Japanese Website Localization – Do I Need to Reinvent My Brand?

Posted By Jim Kersey

When setting up your new website for Japan, make sure you’re not just literally translating the text from your English website. In Japanese, like many other languages, literal translations are often inadequate and can sometimes be wildly different from your original intended meaning.

Beyond this, Japanese cultural differences and specific market considerations make it necessary for you to adapt your brand and products to have a guaranteed impact on your audience. And while most business owners are aware of this, many are not sure how far they need to go.

Completely reinventing your brand might seem like a drastic and unachievable venture, but leaving your website in English wouldn’t work either, would it? The truth is, good Japanese website localization for most brands sits somewhere in the middle.

We explore the most common ways brands set up their Japanese websites and offer some advice on how you can decide on your own localization strategy for the Japanese market.

Reasons to Localize Your Website

  • Greater engagement with your target audience
  • Showcase content that is more likely to convert users
  • Greater presence and reputation within your market
  • Gain trust easier from Japanese consumers
  • Improve your organic search volume with Japanese SEO optimized site content
  • Avoid basic translation mistakes and misrepresentation of your brand
  • A stronger base to implement any digital marketing and SEM strategies

Carrying Out Japanese SEM? Here’s Some Advice

Different Approaches to Japanese Website Localization – Pros and Cons

Woman reviewing approaches to japanese website localization

There are generally four different ways you can choose from when establishing a Japanese website, each with their own pros and cons.

1. Leave It In English

Some brands actually choose to leave their entire websites in English. And this can sometimes be justified if you can assume that your audience will naturally understand what they see when browsing your web pages.

For example, huge international brands like Nike or Adidas have instantly recognisable branding, tag lines, and general look and feel. Their positioning as globally popular brands might also mean that the use of the English language text enhances their appeal to Japanese consumers.

Pros Cons
The fastest way for brands looking to quickly bring their websites to Japan. Proficiency in English is not high enough to assume all readers will be able to understand your core brand values. 
Can help you achieve global consistency across different markets.  Lacks a personal touch that can encourage a greater emotional connection with your brand. 
Could be perceived as lazy or irrelevant to your target market.

HB Pro Tip: As Japan has distinctly low proficiency in English (with less than 30% speaking it at any level at all) leaving any of your content, let alone all of it, is a huge risk! Don’t go down this route unless your Japanese brand recognition is enormous and your products basically sell themselves.

2. Translate and Adapt

Some companies will look to initially translate their English web copy into Japanese, and then merely make enough content edits so it makes sense, more or less. In this situation, layouts, navigation, and products descriptions will follow the same format.

Pros Cons
You don’t need to make any serious changes to the content. Your Japanese website will have a less powerful impact than your English approach.
Your Japanese website will be somewhat consistent with your English market website. Can appear to be directly translated if performed poorly, seeming overly foreign and unusual.
This takes a minimal amount of Japanese language support and basic creative skills to edit the copy. Less informational content compared to standard Japanese websites might put off readers and prevent you from building a strong connection with your audience.

3. Localization and Transcreation

The more creative license you allow, the greater the chance you will have of finding a way to represent yourself to your audience that resonates with them. Still retaining your core brand values, you can find new and innovative approaches to connecting with people who land on your pages.

Pros Cons
Allows for greater opportunities to be impactful and emotionally engaging. Takes considerably more local Japanese support to do well.
Can help you find new opportunities to showcase the value and benefits of your brand in Japan. Can create a certain inconsistency between global markets.
Prevents the chance of translation mistakes and misrepresentation damaging your brand.

4. Reinvention

This approach takes the core DNA of your brand and finds a new way of bringing that concept to your new market. It also takes into consideration the unique cultural factors and context of your new market, while trying to retain your brand origins. Starting fresh will require a talented team of creatives to go back to the drawing board.


Pros Cons
Offers the greatest potential to really connect with your market. Takes a great deal of time and resources to get right, and requires considerable Japanese creative support throughout the process. 
You don’t need to make any compromises when finding the best way to showcase your products and services to Japan. Websites can appear discordant with your global marketing approach.

