Top tips for localising for the Japanese market

June 11, 2014 by totalityservices

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When localising your brand for any market, you should never presume this can be something done easily.

It's never as simple as translating from X language into Y language and often it's not a few poorly-converted words that can end up costing you time, money and reputation – it's those cultural quirks that can be the difference between success and failure.

These aren't always obvious traps to fall into, either – which is why choosing who carries out your localisation is an incredibly important decision. With this in mind, here are a few pointers when planning your move into the Japanese market.

Saving face

While you may be familiar with this phrase as a UK idiom, it's doubtful that you will ever have taken the meaning of it as seriously as your Japanese counterparts.

Saving face forms a crucial part of culture and society in this country. In Japan it's firmly believed that having a request turned down is a cause of embarrassment, with the person making that plea seen to be 'losing face'.

When localising, it is important not to alienate potential clients or contacts through being ignorant of such customs. The language you use to reply to questions can sometimes be taken in a manner you may not expect if you are less familiar with what may cause them offence.

For example, having face is seen as being a mark of high status and the Japanese will do all they can to avoid losing it. 

So, how do you get around this when trying to establish your brand in the Japanese market? The best approach is to respond by letting the other person or company know their query is "under consideration" or is "inconvenient", as this will give them the message without directly rejecting them.

Keigo – honourific language

One of the main differences when it comes to localising your brand in Japan is knowing when to use honourific speech, or "keigo". These are parts of language that demonstrate respect and are often used to emphasise social standings between two people in a conversation, either to express disparity or similarity.

Generally, keigo is longer and more indirect than regular speech. It is very formal and also often used in writing, particularly in posters and flyers.

However, there are different types of honourific language to understand:

Respectful language, or "sonkeigo", is adopted when addressing customers. This involves using a polite variation of the verb in a sentence and implies the speaker is working in a professional manner.

Polite language is the first form of Japanese taught to people who do not natively speak it. This type is commonly used by television presenters and can refer to the actions of other people and the speaker themselves.

Humble language implies that your actions are taking place to assist another and is similar in many aspects to respectful language. Verbs are swapped with other forms and nouns can also change.

When preparing business documents or written material in Japanese it is very important to specify the target audience as this will affect the choice of language and the degree of formality. Get it wrong and you can come across as very rude!

Attention to detail

It goes without saying that it's important to ensure that any material you plan to produce in any country is accurate, but mistakes are something that are not taken lightly in Japan – perhaps more so than almost any other country.

Here, being wrong can reflect very badly on the person or organisation making the error, something that is signified by the amount of time that the Japanese dedicate towards making almost all – if not every – business decisions.

As a result, the resolution process within Japanese firms can often take much longer than those of organisations in the UK, for example, as it is common practice for particular conclusions to be reviewed and amended at each hierarchical level. This is to minimise the chance of a mistake being made.

For this reason, it's well worth ensuring that whatever literature or promotional items you produce are checked to the highest standards before being released. If they contain errors, this can reflect badly upon your company, leaving you on the back foot right at the start of your venture into this new market.

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