Why It’s Essential to Localize for Japan

Japan ranks third in terms of GDP, while also having the third largest consumer market in the world. With these stacked statistics, it comes as no surprise that Japan is an attractive market for foreign companies looking to expand internationally. However, the country is known to be notoriously difficult to enter due to its distinct culture, language, etiquette and values.

We often come across poorly or only partially translated global websites and business collaterals aimed at the Japanese audience. Better something though than nothing, right?

Be warned — in many cases, businesses that overlook Japan’s particularities suffer greatly with irreversible repercussions for its brand.

Today we will discuss why localization is particularly essential for success in the Japanese market and some key points to keep in mind when localizing.

Extremely Low English Proficiency

Did you know Japan is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world? As an island nation, the country has been and is still relatively isolated. Though Japan is gradually becoming more international, English proficiency amongst the population is extremely low. In fact, Japan is one of the lowest scoring countries in Asia for the TOEFL iBT English proficiency test, according to ETS. If your communication is not in Japanese, it will not be understood in Japan, period.

Complexity of Japanese as a Language

I am Japanese myself and I’ll be the first to admit that the language is VERY difficult to master. Aside from having three distinct alphabets that are used in different contexts, Japanese separates its form of speech according to three levels of politeness depending on who you talk to. It is integral to use the forms correctly, or else it is considered disrespectful, which will hurt your business. These forms also make it extremely difficult to nail down the right tone and voice in marketing without sounding overbearingly polite and dry, but still acceptably courteous. To further complicate the issue, Japanese has a very different sentence structure compared to Western countries. It is therefore painfully obvious when localization is done wrong, especially with the use of translation applications which usually translates words in the sequence of the original sentence.

Does your marketing material use idioms, humor or cultural references? Does it use first-person and second-person pronouns? If yes, this would be a problem for literal, word-per-word translation because it will either make no sense, sound awkward or rude in Japanese. It is important to not stop at translating, but get someone who understands the message of the original text to adapt and repurpose it into something that will hold its essence but resonate better with the Japanese audience.

Market based on trust

Culturally, Japanese consumers tend to rely and choose heavily based on trust. They are extremely careful shoppers, often choosing a pricier product from a name-brand over its cheaper, no-name counterpart. This wariness is partly due to the fact that generally speaking, Japan doesn’t allow returning, replacing or refunding except for defective products. People have one shot to purchase, so they want as much information on the product to ensure that it’s not a flop, especially online where you can’t determine quality with your own eyes. Lousy translations or remnants of English (or any other language) scattered across the site will be cues for the Japanese consumer, scaring them off. This of course, will affect your sales and bottomline.

Brand Image

Tied closely to both the language barrier and trust components mentioned above, your business will not be able to communicate your brand and its story nor uphold a good, trustable brand image with wonky translations, if at all, on your channels and collaterals. In a competitive market like Japan, brand image can make or break your business against competitors.


In a new market where your brand is still relatively unknown, it is of key importance to be found. Without a fully and accurately translated website, your reach and exposure will suffer. It will also be difficult to cater an effective SEO strategy that will drive traffic and conversions without an in-depth knowledge of the Japanese language, culture and trends. This is true not only for websites, but also for social media where appropriate copies for hashtags 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 last name followed by the first; address and zip code 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 to the Japanese audience that the site was not properly localized, and can also cause errors in the shopping or account creation process. 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.

I hope we got across from this post that localization doesn’t just 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.

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