Translation Services in Japan – How to Translate Your English Website Properly

Updated by Jim Kersey on 11/04/2021

Posted By Caylon Neely

If you’re bringing your products or services to Japan you’ll already know (we hope) that you need to adapt your content for the local market. Yet, the meat method of doing so might not be so clear.

Plenty of international companies will make the mistake of simply translating English content directly using online services, leading to a myriad of mistakes and communication errors.

Equally, some brands get lost in the process of trying to completely rewrite their websites and other marketing content from scratch and risk losing brand consistency between their English and Japanese content.

In this blog, we’re going to explain why the right approach for your brand probably lies somewhere in the middle where you translate, adapt, and localize your source content within the context of Japanese cultural preferences and communication trends.

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Types of Translation Services in Japan

Concept of different types of translation services in Japan

There are roughly three different approaches used by translation companies in Japan when handling the content of foreign brands who are new to the country.

Translate and Adapt

It’s okay to initially translate your content directly from English to Japanese. The important thing is that you don’t stop there, which is unfortunately what far too many international companies are still doing today.

Any half decent translation service should review any translated content and look for things that don’t quite make sense, as well as areas that seem a bit “off” or clunky. At the very least, a round of editing should take place where your content should eventually hold together for the average reader.

In this situation, there won’t be any serious changes made to your content and you can rest assured that you’re avoiding some of the most embarrassing translation fails. However, it’s important to note that this approach doesn’t do any of the following:

  • Considers how content can be improved to be more impactful and powerful for Japanese audiences
  • Explores the best formats or layouts to present your content in (paragraphs, headings)
  • Completely removes the feeling that native Japanese speakers might have that your content is translated and not made especially for the Japanese market

HB Pro Tip: How will your audience know that the content is translated? Sometimes phrasing or word choice can seem unusual, whether the formality isn’t quite perfect or the terminology doesn’t match up with the context. Although translating and then adapting content using this method can be a quick and affordable way to start targeting your Japanese consumers, keep in mind that there’s still a chance your content will look recycled, rather than specially crafted for the local market.

Localization and Transcreation

Translation services in Japan that promote ‘localization’ and ‘transcreation’ will want to take on more creative license when it comes to adapting your content. If this comes up as a key value offering in initial discussions, we’d take this as a good sign that they are willing to put more effort into the process of getting your content ready for its new audience.

They might use exactly the same source text that you would offer in the previous option, but they’ll probably try to come at it from multiple angles. This could involve moving stuff around, chopping bits out or adding in new sections of text they think will showcase the value of your brand better, taking greater care to remove any awkward translation phrases or clunky adaptations of your original meaning.

HB Pro Tip: For this process to work well, it’s important that your translator has a good sense of your core brand values as well as the key marketing messages you want to get across. They should make any necessary text adjustments within the context of this to find ways to make your content impactful and emotionally engaging.


Almost starting from scratch, companies that offer this translation method will use your brand’s core values and messaging goals as a framework for creating fresh new content for the Japanese market.

This will rely on having a tight project brief in place that outlines exactly what you are trying to achieve with your content, and perhaps a lot more background about who you are as a brand.

Assuming your translation service is a good one, this approach will take into consideration the unique cultural factors and context of your new market, while doing its best to reveal the universal appeal of your brand. Ultimately, more creative freedom will allow them to think outside the box and explore new messaging approaches.

HB Pro Tip: Be warned that a complete reinvention of your website or marketing content will take more time and resources. And to get this right, you’ll need to work with some strong creative talent. It’s likely that you’ll have to adapt your website’s design and layout too if your content varies significantly from the approach taken in your home market. This means it’s more likely that you’ll need to look for a marketing or creative agency that also offers translation services, rather than a translation service that promises they can help you with your website and marketing content.

What Industries Do Japanese Translation Companies Serve?

The type of agency you need could depend on the industry you’re in, with more technical industries benefiting from translators who are already familiar with your service and the kind of terminology that is commonly used. If any of the below apply to you, it’s worth asking your prospective service provider whether they have previous experience in this area.

  • Business and finance translations
  • Legal translations
  • Ecommerce translations
  • Medical translation
  • Technical services translation
  • Video game sector translations

HB Pro Tip: The process of preparing a technical manual compared to a website can be quite different. If your project has any unique requirements or specification, it’s worth finding specialists. For instance, marketing translators for websites and ecommerce platforms will have more experiences in finding short and succinct ways of showcasing your brand and products to Japanese users, in a way that a standard translation company might not be able to.

Looking for Local Insights into Japanese Industries? Take a Look at Our Market Analysis Guide

Important Aspects of Japanese Translation

Translation services team in Japan work on new translation project for foreign brand

Before you make a decision about your approach to Japanese website localization, consider what “good” content looks like and how you will measure the success of the translation project. Below are some key things you should be looking for.

