japan, embraces a style and look very different from YouTube. In particular, it appears somewhat “cramped” by North American or European standards and includes many links and information in numerous panels. By contrast, the YouTube homepage is quite lean and has a lot of whitespace and no overt frames or panels. Differences such as these lead many companies to embrace a dual-authoring strategy or develop separate templates for Japan and the rest of the world.

Figure 1: Japanese video sharing site: lots of information items, little white space.

Figure 2: US video sharing site: fewer information items, lots of white space.

7. Use more graphics.

Japanese readers tend to prefer graphic-rich technical content rather than long walls of text. Graphics may be more expensive than text to develop initially, but you will recoup that cost and more in time and budget savings across the rest of your target languages if you can use them instead of text.

These steps will help both content creators and LSPs achieve better outcomes in Japan and avoid much of the pain they often face when they do not plan ahead. Taking care of the details will result in better translations and uptake in the Japanese market and will ultimately help reduce costs.

And, finally, one bonus point that will help put a smile on the face of your Japanese customers:

8. No italics!

Nothing marks your content as a marginal translation faster than seeing slanted text where English uses italics. Japanese has many ways to handle the roles played by italics, but a lot of translated content ignores them. Part of it is the fault of technology that automatically places formatting tags in the target, but some of it is just plain carelessness or ignorance of Japanese typography. When you use italics, it looks just as strange as seeing texts from Japan in English that use Japanese punctuation or strange monospaced fonts.

In summary, getting quality Japanese translations does not require magic, but you may need to adapt your processes and give linguists and providers more freedom than you are used to. The results will be worth it.