Branding in Japan – the best translation might be no translation at all

The Japanese market is known to be difficult to enter, and cultural differences make transcreation key to ensuring that your brand doesn’t get lost in translation. Ironically enough, this sometimes means ditching the translation altogether.

Japan placed 55th in the 2020 EF English Proficiency Index, putting it in the “low proficiency” category. Studies suggest that only 10 to 20% of the Japanese population speaks English. However, there are plenty of foreign loanwords in Japanese, known as “gairaigo”, and many of them are taken from English.

Unlike German, which has to assign a gender to foreign words, or French, where new words need to be accepted by the Académie Française, Japanese simply adopts English words as is, and just adds the correct connector depending on whether each word is a verb, adjective or noun. Thanks to this easy adoption process, the number of gairaigo entering Japanese dictionaries has risen to a point where the government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has held discussions about its potential negative impact.

So natural, it feels Japanese

Because it’s so easy to naturally fit English words into everyday Japanese conversations, many Japanese speakers use these words daily without even being aware that they come from a foreign language.

Here are just a few examples of how often gairaigo words can come up in a sentence:

  • Bagの中にあるPenでCalendarにMarkしといて
    Can you put a mark on the calendar using the pen from my bag?
  • SpeakerのVolumeをUpしてSaleがStartしたことをAnnounceしてくれる?
    Can you put the speaker volume up and announce that the sale has started?
  • “donmai”, “justo”, “suicchi”, “raketto”, “bo-lu”, “auto”
    Try guessing the original meanings of these words used on the tennis court! The answers are at the bottom of the page.

Similarly, some global brands entering Japan keep their original company slogans without translating them at all. These slogans work extremely well and enjoy high levels of recognition among the Japanese population:

  • Nike – Just do it!
  • McDonalds – I’m lovin’ it!
  • Tower Records – No music, No life

Spoiled for choice

This is one of the main reasons why translating any language into Japanese is tricky: not only do translators have to choose between different alphabets and levels of formality, they also have to decide whether to use Japanese or gairaigo.

Does your brand’s slogan work in Japan? If it needs to be translated, how? To answer these questions, we advise you to “DiscussionしてProのAdviceを聞いてJudgeが必要だね”. Or in other words, “Get in touch with Supertext so that we can show you the best approach for entering the Japanese market”.

Interested in working with us? Get in touch at

Tennis gairaigo answers: “don’t mind”, “just out”, “switch”, “racket”, “ball”, “out”.

Cover image via Unsplash (CC0)

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