Accuracy of Meaning

Often, there’s no direct translation between English words and Japanese words. So, the most important thing to focus on is the overall accuracy of meaning. Translators and localizers should be able to convey your intended meaning through careful word selection and sentence arrangements.

As with any language, good Japanese content should strike a balance between the literal and emotional, in order to convey your brand and products in the right way. Cultural meanings, ambiguities, and subtle implications will all play a part in communication and achieving the desired effect.

Brand Consistency

While Japanese consumers do indeed have a strong appetite for foreign brands, they don’t love all foreign brands just because they’re foreign. Specifically, Japanese consumers prefer brands that have existing credibility and status in the global marketplace or international fashion scene.

If you’re a new and relatively unknown brand, you’ll need to focus on building integrity and prestige from scratch and this starts with having tight branding that is consistently portrayed through all your online channels.

When working with your content, translation companies should always try to retain brand consistency across all your written content.

Audience Relevance and Appeal

Japanese consumers are known to be generally more risk averse and distrustful of organizations than those from many other nations, according to indicators like the Edelman Trust Barometer.

When it comes to adapting your content for Japan, you need to do your utmost to build trust and convey yourself in the best possible light so that shoppers will be more inclined to take a risk on you.

Also, appearance and presentation are highly valued in Japanese society. Any mistakes or errors in your marketing content, whether that’s text or visually, can undermine your integrity as a brand. And the last thing you want to look like as a foreign brand is lazy.

Steps for Planning Your Next Translation Project

Company leader outlines steps for localizing content and choosing translation services in Japan

A successful translation and localization project depends on many factors but one of the most important aspects is how your brand prepares for it. Some careful forethought about which approach you want to use, what your goals are, and what kind of source text and instructions you’ll give to your translation agency, will all have a huge impact on the result.

Step 1 – Define your Target Audience

Japanese readers will vary significantly in taste and preferences depending on whether they’re young or old. Websites and marketing content targeting younger users should use a completely different set of terms and social references.

If your content is not adapted for specific audiences, you risk it appearing generic or even unsuitable in the eyes of your audience. Make sure you always deliver accurate audience targeting parameters to your translators.

If you want to learn more about the preferences of Japanese users, take a look at our blog: Marketing in Japan? 10 Important things You Need to Know About Japanese Consumers.

Step 2 – Identify Key Messages and Tone

Marketers and translation services in Japan plan brand user experience and localization approach

Outline the important brand messages and selling points you want to highlight in your content and outline the correct tone of voice to choose, whether it’s jovial, serious, enthusiastic or otherwise. This will help to give your content more “personality” and relevance to your core branding.

Step 3 – Prepare your Source Document

Some brands, when using translation services in Japan, make the mistake of simply sending over a link to their website. While this is okay in some circumstances, and does show your translator how you like things set up in your home market, it’s not the best way to start your project.

We would recommend creating a separate document where you’ve extracted all the important sections from your website and where you can add additional context or instructions. It’s also useful to send over any existing brand guidelines or resources so that translators can go beyond the website and learn more about your brand and history.

Also, a “brief” or list of instructions, requests and reminders is also incredibly useful at this stage. For example, make a note of any names, phrases, or descriptions that you would rather avoid or any areas that you think would be unnecessary for Japanese readers to know about.

Step 4 – Review and Collaborate

When the first draft is done, make sure you read over this with diligence to look for any linguistic and cultural errors. Ideally with the help of any Japanese native speakers on your team, look for areas where you would like to adapt the content further to make sure everything is explained and formatted to your requirements.

It’s completely normal to collaborate with translation services in Japan over a few editing phases until the content is finalized. You might want to address things like content length, punctuation, capitalization, text formats or the way content can be adapted to your website’s layout — this could all require further translation support.

How to Find the Right Translation Services for Japan

Couple enjoying online content localized by translation services in Japan

Unfortunately, there are a lot of lasting problems that can come from choosing the wrong Japanese translation service. When looking for the perfect partner to help you with your content, the following questions might help you choose the right candidate.

Will You ‘Translate’, ‘Localize’ or ‘Reinvent’ My Content?

Localization is often confused with translation, but these terms actually mean two different things. Localization is the entire process of adapting a product or content to a specific location or market.

Translation is the process of simply converting text from one language to another. And while this is an important aspect of localization, it is not everything. Localization involves adapting several elements for specific target markets to achieve:

  • 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

Finally, if you’re looking for someone to completely reinvent your approach to communicating with your Japanese customers, you’ll need to find a service that expressly offers this. And we’d recommend finding experienced marketers who have a proven track record of creatively advertising in Japan.

Do you Have Experience with SEO and Keyword Implementation?

