Category Archives: Japanese Language

Canadian Eyes, Japanese Eyes

I wrote this article for a newsletter for researchers in Japan.


My name is Shaney Crawford and I am a Canadian woman who has lived in Fukushima Prefecture for five years and Ibaraki Prefecture for eight years. As a foreign resident of Japan, I am often asked to describe the things that surprised me when I first came here. However, I first came to Japan in 1995, which is now 15 years ago, and to be honest, I don’t have a very clear recollection of that time. (Imagine being asked to recall what it felt like on your first day of junior high school. You can probably remember that you were nervous, but not the details of what was going through your head at the time.)

However, I recently watched the movie “Avatar” and it made me pause and reflect a bit on my time here in Japan. I don’t want to ruin the plot of the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it yet (I’m sure there are still one or two people who haven’t seen it, right?), but the basic idea is that a man gets the chance to become a member of a group that is initially extremely foreign to him. (It is a very similar story to Dances With Wolves, or the Last Samurai, but it is set on another planet.) The movie served, at least for me, as a reminder of what it felt like when I first came to Japan.

I hope you will forgive me for sounding ungracious or ignorant, but I remember thinking to myself, when I first came here (and after the initial honeymoon phase was over), that there were a lot of things wrong with Japan. At the time, I saw everything with “Canadian eyes” and I was frustrated with several aspects of Japanese culture. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so concerned with what their neighbours thought about them, or why meetings seemed to go on for so long and rarely resulted in any decisions being made. I didn’t like how there were no senior positions available to women and that everything that I bought was individually wrapped and then covered in plastic only to be handed over to me in yet another plastic bag.

I found a lot to complain about in these early days. I was also prone to making sweeping generalizations about Japan and Japanese culture based on my limited experiences. Even though I was living in Japan, and on the surface enjoying my time here, I had not lost my Canadian eyes, and couldn’t understand why the people in Japan couldn’t see what I could see.

And then, something happened to change my thinking. It wasn’t an immediate change, but looking back on it now, I think I know what it was that caused a fundamental shift in my worldview: learning to speak, read, and understand Japanese. In particular, I believe it was through studying the 1006 kanji characters that Japanese students study in elementary school that made the difference.

By studying the kanji characters, and not just learning the meanings or the readings, but trying to understand each character by deconstructing it into its elements, I became more familiar with Japanese culture and history and, more importantly, I became able to find out information on my own and not have to rely on others to explain things to me. If I had a question about something in Japan, I could try to read a book or a website, or ask a Japanese person directly. When I first arrived in Japan, I did not have that choice. I could only learn about Japan from people who could speak to me in English. If I had a question about Japan, I had a very limited range of people to look to for answers. If they could not supply me with a satisfactory answer, I was forced to give up.

Through learning the Japanese language, I was given the key to understanding the culture at a much deeper level than I had when I first arrived. Suddenly, I could understand the forces working behind the decision-making processes at an office because I had spoken to my Japanese friends and colleagues about my experiences and they had explained the intricacies to me. Instead of seeing things at a surface level, or always having my understanding coloured by the understanding of the person who translated for me, I was able to dig deeper, and develop my own understandings based on direct contact with a variety of people and resources.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that I am some kind of genius in Japanese. I am not. I can get by in Japanese, but I still have a lot to learn. I stumble on very basic grammar points, I have a very limited vocabulary, and I don’t think I will ever be able to pull off “keigo”, just to mention a few of my many weaknesses. But the key point here is that I kept on pushing until I was able to make sense of what was going on around me rather than just accepting what I was seeing at face value.

I feel that learning the Japanese language gave me the ability — and sometimes it almost feels like a magical ability — to see with Japanese eyes. Rather than criticizing everything that I saw in Japan, I became better able to see why things happened the way they did. And, slowly, I started to realize that there were also a lot of things wrong with how we do things in Canada. We Canadians often rush through things, prizing speed over accuracy. We will say anything with conviction, whether we have proof that it is true or not. And we will always put ourselves and our own interests first, rarely considering what might be best for the group or the community around us.

