Explore the challenges of localizing for the Japanese market and learn how to adapt your product with best practices from local experts.
Japan, the third-largest economy in the world—right behind the US and China—is a great opportunity for businesses looking to expand globally. At the same time, it’s a very unique market with a distinctive culture: Japanese consumers aren’t easily swayed.
That’s why entering the Japanese market calls for a thorough localization effort. If you don’t manage to adapt your product to all local requirements, you may instantly earn lasting distrust—the Japanese could quickly get what they want from a local brand they may trust.
They’re also known for their strong work ethic, and they’ll expect the same from you—so make sure you come prepared. To get you started, let’s dive into what makes localizing for Japan so challenging and how to make the most of it with best practices from local experts.
The Japanese market: A unique yet challenging business opportunity
With a population of more than 125 million people and an average income of $40,247 per capita, the prospect of accessing an affluent consumer market is real in Japan.
Let’s review a couple of key facts about Japan that speak for themselves:
- Japan is the largest Asian stock exchange—with the yen (￥) as its only currency.
- The country boasts the second-largest computer and telecommunications market in the world.
- Its long list of key sectors ranges from gaming, biotechnology, and healthcare, to retail, electronics, and more.
Technologically advanced, keen on innovation, and catching up with digitalization, Japan is an attractive investment destination for many companies on track for global growth. Nevertheless, Japanese culture often seems to be a barrier to getting a foothold in the long run.
Preparation is key
Like any plan for business expansion, it all starts with thorough market research and identifying local partners. Nevertheless, you may have to put in a bit more work in comparison to other countries because English proficiency is quite low in Japan—it ranked 78 out of 112 countries in the EF English proficiency index in 2021—so localization is essential from the start. At the same time, the Japanese tend to be risk-averse and take time to make the “safest” decision possible, so doing business in Japan may require more time and patience.
Here are a few recommendations to get you off to a good start in entering the Japanese market:
- Make sure to allow plenty of time to understand and penetrate the local business networks. Factor in time to navigate the heavy bureaucracy to get permissions and licenses. Choose your local partners carefully and hire an interpreter for all personal or online meetings. Chances that your hard work and patience will be rewarded are good as the Japanese favor long-term collaboration and are loyal business partners.
- Create at least a one-pager explaining your business in Japanese and prepare bilingual business cards as well as thorough company documentation—relying on English materials to introduce yourself and your business would hardly cut it in Japan.
- Consider investing from the get-go in a high-quality language service provider and localization technology to support your localization efforts, especially as quality is sought after in Japanese culture—without the right people at your side and technology in place, consistent quality might be hard to achieve in the long run.
Get to know the Japanese customers
Bringing your product directly to the Japanese market may not bear fruit if you don’t adapt it effectively to the needs and tastes of its consumers—an all-too-familiar issue for Nakano Miyuki, Quality Management Division Manager at Honyaku Center, one of the largest language service providers in Japan:
“What we’ve learned from years of working with companies who want to enter the Japanese market is the frequent lack of understanding of Japanese business practices, cultural patterns, and linguistic specifics. This shortcoming often makes companies perceive localization as a simple task of replacing words from one language to another. To help them meet that challenge, we always try to come up with solutions that go beyond mere translation. As local partners, we carefully listen to our customer’s needs and explain the local context as much as possible to facilitate their understanding of, and finally, success in the Japanese market,” Nakano explains.
A company that experienced first-hand the limitations of its one-size-fits-all approach during a global launch was Vodafone. Its handsets, as acceptable as they were to a European audience, didn’t hit the mark with tech-savvy Japanese customers. As a result, the telecommunications giant had to revise its copy for Japan to fix what turned out to be an expensive blunder.
Dyson, on the other hand, did its homework from the start. After thorough market research, the British household appliances company designed a special vacuum cleaner selection for the Japanese market because it realized smaller devices would better fit the rather small homes in Japan. Its launch was a success, creating serious competition for homegrown brands.
Provide a lot of information and an impeccable customer service
This was no small feat on Dyson’s part because Japanese customers are very loyal to the local brands they know and trust. Like Japanese businesspeople, Japanese consumers tend to avoid risks and take the time to gather information before making a decision.
This might be in good part because, in general, Japan doesn’t allow returning, replacing, or refunding, except for defective products—so consumers need to feel sure about their buying decision as they may not have a second chance to get it right.
To appeal to the discerning customers, you need to provide them with lots of information. A product page on your website should contain as many specifications, details, and pictures as possible. A strong example is the Rakuten online marketplace, which is neck and neck with Amazon in Japan—Amazon boasts 556M monthly visits while Rakuten counts 544M.
The dense content of a Rakuten product page may be disorientating to a Western eye, but those loads of copy and images provide the amount of information Japanese consumers are seeking. Make sure all that content proves the quality of your product or service: If you manage to fulfill or even exceed their expectations, the Japanese may consider paying a premium price.
In the same manner, high-quality customer service is the norm in Japan. American Express International conducted a survey on local customer service expectations in 9 countries a few years ago: Researchers asked how many times the participants would accept poor customer service from a company before changing providers. Japan was far ahead with 56% of the respondents declaring that a single bad experience would be enough.
With such seemingly unforgiving customers, the Japanese market makes it necessary to ensure that every single customer looking for support gets timely answers in Japanese, and above all, with respect and humility—values that are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
Adapt your brand and marketing strategy for success in Japan
Collectivist thinking dominates in Japan. It’s important for Japanese people to fit in and be accepted by their peers—so if being different or standing out from the crowd is a core value of your brand, you might want to consider reviewing your strategy for launching there—what might have worked in the US or Europe may not work in Japan.
