For companies looking to expand abroad, it comes as no surprise that Japan is a very attractive market. After all, the country ranks third in terms of GDP, while also having the third largest consumer market in the world.
However, high hurdles exist in entering and succeeding in the Japanese market, where culture, language, etiquette, and more are strikingly different when compared to the West. This implies that it is not enough to merely translate your global website using a translation tool — a full understanding of local expectations will be absolutely necessary to break into the scene.
Today, we will discuss why localization is extremely important to succeed in the Japanese market and key points to keep in mind when localizing for Japan. If you’re considering to enter the Japanese market soon, or have already entered but struggling still to adapt, read on below.
Extremely Low English Proficiency
As an island nation, Japan has historically been and is still relatively isolated to this day. Although the country has opened up its doors more recently with regards to immigration and is slowly becoming more international, English proficiency amongst the population is extremely low. You will find that most people in Japan, even those who have received higher education, can barely understand basic English. In fact, Japan is one of the lowest scoring countries in Asia for the TOEFL iBT English proficiency test, according to ETS. Basically, if your communication is not in Japanese, it will not be understood in Japan, period.
The Complexity of Japanese as a Language
Japanese is a VERY difficult language to master. Aside from the three alphabets used, the close link between the language and the culture of expressing humility makes Japanese truly complicated for those unaccustomed to the country. For example, depending on who you are speaking to or about, you must adapt your degree of “politeness” by using different forms of speech. Unlike English, it’s unfortunately not as simple as adding words like “please” to make sentences more polite. There is a strong adherence to and high expectations for the polite forms to be used correctly in society and especially in the business sphere; erroneous use is considered highly disrespectful. These forms also make it difficult to nail down the right tone and voice in marketing without sounding overbearingly polite and dry.
Unfit for Translation Tools
To further complicate the issue, Japanese has a completely different sentence structure compared to English and other Western languages. It is therefore painfully obvious when localization is done with the use of translation tools, with translated words still in the sequence of the original language and conjugated incorrectly. Do you use idioms, humor or cultural references in your marketing? Do you use first-person and second-person pronouns? If yes, this will also be a major issue for literal, word-per-word translation because it will make no sense, sound awkward or rude in Japanese. The bottom line: when localizing, don’t overlook the importance of having someone who understands the message in the original language to adapt it into something that resonates better with the Japanese audience while still holding onto the essence.
The Japanese are extremely careful shoppers. For example, they often choose a name-brand product over a cheaper, no-name counterpart believing it ensures quality. Unconfident in dealing with issues if they arise, most stray away from shopping at non-Japanese websites due to their lack of English proficiency. This prevailing wariness can be attributed to the fact that generally, Japan doesn’t allow returning, replacing or refunding except for defective products. Since consumers have one shot at purchasing, they are risk-averse and deviate towards outlets that they know are safe. Thus, providing a secure environment and building consumer trust should be a top priority. Lousy translations or remnants of other languages scattered across the site will be blaring red flags. Additionally, a lack of information will also steer customers away, for most people will try to get as much information to overcome the biggest hurdle of shopping online: not being able to check the actual product. This is one of the reasons why Rakuten is popular in Japan — though visually chaotic, it provides more product photos and in-depth details than the sleeker-looking Amazon. All in all, finding ways to build trust with locals will be the fast-track to success in Japan.
In a new market where your brand is relatively unknown, it’s critical your business gets found. One key way to improve your chances of being found is to have high visibility on search engines when potential leads search for relevant keywords. It goes without saying that in Japan, searches will dominantly be in Japanese. Since SEO is affected by the content on your website, without it being fully and accurately translated, your reach and visibility will suffer. Furthermore, without an in-depth knowledge of the Japanese language, culture, and trends, it will be difficult to tailor an effective SEO strategy that drives traffic and conversions. This is true not only for websites but also for social media where appropriate copies can impact engagement and virality of content.
Different Formats and Standards
Japan has distinct formats for displaying common fields existing on websites, such as date, time, and currency. Furthermore, names are in the order of the last name followed by the first; address, postal code, and phone number formats differ from Western countries as well. Though these may seem like minor details, they will stick out like a sore thumb if not done right, indicating that the site was not properly localized. Incorrect formats can also cause errors for e-Commerce sites during checkout or account creation processes, or leave Japanese customers confused since the input fields do not follow the format they are accustomed to. Finally, payment for e-Commerce is not limited to credit cards and services like Paypal. Customers expect to also be able to pay using cash-on-delivery, bank transfer, or at nearby convenience stores; not having these payment options will decrease the likelihood of customers finalizing purchases.
I hope we got across from this post the importance of localization, and how it shouldn’t simply stop at linguistic translation. A full understanding of the market, culture, and language is necessary to adapt your entire strategy in a way that resonates, attracts, and cultivates trust with the Japanese audience.
Looking to localize for Japan and succeed in the market?