In the movie Avatar, one of the main characters initially refuses to teach the “foreigner” anything, saying something like “there is no point in trying to fill a cup that is already full”. When I first came to Japan, my head was full of Canada and there was no room for Japan. I thought my way was right and I think, in retrospect, I wasn’t capable of nuanced thought about what was happening around me because I didn’t have room in my worldview for other possibilities. Learning Japanese has provided me with another cup to fill. And, to continue the metaphor a bit longer if I may, it has made me realize that my “cup full of Canada” was only the appetizer. More than anything that I have experienced or obtained during my time in Japan, I feel that I am indebted to this country and its people for providing me with the chance to see the world through different eyes and, hopefully, keep my cups from ever becoming full again.

Handy Chart of Japanese and Western Years

Meiji Era (明治)

Calculation: 西暦=和暦+1867 (Western year = Japanese year + 1876)

明治 1 –> 1868 (From September 8)
明治 2 –> 1869
明治 3 –> 1870
明治 4 –> 1871
明治 5 –> 1872
明治 6 –> 1873
明治 7 –> 1874
明治 8 –> 1875
明治 9 –> 1876
明治10 –> 1877
明治11 –> 1878
明治12 –> 1879
明治13 –> 1880
明治14 –> 1881
明治15 –> 1882
明治16 –> 1883
明治17 –> 1884
明治18 –> 1885
明治19 –> 1886
明治20 –> 1887
明治21 –> 1888
明治22 –> 1889
明治23 –> 1890
明治24 –> 1891
明治25 –> 1892
明治26 –> 1893
明治27 –> 1894
明治28 –> 1895
明治29 –> 1896
明治30 –> 1897
明治31 –> 1898
明治32 –> 1899
明治33 –> 1900
明治34 –> 1901
明治35 –> 1902
明治36 –> 1903
明治37 –> 1904
明治38 –> 1905
明治39 –> 1906
明治40 –> 1907
明治41 –> 1908
明治42 –> 1909
明治43 –> 1910
明治44 –> 1911
明治45 –> 1912 (to July 29)

Taisho (大正)

Calculation: 西暦=和暦+1911 (Western year = Japanese year + 1911)

大正 1 –> 1912 (From July 30)
大正 2 –> 1913
大正 3 –> 1914
大正 4 –> 1915
大正 5 –> 1916
大正 6 –> 1917
大正 7 –> 1918
大正 8 –> 1919
大正 9 –> 1920
大正10 –> 1921
大正11 –> 1922
大正12 –> 1923
大正13 –> 1924
大正14 –> 1925
大正15 –> 1926 (to December 24)

Showa (昭和)

Calculation: 西暦=和暦+1925 (Western year = Japanese year + 1925)

昭和 1 –> 1926 (from December 25)
昭和 2 –> 1927
昭和 3 –> 1928
昭和 4 –> 1929
昭和 5 –> 1930
昭和 6 –> 1931
昭和 7 –> 1932
昭和 8 –> 1933
昭和 9 –> 1934
昭和10 –> 1935
昭和11 –> 1936
昭和12 –> 1937
昭和13 –> 1938
昭和14 –> 1939
昭和15 –> 1940
昭和16 –> 1941
昭和17 –> 1942
昭和18 –> 1943
昭和19 –> 1944
昭和20 –> 1945
昭和21 –> 1946
昭和22 –> 1947
昭和23 –> 1948
昭和24 –> 1949
昭和25 –> 1950
昭和26 –> 1951
昭和27 –> 1952
昭和28 –> 1953
昭和29 –> 1954
昭和30 –> 1955
昭和31 –> 1956
昭和32 –> 1957
昭和33 –> 1958
昭和34 –> 1959
昭和35 –> 1960
昭和36 –> 1961
昭和37 –> 1962
昭和38 –> 1963
昭和39 –> 1964
昭和40 –> 1965
昭和41 –> 1966
昭和42 –> 1967
昭和43 –> 1968
昭和44 –> 1969
昭和45 –> 1970
昭和46 –> 1971
昭和47 –> 1972
昭和48 –> 1973
昭和49 –> 1974
昭和50 –> 1975
昭和51 –> 1976
昭和52 –> 1977
昭和53 –> 1978
昭和54 –> 1979
昭和55 –> 1980
昭和56 –> 1981
昭和57 –> 1982
昭和58 –> 1983
昭和59 –> 1984
昭和60 –> 1985
昭和61 –> 1986
昭和62 –> 1987
昭和63 –> 1988
昭和64 –> 1989 (To January 6)

