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  • Christina Theodorakis-Itagaki

Why Understanding How Punctuation Differs Between Languages is Critical

Quotation marks are innocent enough in English. We use them for quoting what people say or we can use them in a sarcastic sense. While quotation marks are frequently used in this way in English, it's a slightly different story in Japanese. In Japanese, brackets that look like these (「」) are commonly used in the same way that quotation marks are used in English.

However, since Japanese -- like Chinese and some other Asian languages -- is written without the need to use spaces between words, it leaves Japanese people with a conundrum when they want to highlight or emphasize a word in some text. They'll use 「」 brackets, which are also typically used for quotes in Japanese, in order to make a word or part of their sentence stand out. In this case, the Japanese brackets don't have an equivalent in English since English words don't need this kind of emphasizing, but Japanese people looked to the closest equivalent to use when translating Japanese text to English for websites and documents: quotation marks.

The problem Japanese people have created for themselves by trying to adapt their usage of 「」 into English with quotation marks is that we don't use any symbols to highlight words. When English speakers want to highlight words for emphasis, we can use boldface, italics, underlining, and -- in informal chat situations -- even all capital letters. Since the Japanese style of emphasis doesn't exist in English, a native English speaker can only read the word in quotation marks in a sarcastic tone.

In using quotation marks without thinking about all their possible uses in English writing, there's a bigger problem: Japanese writers didn't seem to be aware of the sarcastic tone in which they come off to a native English speaker.

The headings are cut off in this screenshot* due to a sizing issue on the website.

Here's an example I found on the English version of a Japanese website for a hotel. You'll notice that "beds" being in quotation marks there (as opposed to the correct way I just used them) makes it sound like they're not actual beds but something like a bed -- in other words, it looks like the term "beds" is being used loosely, or sarcastically. As ludicrous as it may sound, it makes me wonder if what this hotel considers a bed is only the mattress pictured, without any sheets or pillows. The same also goes for the use of "baths" in quotation marks on this website. If the word "baths" is being used loosely, then I have to wonder what this hotel actually means by "baths." Maybe they only have a shower and not a tub. If you've never been to Japan before, you have no way of actually knowing unless the writing on this website is clear to the reader, and, judging by their use of quotation marks, the creator of this website is leaving the reader guessing.

Because a lot of Japanese people use quotation marks in English in the same way 「」 are used in Japanese, a majority of Japanese people think that their usage of quotation marks in English is actually correct. Many Japanese people that I've talked to in Japanese companies and in my private life have no idea what the rules for punctuation are in English. Surprisingly, they use Japanese punctuation to their liking since Japanese punctuation is more open to interpretation than the strict punctuation rules in English.

Of course, even though you'll see this mistake frequently on English versions of Japanese websites and company documents, this is by no means unique to Japan and an important thing for any company in any country to remember when hiring someone to do localization for you in a language that you're completely unfamiliar with.

The last thing your company should be doing is sarcastically expressing how you use "natural" ingredients or offer a "diverse" work environment. There are more situations where English and Japanese don't quite match up, leading to miscommunication and misunderstanding. If you need help communicating with Japanese companies or employees, feel free to reach out to us at!

* As you can see here, the asterisk is another symbol commonly misused on the English versions of Japanese websites. More on that in a future blog post!

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