Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’

Blaming the translators

Posted 17 Sep 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Language, Work

My job is not something that I usually write about, partly because it’s not all that interesting, and partly because doing so brings up a lot of frustrating incidents that I’d rather forget. Besides, there are plenty of other people, such as Mr Salaryman, who already do a very good job of writing about Japanese office life. Today, however, I feel like whinging about work. So if you don’t like whinging, you should stop reading now.

Recently my company began using professional translators to translate Japanese materials into English. This sounds like a good idea in practice, as it should remove the possibility of misunderstandings between Japanese and English speaking staff. However, translating and understanding are two very different things.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you’ve probably come across phrases or expressions for which there really isn’t an English equivalent. Japanese, for example, contains a variety of set phrases, such as 「お世話になっております」(“Osewa ni natte orimasu” or “Thank you for your help”), that are frequently used at the beginning of Japanese emails but sound odd in English. Usually these phrases are not a barrier to understanding: it’s simply a matter of either leaving them out or replacing them with something simple, such as “I hope you are well”. The major problem with work I’ve seen translated recently is not with the translation itself, but with the original Japanese text. In a lot of cases, the author doesn’t seem to have had a clue who he/she was writing for.

For me, brevity is a virtue; for many of my colleagues, it is a sin. They love to use obscure technical terminology and company jargon. Rather than explain something in a simple way, like “This software will reduce the amount of time users spend on data entry”, they will write “This software aims to boost the productivity of users by recalibrating their workflow practises from data entry to other activities” instead. This may be fine for a Japanese audience that understands newspeak, but it is incomprehensible to the intended English-speaking audience. And rather than consult someone in the office who knows how much of the translations English speakers will understand, “them upstairs” choose to send them directly to satellite offices abroad, unedited and un-localised.

As you can imagine, this lack of audience awareness and consultation causes an enormous amount of trouble. When misunderstandings arise – and they often do – a “poor” translation is blamed. This implies that the original Japanese text is perfectly fine, though often the writers cannot rephrase their ideas in plain Japanese, never mind plain English. It also leads to a bizarre situation where the writers think they are “too clever” for mere mortals to understand, and the mere mortals are made to feel stupid because they can’t make head nor tail of the gobbledegook presented to them.

In the end, most people feign understanding during meetings and devise their own explanations later; very much in the same way a clever, rational Alabaman kid might deal with “science” lessons on creationism. What frightens me about the whole thing is the amount of time and money that’s wasted because some people are either unwilling or unable to communicate properly.

If anyone can, Kan can!

Posted 08 Jun 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, News, Only in Japan, Tokyo

My, doesn’t time fly in the world of Japanese politics? It seems like only yesterday that Yukio Hatoyama and the DPJ finally managed to chuck the pork-barrellers of the LDP out of power, and yet here we are, just months later, with yet another unelected Japanese leader on our hands.

Putting questions of legitimacy to one side for the time being, it’s good to see that Naoto Kan, the new prime minister, isn’t from one of the grotesque political dynasties that dominate the Diet. The grandfathers of the last four prime ministers – Hatoyama, Aso, Fukuda and Abe – were also prime ministers themselves. Tellingly, none of these political darlings lasted longer than a year in office. It comes as no surprise that their ‘superior’ breeding and first-rate education failed to prepare them for the real world, and for the demands that come with governing the world’s second largest economy.

While Hatoyama doggedly dug his own grave over the US military base on Okinawa, Naoto Kan kept mum. By neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the idea of moving the base off the island he may very well be able to dodge the issue entirely, or at least kick it into the long grass for the time being. Hatoyama’s dithering seriously damaged the US administration’s trust in Japan. Kan needs to repair that trust, and also begin to enact the policies that the LDP fought last year’s election on, most notably reform of the institutionally corrupt bureaucracy.

The political elite have been in a malaise for so long that, like the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, they have little or no understanding of how the real world functions. Hopefully, Kan will be able to drag some of them towards the blinding reality of the outside world. Unfortunately, content with their world of shadows, most of them will probably try to get rid of him as swiftly as possible.

Japan-related Links of the Week: 29 May 2010

Posted 29 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Food, Japan, Japanese Politics, Links of the Week, News, Only in Japan, Style, Tokyo

A roundup of some of the best Japan-related links from this week.

Asahi Shimbun Co. said Monday that it incurred its first ever group operating loss last year due to falls in advertising revenue.

Asahi Shimbun suffers operating loss
The Japan Times (Kyodo News)

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The [Japanese] government released a study on fish consumption on May 21 in which salmon emerged as the most popular to eat at home, followed by squid and tuna, all of which are straightforward to turn into a meal.

Salmon takes over as top table treat in Japan
The Independent (Relaxnews)

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[Tokyo] is an unexpected city, not a homogenised J G Ballard city of the future but a series of small and distinct neighbourhoods. It can be startlingly beautiful.

Tokyo, Japan: My kind of town (an interview with author Edmund de Waal)
The Daily Telegraph

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After being mauled in the media for sartorial crimes … Hatoyama will be buoyed by the news that a Shanghai-based shirt-maker is selling copies of his most infamous garment as a tribute to his “individuality”.

Shirt-maker cashes in on Japanese PM’s unique dress sense
The Guardian (Justin McCurry)

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Twenty years ago, there was one retiree for every six working-age Japanese. By 2025, the government projects that the ratio will decrease to one retiree for every two people employed.

Does Japan’s decline foretell our future?
CTV News (Alexandra Seno)

Cool Biz and clothing for the modern Japanese gent

Posted 25 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Only in Japan, Shopping in Japan, Style, Tokyo, Work

I received an email from the HR department this morning to announce the beginning of Cool Biz. This means that male employees can forego neckties for the next three months, while office air conditioners are turned up to 28°C to reduce running costs (and ultimately help the environment).

