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Japan: Land of the Rising Sun

(Originally published August 2011)


While Japan continues to recover from the most devastating natural disaster in Japanese history, the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, the country is making great strides to move ahead and seems to be living up to the symbols of strength and optimism embodied in the name “Land of the Rising Sun.” So, how is the country doing and what is important to understand going forward? To help provide insight into these issues and more, Syntes Project Manager, Noriko Nakazawa, sits down to answer some questions about Japan: the recovery efforts, the economy, the language, and the culture.


So, how did Japanese people in the US react to the news of the earthquake and tsunami? Well, it was like a “bomb” really, so devastating. People were just doing whatever they could to show support for Japan. There were a lot of fundraising efforts. For example, at my son’s school we made thousands of paper cranes, which symbolize long life and recovery from illness, and then we sold them to raise money for relief efforts. A lot of Japanese people I know also volunteered their time to interpret or translate in order to exchange important information about relatives and friends in Japan.


What is the status of recovery efforts and the economy? While recovery and cleanup efforts will likely continue for many years to come, the Japanese people are trying to get back to normal. The economy seems to be recovering a little better than anticipated based on what I’ve been reading in the Japanese newspapers and what my friends in Japan are telling me. One of the concerns though is the strength of the yen, which impacts how much Japan can sell and export to other countries.


What is the current demand for translation like? In the initial days after the disaster, the main request was for translation of press releases into Japanese to get news out about what was happening and how the situation was being handled in specific instances. We were a bit concerned that demand for Japanese translation might go down, but now we are seeing the more standard types of requests again such as translation of marketing brochures, website content, etc. In fact, the demand for high quality Japanese translation seems to be even higher than ever.


On the topic of translation, it seems like Japanese has more than one alphabet. Is that true? Well, they are not really alphabets, but Japanese does have three main character sets. There is Kanji, composed of approximately 2,000 characters, which is modified from Chinese. Then, there are the two Kana character sets: Hiragana and then a kind of simplified version of this, which is called Katakana, both of which have 46 characters each.


How do you know which character set to use? These three sets of written characters are used interchangeably in Japanese. A different type of character may be needed or more predominantly used depending on the part of speech, whether it is formal or informal Japanese, the subject matter, etc. For example, for technology terminology that often derives from English, Katakana is typically used because it is more phonetic and so these English words can be readily spelled out using these characters. In addition, Kanji characters tend to be more common in formal translations whereas Kana is used more for informal translations although there is always a mixture of the different character types in any translation. Roman letters are also sometimes used to spell out certain words like “Ginza,” a fashionable shopping district in Tokyo, or "cute" to get more attention from consumers because we tend to think it is very modern and fashionable to do that.


So, there is a formal and informal Japanese? Yes, there is both a formal and informal way of translating Japanese in terms of form of address, style, and words used. Traditional business translations are often done in the formal style and translations for younger audiences or that are trying to convey a more hip message will be translated using informal Japanese. There is also what is called a “polite” style of Japanese, which is a modified version of the formal style since formal Japanese can sound almost too old fashioned at times. The polite style is mainly used for product instructions or for marketing. We also have an “honorific” style to show respect to older higher ranking individuals. Therefore, it is very important to know the purpose of the translation and the target audience.


If there are so many choices in Japanese, how is consistency maintained? In fact, consistency is very important in Japanese. Once particular style and terminology choices are made, it is very important to be consistent throughout all of the translations for the organization in general and especially for certain types of translation like websites or other marketing materials. Otherwise, it can be very confusing to the reader. Therefore, having a glossary and style guide for Japanese translations is particularly important to help maintain that consistency.


Isn’t the Japanese style of communication much more indirect than English? Yes, Japanese is often much more indirect than English and may require more words to say the same thing in order to convey the meaning in a less direct, seemingly less abrasive manner. The Japanese are also a bit more circular in how they write and do not always come out and directly say what they mean. For example, I remember translating a fax for a former boss of mine from Japanese into English. The fax started out talking about the weather and went on like that until finally my boss looked at me and said “What is the point?


So, does this indirect communication impact advertising or marketing? In some cases, yes. For example, a direct type of advertising or marketing that seems very common here in the U.S. in which one brand or product is being compared to another is not appropriate for a Japanese audience. It is considered a type of shaming of the other company to say that one brand is worse than another. On the other hand, some Western images and concepts can seem very modern and be eye-catching because they are different from what Japanese people are used to seeing everyday. Also, quality and safety are very important to the Japanese, so emphasizing those attributes in marketing materials can be very effective. Keep in mind though that because all successful marketing efforts really do depend on context and what you are trying to accomplish, be sure to check with your translation company to ensure that your messaging is appropriate for Japan.


In closing, where does the name “Land of the Rising Sun” come from? The characters that make up Japan's name mean "sun-origin," which is why Japan is sometimes referred to as the "Land of the RIsing Run ." Every New Year's, millions of Japanese will climb to the highest point nearest their home to watch the first sunrise of the year, which symbolizes strength and new beginnings, something Japan certainly needs as it continues to move forward.

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