• Rick White - Director of Client Services

Japanese Market Research Surveys: Cultural Insights and Translation Tips

Updated: Sep 25

General Overview


Official Name: Nippon-koku (日本国), “Japan”

Capital: Tokyo

Population: 127.3 million

Official Language: Japanese

Currency: Yen (¥)

GDP: 4.73 trillion USD

Area: 377,864 sq. km. (145,902 sq. mi.)


With a GDP of 4.73 trillion US dollars, Japan is the third largest economy in the world, and thereby a top destination for companies and market researchers. But Japanese is one of the most expensive languages to translate into, and market researchers always wind up running into issues that lead to large delays and extra costs, especially when it comes to In-Country Review (ICR) of translated surveys. There are a number of things you should consider as you create your surveys for Japanese demographics so that once it’s time to translate your surveys, you’ll be able to avoid some of the most common issues that arise. There are also a few things you’ll want to consider when conducting qualitative research.


Etiquette and Attitudes


Overall, the Japanese are very group-oriented people. They don’t place the same importance on individualism like people from western countries. Because the Japanese think of the group as a whole, politeness is a virtue that’s very integral to their lives and interactions with others. Whereas Americans tend to be more direct and blunt, the Japanese tend to be a little more subtle in how they express themselves. That’s why in order to get accurate data, it’s effective to slightly shift the tone of some of your questions to get the results you’re looking for. For example, during the survey screening process, a common message that pops up in American surveys when eliminating respondents is, “we find you are not qualified for our survey.” By contrast, if you take a look at surveys that were created in Japan by Japanese market research companies, you’ll see messages like, “You have answered all the questions. Thank you for your cooperation,” or something similarly polite that doesn’t communicate that they were “eliminated.”


Privacy and Data Security


Back in the early 2000s there was a major data breach in Softbank Corp.’s Yahoo! BB high-speed Internet service through which the personal information of 4.52 million users was stolen (doesn’t sound much different from the 1 billion Yahoo! accounts that were recently hacked). These kinds of hacks and data breaches have made many Japanese leery about giving out personal information for fear of having it stolen. According to Yasuko Hattori, a Japanese linguist with 20+ years of experience both translating and taking surveys, respondents may provide false answers to personal answers like household income, marital status, or education level, for example. Hattori, however, winds up bouncing from a survey if she begins to notice questions addressing personal information like that, even if she’s already halfway through the survey.


Duration of Interviews and Surveys


The Japanese are very hard-working, industrious people. Because of the demands of their jobs, the long hours they spend at work, and because many of them have long commutes, the Japanese are especially prone to respondent fatigue once they get back home and sit down to take your survey. You may have a lot of questions you want to ask your target demographics, but generally speaking, if your surveys take more than 20 to 30 minutes, your respondents could get worn out and either a) not complete the survey, or b) answer your questions at random, which could lead to skewed data.


Translating into Japanese


One of the reasons translation into Japanese is so expensive is because there’s a lot of variation in terms of spelling. There are three different alphabets, for example—hiragana, katakana, and kanji—and the way different generations use these in Japan can vary significantly. In short, Japanese is a highly subjective, nuanced, and complex language, making it difficult to translate many terms and concepts from other languages with a direct equivalent. Just take a look at the term “translation.” In English this word has one of two meanings: either the process of translating meaning from one language to another or the actual output of that translation process.


But in Japanese, there isn’t a direct equivalent for “translation.” There are a number of different terms, depending on the context: “If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a 全訳 zen’yaku or a 完訳 kan’yaku . . . A first translation is a 初訳 shoyaku. A retranslation is a 改訳 kaiyaku, and the new translation is a 新訳 shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or 旧訳kyū yaku. A translation of a translation is a 重訳jū yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a 定訳 teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a 名訳 meiyaku, or “celebrated translation.’” (Words Without Borders) And that’s only a small sample of the different terms there are for “translation.” The list goes on. The key takeaway from this, though, is that Japanese is a very subjective language with a great deal of variation in the meanings of words, depending on the specific contexts. This means you’ll want to work with qualified and expert linguists who know how to tackle some of these more nuanced challenges.


In-Country Review and Validation


ICR—also known as “In-Country Review,” or the process during which an end client in the target country reviews the translation—is one of the biggest roadblocks you’ll have to overcome before your survey goes to field. Even with other languages, ICR can be problematic, because, without clear communication of expectations, it can cast doubt on the quality of the translation, when in reality the “errors” your end client points out may be nothing but “preferential” changes that could have been communicated beforehand. But “preferential” changes aren’t necessarily errors at all.


They’re subjective preferences. Japanese runs an even greater risk of running into preferential changes, because, as mentioned above, the language is highly subjective, with multiple variations for individual single concepts or words. If you create a glossary together with your end client that clearly outlines any company-specific terms, the professional linguists you hire to translate your surveys will be able to incorporate the appropriate terms into their workflow. This will significantly reduce the obstacles associated with the ICR process, allowing you to take your survey to field sooner and with the knowledge that the quality of your survey will help you gain actionable insights.


Interested in more articles about market research and translation? Visit our Market Research articles page.

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