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1. Grammar and Spelling
2. Punctuation
3. Measurements and Abbreviations
4. Hyphenation
5. Miscellaneous Peculiarities
6. Geographic Distribution
7. Character Set

Section One – Grammar and Spelling

Japanese consists of two phonetic alphabets, collectively known as kana, and also uses Chinese characters called Kanji. Each of the three types of writing system is used for a specific purpose, and all three can appear mixed together in any text. One way of distinguishing Japanese text from Chinese text is to look for the more simple (less dense) phonetic characters which are letters from the two Japanese alphabets.

1. Hiragana Alphabet – used for some whole Japanese words and for grammatical endings on words made of a Chinese character (Kanji) stem.

2. Katakana Alphabet – used for the transliteration of foreign words. A huge number of modern usage words, mostly English, but also other foreign language words, are simply transliterated in Japanese. These are written in katakana, which is a simplified version of hiragana. Katakana is also used to write onomatopoeic words.

3. Kanji – Derived from Chinese characters (virtually identical to Traditional Chinese characters), kanji represent the main meaningful words of the language – nouns, verbs and adjectives. They are, however, supplemented by the kana, or syllabic characters, which are used chiefly to designate suffixes, particles, conjunctions, and other grammatical forms. Modern Japanese, therefore, is written with a mixture of kanji and kana characters.

There are no genders, cases or articles in Japanese, and the distinction between singular and plural is not made unless it is of great significance.

Japanese sentence construction is different to English in that it follows a subject, object, verb word order.

Section Two Punctuation

The Japanese writing system does not use word spaces. Hyphenation is therefore not needed when a word breaks between two lines. Text sometimes flows vertically, in which case it is read from right to the left, but most documents created on computers flow horizontally from left to right in the same way as English text.

1. Full stops: Full stops are larger than in English, and appear as a hollow circle:

2. Commas: Commas look like a backward version of an English comma:

3. Dashes: Long dashes are used to lengthen vowel sounds, particularly in words written in katakana, for example: コーヒー

4. Questions marks: Question marks have been introduced due to the influence of Western languages, so are now often used at the end of sentences. However, the hiragana letter at the end of a sentence indicates that it is a question. Full stops should be used at the end of questions in official documents.

5. Speech marks: Instead of quotation marks, Japanese uses and or and .

6. Colons and semi-colons: Like question marks, colons and semicolons are a recent addition to Japanese text, and are used in the same way as in English.

Section Three Measurements and Abbreviations

There are no native Japanese numerals. Chinese numerals may occur in literary text, but in technical text and computer interfaces Western numerals are more common.

The metric system is generally used, although Japanese-specific measurements are still used in some areas, for example the area of land, floor space, etc.

English abbreviations for metric measurements are generally used, for example m, cm, km, g.

Dates are always written in the order Year/Month/Day eg. 2004/02/20. The Japanese-specific year system based on the Emperor’s year of accession is also still widely used. Under this system 2004 is Heisei year 16.

The Japanese currency yen is written as “¥”.

Section Four – Hyphenation

There are no spaces between words in Japanese, so hyphens are not necessary when a word is broken between two lines.

Section Five – Miscellaneous Peculiarities

Surnames are normally given before the first name.

When text is written vertically, lines start from the right hand side of the page and continue to the left. As most literary publications still use this system, front and back covers of Japanese books and magazines are often the ‘wrong’ way round for Western language speakers.

Section Six – Geographic Distribution

Japanese, spoken by more than 125 million people in Japan, ranks among the top ten languages of the world. No definite link has been established between Japanese and any other language, living or dead.

Though it adopted the Chinese picto-graphic characters in the 3rd century A.D., Japanese is not, as is sometimes thought, genetically related to Chinese. Japanese does resemble Korean in grammatical structure, and though some scholars have suggested that they are related, this remains to be proven.

Japanese is spoken/used in the following countries:
Australia, Brazil, Guam (U.S.), Hawaii (U.S. State), Japan, Korea (South), Micronesia, Palau (Republic of), Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan, United States of America.

Language Family
Family: Independent

Katzner, K. The Languages of the World. Routledge.
Available from http://www.worldlanguage.com/Languages/Japanese
(Accessed March 2004)

Section Seven – Character Sets


a i u e o
ka ki ku ke ko
sa shi su se so
ta chi tsu te to
na ni nu ne no
ha hi  fu  he  ho 
ma mi mu me mo
ya   yu   yo
ra ri ru re  ro
wa       o


a i u e o
ka ki ku ke ko
sa shi su se so
ta chi tsu te to
na ni nu ne no
ha hi  fu  he  ho 
ma mi mu me mo
ya   yu   yo
ra ri ru re  ro
wa       o


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

All three character types can appear mixed together in a sentence:







By McElroy Translation,
Austin, Texas 78701 USA

quotes [at] mcelroytranslation . com


McElroy is continuing this series of interviews that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Japanese.

What are some pitfalls specific to Japanese to avoid that a client should be aware of when translating into this language?

  1. For marketing purposes, clients should be aware that:

    a.    Japanese are more oriented to sensibility than to logical explanations based on features and figures. You can see this clearly in Japanese commercials. For example, a well-known commercial for a newspaper subscription shows a big cow in front of a house and residents of the house come out to say, “I wish he were a human.” No connection between the cow and newspaper is given. This commercial was a huge success leading to higher sales of the newspaper.

    b.    In marketing IT in Japan, I have found American vendors often list a lot of features in their ads, while Japanese IT vendors (like NEC) tend to use Japanese celebrities and often have them playing with (or simply holding) computers without any explanation of features.

    c.    Japanese are not verbose. Silence (space) is often a virtue.
    For marketing, direct translation should never be used. Clients should use a translator with copy-writing experience or have translated text be edited by a copywriter.
  2. For legal documents, however, everything should be translated word by word, but Japanese legal documents are probably 65 percent more succinct than English legal documents.
  3. It’s a basic thing, but be sure to convert weights and measures (into the metric system).

What are characteristics of Japanese that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

  1. Subjects are often omitted. One has to guess with context.
  2. Singular and plural do not exist.
  3. Verbs always come at the end of a sentence, which requires higher skill for simultaneous interpreting. (The same applies to German, Korean, and some other languages.)
  4. The present progressive form can be both past and present.

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

A good translation into Japanese should always sound as if a native Japanese in the industry wrote the text to start with. Therefore, in good Japanese translation (although with some exceptions like legal documents), the subjects are properly skipped, singular/plural are ignored, and even redundant adjectives should be cut into shorter descriptions. That is why I do not believe in the significance of back translation. A translation which sounds good in back translation often means the Japanese is not good.

Relate an example or two of times you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized. How might a business lose money, prestige, or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?

Machine-translated websites are obviously useless.

I often get a kick out of a medical package insert translated into Japanese for a Chinese audience. A Chinese person must have translated it, but they often use Chinese characters instead of Japanese characters, and it’s soooo funny! I occasionally see similar things on the Web.

Translations on the Adobe and Microsoft sites used to be bad. Now they’ve improved a lot.

If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.

This is more like the importance of using a proper copy-writing translator.

One example of a good translation job is “Intel Inside,” which became “Intel Haitteru” for the Japanese. The meaning remains “Intel inside” as in the original, but it has beautiful rhyme (“in-te-ru/hait-te-ru”), which made the translated phrase as popular as the original.

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