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Japanese Market Considerations

Considering Japanese consumers as part of your Japanese website localization strategy

Before you make a decision about your approach to Japanese website localization, remind yourself of why it’s really necessary. One of the best ways to do this is to take a look at the many differences found in the Japanese consumer, compared to their Western counterparts.

It is these differences that you need to be aware of when creating any marketing or brand related content for your new market.

Japanese Consumer Behaviour

Japanese consumers are more risk averse and distrustful of organizations than those from many other nations, according to indicators like the Edelman Trust Barometer, meaning it will take more to win them over with a brand they don’t recognise.

Western brands and goods are not always seen as better. Often, shoppers will prefer to buy from domestic brands they are loyal to, than resort to foreign companies that are new to the market. Japanese consumers prefer more information than less, and are often deterred by companies that show too little product information in their marketing content.

Appearance and aesthetics are highly valued in Japanese society. If your presentation is lacking finesse, you could miss out on a great many discerning Japanese web visitors. There is an extremely high expectation for quality in Japan, which carries through to many aspects of the consumer world, including how brands showcase themselves online.

Japanese culture is generally more collectivist than individualistic, meaning conforming to the general consensus and shared beliefs is more important than personal freedom and being unique.

HB Pro Tip: In an individualistic culture such as the US, the promise of freedom and standing out from the crowd might help you to win over potential customers. However, Japanese consumers are less concerned with this and prefer to choose bands and products that are widely accepted by their peers. So, by presenting yourself as too different or unusual, you could be deterring many potential customers.

Dive Deeper Into the Japanese Consumer Mindset

Adapting Your Brand for Japan

Trying a new color to be used for Japanese website localization

The Japanese market has a tremendous appetite for foreign brands. However, as many failed businesses have exhibited, it’s not always easy to bring a foreign product or service to the Japanese market.

Despite finding success back home, you may find that your approach can’t be replicated in Japan without some careful adaptation and modification of your overall brand. Below are some essential aspects you might consider adapting so that you align more closely with what Japanese consumers know and love.

Potential Brand Aspects to Adapt

Brand identity Presented through key assets like your name, logo and associated visuals, your brand identity is how people will instantly recognize who you are. Many owners are naturally reluctant to adapt this part of their business, but you may consider altering your product or service names to be more Japanese friendly.
Brand image What kind of image do you want to conjure in the minds of your customers? You may be a trendy, affordable brand in the US, but this might not be your best foot forward in Japan where high quality products and luxury items are valued more.
Brand positioning Your positioning can change depending on the competitors in your new market. If your original demographic segment is already saturated by other brands, adapting your positioning can help you gain traction in Japan.
Brand personality Every brand elicits certain emotional or personal qualities. Western brands that appear youthful and carefree sometimes choose to embody a more serious and practical persona in Japan, to cater to older demographics who have greater purchasing power.

Japanese Web Design and Aesthetic Trends

The How is just as important as the Why in Japanese marketing, meaning consumers want to know about the technology inside a product as well as why they should buy it and how it can benefit their life.

Homepage of Keihls in Japan as example of Japanese website localization

This balance between the emotional and the practical is at the heart of good web design here — whether we’re talking about branded websites or virtual shop fronts on the Rakuten platform like the one below from Keilhls.

As is common with Japanese websites, illustrations, manga and cute visual elements often receive prominence, with characters and storyboards helping to engage with customers and convey a brand narrative or important sales message.

Cartoon storyboard from Keihls as example of Japanese website localization

Also, pages often feature more elements on the page, including smaller and more frequent graphics. This differs from most Western designs that will use large high resolution images that sparsely populate a page to give focus to specific actions users are encouraged to take .

Below is what Starbucks’ homepage looks like for Japan. While it does have a large strip of white space to the right, the rest of the page is crammed with small written and visual elements. Each small block says something new, directing customers to a different place on the website.