Heisei (平成)

Calculation: 西暦=和暦+1988 (Western year = Japanese year + 1988)

平成 1 –> 1989 (From January 7)
平成 2 –> 1990
平成 3 –> 1991
平成 4 –> 1992
平成 5 –> 1993
平成 6 –> 1994
平成 7 –> 1995
平成 8 –> 1996
平成 9 –> 1997
平成10 –> 1998
平成11 –> 1999
平成12 –> 2000
平成13 –> 2001
平成14 –> 2002
平成15 –> 2003
平成16 –> 2004
平成17 –> 2005
平成18 –> 2006
平成19 –> 2007
平成20 –> 2008
平成21 –> 2009
平成22 –> 2010
平成23 –> 2011
平成24 –> 2012
平成25 –> 2013
平成26 –> 2014
平成27 –> 2015
平成28 –> 2016
平成29 –> 2017
平成30 –> 2018
平成31 –> 2019
平成32 –> 2020
平成33 –> 2021
平成34 –> 2022
平成35 –> 2023
平成36 –> 2024
平成37 –> 2025
平成38 –> 2026
平成39 –> 2027
平成40 –> 2028
平成41 –> 2029
平成42 –> 2030
平成43 –> 2031
平成44 –> 2032
平成45 –> 2033
平成46 –> 2034
平成47 –> 2035
平成48 –> 2036
平成49 –> 2037
平成50 –> 2038
平成51 –> 2039
平成52 –> 2040

Dictionaries

Here are some dictionaries that you may find useful.

Bilingual (Japanese-English) Dictionaries

ALC Bilingual Dictionary: This dictionary is good for looking up idiomatic expressions and checking usage.
Excite Japanese/English/Chinese Dictionary
Goo Dictionaries: These are good for checking the basic meaning of words and learning the readings of compounds.
Infoseek MultiDictionary: Dictionary that lets you search by for words in English or Japanese and kanji by stroke, reading, radical, or the character itself. Allows partial matches.
Internet Resources for Translators
Jeffrey’s Japanese-English Dictionary Server
PSP’s Bi-Directional English Japanese Dictionary
Sanseido Web Dictionary
Yahoo Dictionaries

English Dictionaries

Dictionary.com
One Look Dictionary Search: I use this when I need a quick definition or some basic synonyms for an English word.
Your Dictionary: Specialty Dictionaries: Find technical terms.

Japanese Dictionaries

Dictionary of Ibaraki Dialect
Dictionary of Japanese Surnames
Weblio

Kanji (Japanese Characters) Dictionaries and Reading Assistance

Jim Breen’s WWWJDic: This is the best kanji dictionary for beginners. Offers many different ways to look up characters.
Kakasi: Kanji Kana Simple Inverter
Pop Jisyo: Web-based pop-up dictionary for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other languages.

See also..

How to Choose a Good Dictionary: Checklist for making the right choice.

Japanese To English Translation Tips

Here are some thoughts that I have had while translating documents from Japanese to English. Language is not absolute, so feel free to disagree with my ideas.

False Friends

バックナンバー –> Back Number

We say “back issue”, not “back number”. If you do an internet search for the words “back number”, you will see back issues for a lot of Japanese publications.

調和 –> Harmony

The word “harmony” is over-used in translations from Japanese to English. The translation is not incorrect, but the word “harmony” is not used very much in English, so when it shows up in translated documents, it can make the reader think there is something strange about the translation. (It seems like too direct a translation, like the translator didn’t take the time to find the right word.) Also, when we do use this word in English, it is to convey a kind of unattainable ideal, so the word is too strong or too “sweet” for mosts contexts. The meaning of 「調和」 and “harmony” match, but the usage and the nuance do not.

