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  • Christina Theodorakis

Digging Deeper into the Differences Between Japanese and English

Imagine watching a documentary about Japan and hearing the cool narrator voice saying, "Japan. A land of tradition. A land of beauty. A land with a language where you don't have to specify the subject of a sentence because the listener/reader can understand what you're saying without it."

Are you starting to see why Japanese is one of the most difficult languages in the world?

English and Japanese are obviously completely different languages in terms of writing systems, grammar, and syntax. Japanese people have a reputation for being polite, and once you dive into the deep end of the Japanese language, you'll see that this politeness is literally embedded into the Japanese language itself with formal phrases and words -- even verb endings.

What I want to talk about today is the Japanese art of subtlety, which is also a part of the language and culture. When two people are talking to each other in Japanese, oftentimes the subject isn't stated because it's understood through the context of what the people are saying to each other.

I'll pause right here and let you take a moment to see what this would look like in English and Japanese:

Normal English sentence: I go to school.

Textbook Japanese sentence: 私は学校に行きます。(I + to school + go)

Real-life Japanese sentence: 学校に行きます。(to school + go)

Notice that you don't need to say "I" in the real-life Japanese sentence. In addition, Japanese verbs aren't conjugated to show first, second, or third person like in many European languages, so "to go" could literally mean anyone -- and anything. This is a simple example by comparison because once you get into complex conversations where multiple people or things are referenced, the sentence subjects are also left out there. While I am an American who has been studying Japanese for about 18 years now, this is a never-ending point of confusion for me, and this was definitely more frequent and more frustrating in the early years of my Japanese studies as I was learning more Japanese vocabulary and slowly getting used to the grammar.

Pronouns are a whole other monster in Japanese from a Westerner's perspective. People interested in Japan may have heard that it's considered rude to be direct in Japanese, and one way to be direct is to use a pronoun to refer to a person rather than his/her name. If you're with a group of Japanese people -- e.g. at a business meeting -- one of the rudest things you can do is to casually point to someone who you think you can be friendly with and use "he/she" to say something about him/her. When learning Japanese in the beginning from a textbook, the Japanese equivalent of English pronouns are used to help Western learners have an easier time of learning Japanese, but without the proper explanation of what's actually acceptable and polite in Japan in real-life situations, this kind of mistake can rub a Japanese person the wrong way.

When localizing English text into Japanese, the localized text would sound strange to the target Japanese audience if pronouns are used where it's natural in English because it would not be natural in Japanese. The same is true in Japanese-to-English localization, especially when the subject is left out of the original Japanese text.

That's why Globalize Consulting is here to help you. The majority of our team has grown up outside of Japan, learning Japanese as a second language, and we know just how to bridge the gap between the Western and the Japanese business worlds. We can also bridge the gap between Japanese and Western marketing thanks to our high level of understanding of the different cultures. If you’re interested in expanding your business or helping your failing business in Japan, feel free to contact us for a free consultation!




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