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Japanese Localization

In the localization industry, Japanese is generally considered to be one of the hardest languages to get right. Extensive vocabulary, complex honorifics, multiple registers, and three different writing systems provide challenges during translation, while differing accents for East and West Japan can present issues when it comes time to record Japanese voiceover if not properly addressed with client stakeholders. So customers and language vendors need to be prepared, cooperate fully and know exactly who they are targeting.

Adding to the complexity; page layout, color, preference of image, illustration and graphics are all very different to the western world and all need to be carefully considered. Japanese client reviewers also tend to be highly specific regarding their stylistic preference, meaning that having Japanese in-house staff is a major advantage in helping establish a rapport and document stylistic preferences early on in a relationship.

This is just a snap-shot of some of the challenges that Japanese localization can present. More so than for any other language, selecting the right localization partner with demonstrated Japanese experience and a good understanding of the many pitfalls of Japanese localization is crucial.


  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Machine Translation engine building
  • Machine Translation post-editing
  • Desktop publishing
  • Voiceover & dubbing
  • Subtitling & closed captions
  • Flash & multimedia localization
  • Linguistic testing
  • Functional testing
  • Interpretation


  • Documentation
  • Technical manuals
  • Marketing materials
  • Brochures & flyers
  • Packaging & labeling
  • Magazines & newsletters
  • Websites
  • Mobile applications
  • Software applications
  • Training & eLearning
  • Voiceover & multimedia
  • Video content

About Japanese

The Japanese language formerly was considered to be a language isolate; i.e., a language that has no known ancestor in common with any other language. It is now considered to be the principal member of the Japonic language family, the other member being the Ryukyuan group of languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. A number of historical linguists have theorized relationships with languages indigenous to Korea, Manchuria, and Siberia, but none of these hypotheses are generally accepted.

Japanese is characterized by its extensive and complex system of honorifics, which requires that a particular vocabulary and system of verb formation be used in respect of the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons referenced. Furthermore, choice of vocabulary is also determined by register; e.g., slang, colloquial, casual, formal, etc.

Modern Japanese is written using a combination of three writing systems, known as kanji (logographs of Chinese origin), and hiragana and katakana (both of which are sets of syllabic symbols, collectively known as kana). A fourth system, romaji, is a Latin script used primarily for the benefit of non-Japanese who cannot read kanji or kana. Traditionally, Japanese is written in columns, read top-to-bottom and right-to-left; i.e., text starts at the upper right of a page and ends at the bottom left. Modern Japanese is also written in lines, left-to-right and top-to-bottom, like English.

Kanji characters are used for words of Chinese origin and a number of native Japanese words. Although comprehensive dictionaries include 50,000 or more characters, as of 2010 the Japanese Ministry of Education listed 2,136 characters, known as the joyo kanji, to be learned by the time a student completes the 9th grade. Because many of the kanji not included in this list are relatively obscure, most newspapers follow the guidelines of the Japan Newspaper Association and normally limit the use of kanji to the listed characters. When non-listed kanji are used, the pronunciation is printed in kana script above or beside the character; this use of kana in relation to a kanji is known as furigana.

Sample of 10 kanji characters taught in the 1st grade of elementary school:

Sample of 10 kanji characters taught in the 7th – 9th grades of junior high school:

 characters, of which there are 48, are used to inflect kanji verbs and adjectives, for common grammatical particles, and for words which have no kanji character or for which the kanji is obscure. Katakana characters, of which there are also 48, are used to transliterate foreign words and names, and for writing the common names of animals, plants, minerals, and the like. Romaji is taught in elementary schools and words written in romaji are occasionally found in Japanese writing; however, as noted above, the primary use is for materials intended to be read by non-Japanese.

Japanese Translation & Localization Challenges

  • In the localization industry, translation into Japanese is generally considered to be one of the most difficult linguistic tasks due to a combination of factors: an extensive vocabulary, a complex system of honorifics, a wide range of registers, and three different writing systems. Furthermore, as in many aspects of Japanese culture, judgments regarding a “good” translation incorporate an aesthetic element above and beyond mere accuracy and grammatical correctness. Unlike many Western languages, in which a highly skilled linguist eventually can acquire a native level of fluency, it is virtually impossible for a non-native linguist to truly master Japanese.
  • With regard to DTP, Japanese written in the modern, left-to-right fashion like English is best performed by a native DTP operator who can follow the line breaking rules set forth in Japanese Industrial Standard JIS X 4051. DTP for Japanese written in the traditional, columnar fashion is problematic, as only specialized Japanese software programs support this format in a native fashion.
  • With regard to voice-over recording, there are significant differences in accent, and some differences in grammar, between the Eastern and Western dialects. The standard Tokyo-based dialect known as hyojungo should be used for recordings, unless the material is particularly targeted to a particular geographic area; for example, a recording meant for an audience in the Kansai region might be best recorded in the Kansai-ben dialect


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