趣味 –> Hobby

In English, a hobby is something that you have worked on for a long time, something you have acquired specialized knowledge about, and it generally involves actively making or doing something. Also, the word “hobby” is not really used by young people. It feels a bit outdated. Rather than saying, “What are your hobbies?”, it is better to ask “What are you interested in?” or “What do you enjoy doing?”

推進、促進、宣伝、奨励、振興 –> Promotion

One of the most beloved words in official documents (especially proposals) is a word that roughly translates as “promotion”. However, there are very few cases in which the use of the word “promotion” is a good word choice in English. One of the best options is to omit the word from the English translation. This is particularly true when the word occurs as a part of an office name, e.g. “Office for the Promotion of Recycling”. Unless there is an office somewhere in your building that is trying to discourage people from recycling, and you want to distinguish yourself from them, you can probably just use “Recycling Office”.

テーマ –> Theme

The word “theme” exists in English, but it is used differently from the way テーマ is used in Japanese. A better translation for テーマ is “topic” (or “subject”).

中 –> Medium

In Japan, you might see a menu where you are offered something in small (小) and medium (中) sizes, but not in large (大) size. In English, the terms small, medium, and large come as a trio that cannot be split up. If you only have two sizes of something, you have small and large. You cannot only have small and medium sizes because “medium” means “middle” and in this case, there is no “middle”. Also, in Japanese, it is possible to have a 中期計画, which can be translated as a medium-term plan, perhaps lasting about 5 years. However, an English person will want to know about your short-term and long-term plans if you tell them about your medium-term plan. If you don’t have specific short- and long-term plans, it is better to translate 中期計画 as “five-year plan” or something else that indicates how long it will take.

特に –> Especially

特に is often used at the beginning of sentences in Japanese. “in particular” is usually a better choice in this case than “especially”. However, it is possible to use “especially” as an adverb.
× I like cars. Especially I like Ferraris.
○ I like cars. In particular, I like Ferraris.
○ I like cars. I especially like Ferraris.

目的、目標 –> Aims To

The expression “aims to” is often used in headlines:
e.g. UN Aims To Set Example in Carbon Offsetting
However, this expression is not a good choice as a translation of 「目的」 or 「目標」 in the context of normal writing (e.g. “This project aims to…). A workaround should be used (e.g. “The objective of the project is to…”).

Formatting

Brackets

It is common to see headings and titles in Japanese surrounded by brackets.
e.g. [Article 1]
This is the text of article 1 about something…
In English, brackets indicate something you are allowing the reader to ignore. Since it is not likely that you want the reader to ignore your headings, you should not put your headings in brackets in English.

Tricky Words

Grid

A grid is a network of horizontal and vertical lines that divide something into sections, so this word refers to the whole network, not to a single spot within it. To refer to the sections of a grid, you can use “squares” or “sections”.

Switcheroo

Acronyms in Text

In Japanese, it is common to list the acronym first and then include the full name in brackets.
e.g. WHO (World Health Organization)
In English, it is more common to list the full name first and the put the acronym in brackets.
e.g. World Health Organization (WHO)

Translate the Sense not the Structure

One Japanese Sentence = Multiple English Sentences

There is a very bad trend in JapaneseEnglish translation to translate one single sentence from the base language into another single sentence in the target language. This is common practice, but it usually means that the resulting document is stilted. Japanese usually tolerates longer and more complicated sentence structure. English usually demands clarity above intricacy. It’s okay to make one Japanese sentence into more than one English sentence. If it improves the reader’s experience and the likelihood that the content will be understood, it should (in theory) be done without hesitation. However, some clients want to be able to do line-by-line comparisons of the translation with the original document, so they may insist that you stick to one-to-one translation. Be sure to inform them that their preference in this matter may affect the readability of the translated document.