If the promise of being unique can’t be the basis of your marketing, you need to pivot. A winning localization strategy in Japan can be focusing on creating a strong connection with your Japanese audience from the start, stressing the quality and reliability of your brand and products.
Convincing Japanese customers they can rely on you might go a long way. These values need to be present and clearly expressed across touchpoints—from social media, emails, and your website to customer service. Building trust through consistency is key.
Put another way, this value set needs to be part of the DNA of your brand. In order to achieve brand consistency, make sure there is a common understanding of your brand among all stakeholders, from senior management to designers, copywriters, and translators.
Write down brand guidelines and communicate them to everyone involved as they will make for a smoother localization process. This doesn’t only apply to Japan, by the way: It will be key for successful localization in all your markets.
If you rely on your website to be found by your customers, make sure also to adapt your SEO strategy. Search engine optimization is built around the online habits of consumers. If you are targeting Japanese consumers, you need to understand their online preferences.
For example, keywords that would work in Germany may not be relevant to Japanese customers. Working with local SEO specialists can have a great impact on your success in implementing SEO from a Japanese perspective.
Make sure nothing gets lost in translation
It’s fitting that “Lost in translation,” Sofia Coppola’s film, was set in Tokyo because a lot can get lost when translating into Japanese. By any measure, Japanese is a rich and complex language.
Some examples of the complexity of the Japanese language
The Japanese language has three character sets that can coexist in one sentence:
- The phonetic hiragana
- The phonetic katakana
- The logographic kanji
Hiragana and katakana each consist of 46 characters. On the other hand, kanji contains 2,136 characters that depict concepts. Instead of relying on words and phrases to represent meaning, Kanji uses different strokes that indicate their meanings based on how they’re placed within a set of characters. To add to this, kanji is often used differently depending on the word or phrase, so the same kanji character may end up in different places.
Pronouns exemplify two significant features of the Japanese language: The importance of context and politeness. For instance, there are several ways of saying “you” depending on the situation and the person you are speaking to (and your relationship with them). A few of them are:
- Kiden 貴殿 (very formal)
- Anata あなた (formal)
- Kimi 君 (equivalent or informal)
- Omae お前 (very informal)
You can imagine how challenging it is to translate into Japanese a seemingly simple marketing message built around ‘you’ in English! And if you don’t get it right, you’ll lose a potential customer: Japanese customers aren’t likely to forgive a translation mistake. Instead, they may judge your brand for it because they expect nothing short of perfection.
Establish a productive translation workflow
Since context is such an important element, linguists on your localization team should have all the information they need to understand how their work will eventually be used. Even if you ask them to translate small strings of text, you should let them know if it’s a user interface element or a subject line for an email. Attaching the strings to screenshots, for example, can help avoid approximate translations that might not do the job.
To pursue excellence, make sure to set up a strong quality assurance process. Go for a translation workflow that includes editing and proofreading after translation. To be on the safe side, since you may need several review loops to get it right, plan more time and budget for Japanese translation.
Finally, consider using transcreation for marketing assets. Transcreation goes a step further than translation in adapting your content or assets as your linguists and writers may end up completely rewriting parts of the source copy. It may pay off with the discerning Japanese audience. Working with a translator who’s also a copywriter would then be a great option.
Localizing for Japan all the way to your design
Colors, icons, and symbols may have different meanings from one culture to the next, especially in Japan. For example, colors with positive connotations are red (luck), yellow (courage), and blue (peace), while black/white stands for mourning and purple for danger. This could have a great impact on your product, packaging, or web design.
Japan may be known for the minimalism of its zen philosophy, but that doesn’t apply to its websites. As we could see above, they usually display a lot of text, small graphics, and again, a lot of colors. To make your website usable, enjoyable, and accessible for Japanese users, you’ll need to consider adapting your design.
Equally important, the Japanese language doesn’t use spaces between words—so you’ll need to adapt your UI with the utmost care because the usual word-wrapping algorithms and line-breakings to display text won’t be functional.
Plan on enough space for Japanese copy
There are many specificities to Japan your team of designers and developers will probably not know about. It will end up being a problem when translators need to make their work fit in a design that’s not adapted. For example:
- Texts in Japanese are usually 20-55% longer than in English.
- The date format is year-month-day.
- The full name format for a person starts with the family name followed by the given name.
- Addresses start with the postal code, followed by the prefecture, city, and subarea(s). The person’s name comes last.
If this isn’t adequately localized, the result will not fit the Japanese quality criteria. The best way to address this challenge is to include your translators early in the project lifecycle (instead of the very end), so they can raise these issues early on. Designers can then adapt their creation and avoid reworking anything at the end of the life cycle, which would cause delays and additional costs.
Get ready for the Japanese market
With the right preparation, local business connections, and translation professionals, localizing for the Japanese market could be exceptionally rewarding for your business. To avoid common localization pitfalls, speed up your time to market, and maximize results, consolidating all your localization efforts with the help of a reliable technology partner is key. More specifically, you need a modern, cloud-based translation management system (TMS) that will:
- Centralize your localization workflows to increase productivity, quality, and revenue.
- Foster real-time collaboration on a single platform to ensure a seamless, accurate, and on-time translation and localization workflow for both in-house and external stakeholders.
- Allow you to submit content for translation in familiar file formats that you’ve been using in your business endeavors from day one.
- Offer out-of-the-box integrations to bring localization and your familiar tools together, be it a content management system or a design platform.
- Combine well-established translation technology with AI-powered machine translation capabilities.
- Provide a holistic approach to data security and encryption through an information security management system.
To keep learning about what it takes to localize successfully for international markets, we suggest the following guides: