The Online Economic Importance of Japanese

Linguistic quality issues create opportunity for those who rise to the challenge

Arle Lommel

Arle Lommel is a senior analyst at CSA Research.

Arle Lommel headshot
Arle Lommel headshot

Arle Lommel

Arle Lommel is a senior analyst at CSA Research.


lthough all languages have their idiosyncrasies that affect their rendering into other languages, a handful stand out as “difficult” for individuals used to working with common European languages. Japanese may not be the hardest major language to deal with for computer-centric translation practices — an honor that probably goes to Urdu — but it certainly ranks high on the list.

Japanese is a huge opportunity by any standard. CSA Research’s analysis of the online value of languages shows that it is the sixth most-important language in terms of its economic potential (Figure 1) and, unlike those above it — with the exception of Chinese — its importance is concentrated in one country, which makes it easier to access than those split across multiple political boundaries. In addition, Japan is a market where English just won’t cut it. As a result, the potential of Japanese is almost pure revenue uplift.

Our analysis of the effects of language on total addressable market for 35 vertical industries also revealed that it is among the top ten most-important languages in terms of revenue for every sector we evaluated. Additionally, in terms of revenue potential from native speakers, it ranks fifth in the world (Figure 2).

Graph of Language tiers and rankings for the top 100 online langauges

Figure 1: Language tiers and rankings for the top 100 online languages. Copyright CSA research.

A big opportunity, but you have to commit

It’s almost a cliché that Japanese consumers differ from those of other regions in their high standards regarding product aesthetics, but it nonetheless captures something essential about the market: Japanese customers do expect text that speaks to them in their terms. Part of it is that Japanese readers have access to high-quality content created in their home market, and so have no need to settle for poorly localized content.

Another factor is that the variations in how different cultures express ideas are particularly pronounced in persuasive texts, such as advertising, and less crucial in technical texts that are focused on concrete sequences of events or actions. English texts, particularly those authored by American writers, tend to be highly deductive: they state a desired outcome, marshal supporting evidence in a systematic fashion, and then recap the initial point of the text. By contrast, Japanese writers tend to lay out conditions that lead the reader to a conclusion, which may not be stated directly. Westerners often find Japanese texts unclear, while their counterparts in Japan may view texts in European languages to be pedantic and overly direct.

As a result, product literature and collateral materials that are functional and reasonably attractive in other markets may not meet expectations in Japan. Poor style and presentation that don’t abide by Japanese cultural norms may be borderline offensive. Because of this sensitivity, transcreation is likely to play a bigger role in your strategy for Japan than for other markets, and you may apply it to content types that you would normally translate.

Bar Graph showing that Japan ranks fifth in the world in potential revenue from native speakers

Figure 2: Japan ranks fifth in the world in potential revenue from native speakers. Copyright CSA Research.

Meeting local aesthetic preferences requires careful attention to the market and close work with local partners. Even when you have tested designs in other markets, carefully verify they will work well in Japan. Prepare to deliver more graphical content and expect to invest more in review cycles to get it right.

Structure your localization efforts to ensure success

So if you want to deliver the right content for Japan and to delight your customers, what actions should you take? As you plan for Japan, here are some suggestions of ways to succeed:

  • Embrace dual authoring solutions, at least for non-technical content. In this approach, create a source text that serves as the basis for translation into most other languages, and a separate one for the Japanese market. You can supply this source text as a reference and have local partners transcreate it: that is, make a functionally equivalent text for consumption there.
  • Plan for Japanese translations to require substantially more adaptation. These changes can include reordering of concepts, adopting a more “indirect” style, and altering the layout. Invest in LSP partners that have a strong cultural understanding of and experience in adapting text in Japanese. Be prepared for a reduced effectiveness of translation memory (TM) and machine translation, except for purely technical content.
  • Decide whether centralization is the answer. Enterprises typically try to centralize control of their translation and localization processes as they grow. However, local partners in Japan often push for freedom to establish and monitor their own quality parameters. As long as processes meet larger corporate goals for revenue and brand continuity, consider letting Japan develop its own quality benchmarks and fund content adaptation, translation, and transcreation.
  • Work with local vendors. If you work with multiple language service providers (LSPs), demand that reviews are carried out in Japan, particularly for creative content. Local providers or global providers with local branches are more likely to master the latest linguistic and market preferences. Involve them early on in the content design process and require them to document terminology choices.
  • Open channels between translators and your Japanese staff. Your employees are aware of product concerns and customer feedback. Provide them with a direct line to translators and implement regular feedback sessions. Develop and document requirements for when to translate, transcreate, or re-author — and provide examples for each in your style guide.
  • Give final authority to your reviewers. If you invest time and effort in all of the above but then allow other parties to undo the careful work you need for Japanese, you undermine your own goals. Avoid the temptation to “just make a few tweaks” or to change content after it has been reviewed.
  • Plan for customer service from the beginning. Japanese customers expect and demand a top-notch customer experience. Make sure that your support channels live up to your promises. Treating support as an afterthought will only create more problems down the road.
  • Expect to pay more. For Japanese localization, there is a closer link between quality and price than is found in some other languages. You need to pay for both specialized field experience and the language knowledge to avoid typical mistakes in style and layout.
  • Allow more time for review. For any high-value content, review is likely to be an iterative process that involves discussion between your authoring team, localizers, local employees, and reviewers. The need for constant communication and revision is especially critical for the first translations you do of a particular content type or in cases where you have previously had quality problems. During this process, document decisions about language or process and make them available to all parties.

Build documents for success

Japanese translations that closely follow your source document format and style can cause problems. As you prepare your content, take the following actions to help deliver top-quality materials:

  • 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 dividends.
  • Define document requirements and build Japanese-specific templates. Decide in advance with your LSPs how to handle the specificities of Japanese localization. Collaborate to define templates for that market rather than sending them your source documents and hoping they will make them work. Start this work early on so you have it ready for your content, rather than spending the money to retrofit after projects begin.
  • 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.
  • Give localizers freedom to adapt. While transcreation is above the call of duty for most material, Japanese localizations from European languages will require more adaptation. Make it clear to providers what they can and cannot change and ask them for their recommendations. This requirement will vary from minimal changes for technical content to substantial ones for other text types. This process takes time and costs extra, but can make the difference between market success and failure.
  • Don’t insist on an exact match between source and target. The structure and linguistic approach of Japanese is so different from European languages that a sentence-by-sentence review that insists on finding perfect equivalency is misleading. Good Japanese translations add, remove, and restructure information within and between sentences in order to deliver maximal clarity. In addition, Japanese is very imprecise in some grammatical aspects where European languages demand exactness, but very detailed in others where its counterparts are loose. Looking for exact correspondence will lead to poor reviews and low quality.
  • Consider skipping translation memory (TM) for non-technical texts. TM works best in a sentence-by-sentence approach. While that applies for technical texts, it introduces problems for many other content types that require a less literal and linear approach. By the time the translator is done reorganizing the text, TM’s advant-age may be nullified and it may negatively affect quality. If you do apply it, paragraph-level segmentation may be more appropriate, although this choice may be less effective in finding matches.

High-quality Japanese localization is attainable, but usually requires extra effort and budget. Be flexible and willing to adapt your expectations to the market. If you work closely with LSPs and local affiliates, you can resolve most difficulties early on in the process for a smooth experience. If you receive consistent complaints about your Japanese content, determine the root causes. Problems often arise from lack of communication or from expectations that differ in that audience. If your content is confusing or looks wrong, troubleshoot the approach with your LSP and consider working directly with in-country linguists and local staff.