Marketing copywriting is inherently more commercially focused than other types of content. Remember, your translation company might not be able to offer creative copywriting skills, or, if they do, the person translating your content might not be the same person as the one who handles the sales and marketing aspects of your content.

Make sure you always check what the process of your translator/translation service is and how they plan to handle sales and marketing copy in Japanese.

Also, SEO and keyword splicing is another part of the translation question that can be easily overlooked. As search engines become smarter at analyzing and categorizing content, keyword splicing is becoming less and less important in today’s world.

However, using keywords in your copy in a natural and organic way is still what will clarify your content and educate those search engines. You should feel confident that your Japanese translator can implement keywords effectively in your copy, without shoehorning them in awkwardly.

Do You Offer Technical Translation Services?

Western manager reviewing content that he wants to send to translation services in Japan

Another issue is finding someone who can effectively talk about your product or service from a technical standpoint. It’s important to remember that even if someone is a native speaker, they may not have the vocabulary required to write about your product. The more technical your product or service is, the more critical this becomes.

We understand that for some industries it could be very difficult to find a translator with the expert knowledge that you require. If that is the case, we suggest looking internally if possible. Get your bilingual experts to write copy as directly and simply as they can. You can then take this to a marketing copywriter who can adapt it to sound better and more appealing to readers.

Another option is to use technical copy for product descriptions, and hire a translator or copywriter for your marketing and sales copy. This will take a bit more work to execute properly, but the result will make your site much more appealing to readers.

Can I See Your Portfolio?

It’s always good to see someone’s past work. Of course, if you can’t read the copy in the target language, there are other metrics you could ask for to get an insight.

See if they have analytics data on the past websites that they have translated. Stats such as click-through rates and conversion rates for leads are great indicators, especially if there’s a set of “before and after” snapshots to show improvement.

It’s also useful to have your staff (someone that speaks Japanese) read through the translation services’ portfolio to see how it all reads.

How Do You Charge?

With marketing translation and localization, you often get what you pay for. While it’s not always true that if you simply pay “per word” you’ll get a rubbish service, it’s often better to work with translation agencies based on the unique requirements of your project and make sure that everything, from research to SEO optimisation, is already factored into your price quote. A few examples are:

  • Pay per word for copy typing
  • Pay per hour/day for the length of the project
  • A fixed cost based on the project
  • A monthly fee that covers translation services and additional marketing support

HB Pro Tip: Whichever method you choose, make sure you iron out the details before the project begins and try to get an estimated quote based on the project brief you have shared with your prospective agency.

Cautionary Words

Funny concept of the Japanese word “baiku” translated from “bike”

There are many poor translations out there. And to make matters worse, Japanese consumers have a high level of scepticism towards foreign brands and goods compared to other countries. Having unnatural copy is a quick way to lose trust before you even begin building connections. Below are some common mistakes we often see from English-to-Japanese translations on the web.

Lazy Direct Translations

A por direct translation can seem sloppy and lazy. The way we say things in Japanese and English can be very different sometimes. Translations that are too direct will likely overlook these important differences. Remember that in Japanese, context and cultural factors play a huge role in how people and brands communicate.

Misuse of Katakana English

Another issue that is very unique to Japanese is the use of loan words. Japanese has a special alphabet, Katakana, which is mostly used for foreign words that have been adopted into the language. It’s often baffling how many phrases have landed into the Japanese lexicon. Oddly, a lot of them have very different meanings in Japanese than they do in their native language.

For example “baiku” or “bike” in Japanese is exclusively used for motorcycles. Never does the term “baiku” mean a bicycle as “bike” could in English. Another one is “air con”, which is used to describe a heating and air conditioning machine found in most Japanese homes. In English “aircon” would only mean air conditioning unit, and not a heater. These might seem like small details but they could easily cause readers to misunderstand your meaning.

Never Use an Automated Japanese Translation Service

Futuristic and cute bot representing the future of translation services in Japan

We’ve mentioned the importance of avoiding automated translations and diligently organizing multilingual sites for SEO in previous articles, and the same principles also apply to the translations themselves.

Google states that automated translations are often unnatural and could be viewed as spam by their website crawlers. And if it determines that your website is spam, your site won’t appear in relevant Google search results.

Discover More Tips on Avoiding Translation Fails in Japan

Translation Is Only a Part Of Your Japanese Localization Strategy

Translation is just one of the many parts of localizing your website and brand content for Japanese audiences. Your whole visual and UX strategy should ideally be adapted to suit your new market.

Simply translating a website that was originally meant for western audiences will leave you with something that can look empty, unfinished, and incredibly unappealing.

If you’d like to learn more about Japanese translation services, get in touch and we’d be glad to help you plan your Japanese localization and market entry plan.

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