Homepage of Starbucks in Japan as example of Japanese website localization

You might also notice how many websites are comfortable mixing clashing design styles – using the contrast to add a kind of high-impact tone. This might seem messy or confusing for Western audiences, but in Japan it works!

The homepage of Japan’s Little Word, a popular interactive museum called ‘The Little World Museum of Man’, is a good example of this.

Homepage of Japanese Little World museum illustrating contrasting design in Japanese website localization

Interested in Learning More About Japanese Web Design Trends?

Getting the Content Right

The purpose of strong website copywriting is the same in Japan as in other markets. Through careful word choices and sentence arrangements, you are looking to strike a balance between the literal and emotional, in order to convey your brand and products in a positive way.

You want to be clear and true to what you are describing, but you also want to imply a greater sense of worth and quality through various cultural meanings, ambiguities, and subtle implications.

Within this context, it’s clear that no quick fix or easy translation is going to enable you to achieve the same effect in Japanese as you have taken so long to capture through your English web copy. If nothing else, the nation’s unique history and cultural awareness mean you must have a good understanding of how people think here if you want to connect with them.

On top of this, the unique way the Japanese language works, with its multiple scripts, means crafting truly great web copy as an outsider is pretty much impossible.

HB Pro Tip: Having great Japanese copywriters to help you with your localization process is just as important as it was to hire amazing English copywriters for your original website. When looking for help with your next web build for Japan, make sure you keep semantics in mind and consider how capable your team are at conveying your brand’s true value in a completely different language and cultural context.

Optimal Content Length

Optimal content length in terms of SEO for your online published material (blogs, case studies etc.) will be different in Japanese, with respect to how Japanese script (Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana) conveys information differently to other languages.

For instance, if you were to consider the average number of Japanese characters in top ranking blogs, this would translate to roughly 1,600 to 2,000 words in English.

While the number of characters is important, writing irreverent and meaninglessly long articles will work against your SEO potential. With this in mind, always create content that meets the user’s needs first and foremost. Optimal content length will always vary depending on the purpose of that content, and sometimes short blog posts will do the job just as well as a comprehensive guide.

The Localization Process

The process of Japanese website localization

Finally, we’ve outlined some basic steps to follow when localizing your website for Japan. Every journey is different and each digital marketing agency will have their own approach to localization in Japan, but having a general framework in mind from the start can help you avoid some important localization mistakes.

1. Define your scope

Always start by understanding what exactly you are trying to achieve with your Japanese website localization and what resources are available. This will help you to determine realistic expectations and assign adequate budget to achieving it. A publish date is also crucial!

2. Keyword research and mapping

Ideally, you will be able to conduct a full SEO keyword research process to support all your future digital content marketing strategies as well as your Japanese website build. This can then be mapped to your website’s layout and navigation to improve your quality score and SERP potential.

3. Localization

Next, you will need to embark on the specific translation and localization method you have chosen, whether it is a basic adaptation of your English website copy or a full transcreation of your online hub into an entirely new Japanese beast altogether.

4. Measure and Optimize

Create a plan for how you will check how your website is doing, including your important SEO metrics, such as click through rates, time on page, and conversions.

Learn How to Avoid Embarrassing Mistakes When Conducting Japanese Marketing Translation

Practical vs. Ideal – Japanese Website Localization

Graphic designer working on Japanese website localization

Ultimately, there’s no single right way to bring your brand and website to Japan, given that the budgets, type and goals of every business are different. And what business owners would ideally like to do is far away from what practical consideration allows. Therefore, making the right choice depends on your organization context, capabilities, and expectations.

Just be mindful that visitor numbers, engagement, and eventual conversion all rely on you creating a website that effectively caters to the preferences of Japanese users, while showcasing your brand in a way that resonates with your audience.

To do this, professional and creative Japanese website localization should be given appropriate consideration within your overall marketing strategy, whether you opt for a lightweight localization approach or choose to completely refresh your website for your new market.

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