Cool Biz is a fantastic idea: it means fewer sweaty old men on the streets and a considerable reduction in the amount of CO2 that power stations pump out. It also has the knock-on effect of producing more than a few comedy moments as bamboozled salarymen adjust to the brave new world of dressing in a smart-casual manner. Their plight is worsened by the prime minister, who is legally obliged to dress like an extra from Magnum, P.I. all summer long:

Of course, not all salarymen dress like aliens trying to blend into a middle-class American family circa 1985. A quick peruse of magazine racks in local bookshops reveals a bewildering variety of style-related magazines for the modern gent.

Leon

Middle-aged chaps who are looking to add a bit of edge to their look should turn to Leon. The key phrase here is choiwaru oyaji, which (sort of) translates as “bad-but-cool old guy”. Put simply, Leon is for forty- and fifty-something lady-killing dandies who want to look like they’ve just stepped out of a Milanese cafe. Check out those white jeans! Gaze in dumbstruck awe at those medallions!

Men's Ex

Slightly younger fellows should take a gander at Men’s Ex, which has considerably fewer photos of George Clooney wannabies with twenty-something women. It’s fairly conservative in its recommendations, leaning more towards classic business attire and the preppy look than its Italian-inspired rival.

Men's Ex Maintenance Guide

There is also a phenomenal number of one-off magazines – called mooks (magazine+book=mook) – which cover all kinds of style-related issues. Men’s Ex recently produced a guide to looking after and tailoring clothes which is proving very popular in this current economic climate of belt-tightening. Its article on how to properly clean leather shoes came in very handy after I got caught in a nasty downpour:

Cleaning shoes

The Shirt and Tie

Another big-selling mook is this one on shirts. It contains all you need to know about the humble dress shirt and tie, including a dizzying array of ways to tie neckties…

How to tie your tie

… and a handy guide for coordinating shirts with ties and suits:

Coordinating, for t' men, like

If you’re expecting well-written, thought provoking articles on a par with GQ or Esquire in these magazines then you’re in for a shock. The line between advertising and editorial is virtually nonexistent. In fact they are, pretty much, 200-page advertorials. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, per se: they do have some very interesting content, and some sections – especially those on maintenance – go into absolutely staggering detail.

Japan-related Links of the Week: 22 May 2010

Posted 22 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Links of the Week, News, Only in Japan, Tokyo

A roundup of some of the best Japan-related links from this week.

The [Yokohama branch of the Japan Teachers’ Union] said the textbooks made by right-wing groups contain many inaccuracies, including the Japanese government’s attempt to legitimize the country’s past aggression in Asia.

Japanese Teachers’ Union Boycotts Right-wing Textbook
The Dong-a Ilbo

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A Japanese man has been detained by police after scattering tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of banknotes across a busy highway in Japan.

Japanese man arrested for throwing £20,000 onto highway
The Daily Telegraph (Danielle Demetriou)

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Hiromu Nonaka, a former chief cabinet secretary, revealed last month that from 1998-99 he spent up to ¥70m ($600,000 at the exchange rate of the time) a month from his secret little piggy bank.

A slush fund is revealed in Japan: See no evil
The Economist (Banyan’s column)

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“The amount of money a Chinese person is spending [in Japanese department stores] is incomparable to that of a Japanese customer.”

Chinese invasion offers a ray of hope to tourist trade
The Asahi Shimbun

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The Japanese economy grew at a healthy clip of 1.2 percent in the first quarter, the government said on Thursday, hinting that Japan’s recovery from a crippling recession was finally gathering momentum.

Figures Suggest Japan’s Recovery Is Gaining Strength
The New York Times (Hiroko Tabuchi)

Pre-packed supermarket prawns: alive and kicking (literally) in Japan

Posted 21 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Food, Japan, Only in Japan, Shopping in Japan, Tokyo, Video

Fresh seafood is, as you would expect, easy to come by in Japan. In fact, pre-packed prawns are sometimes so fresh that you might end up debating whether to put them in a frying pan or an aquarium:

(Postscript: Unfortunately Terry et al didn’t live long, happy lives. They were simply too delish for their own good.)

Japan + robots = a BBC news report!

Posted 18 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japanese Politics, News, Only in Japan, TV, Technology, Tokyo

For those of you who regularly watch BBC World News (come on, it can’t be just me!), you’ve probably noticed an eerily similarity between its Japan-related reports. It seems that no matter what the story, be it whaling, dolphin slaughtering or population decline, robots manage to get in there somehow. Take this story on immigration, for example.

Is there really any possibility that robots will replace human nurses? I’d say the chances are slim, to say the least. Considering that even the most advanced robots still have trouble mastering the simple act of walking down a flight of stairs, I can’t envisage them pottering around nursing homes changing soiled bedsheets and helping old chaps put on their pyjamas. And of course robots don’t pay taxes or buy goods, and they most definitely don’t have babies.

Nevertheless, a lot of BBC news reports seem to gloss over important issues in favour of portraying Japan as a nation of robot-mad, insular lunatics. I don’t know anyone who thinks the use of robots in frontline service/healthcare industry jobs is even remotely feasible, nor do I know anyone who seeks to preserve Japan’s “racial purity”. There may be a small, but vocal, minority of right-wing politicians and nutters who hold such views, but they should not be seen to represent the opinions of the majority of Japanese.

From a business standpoint there is little debate about whether or not Japan needs immigrants: the domestic car industry already relies on immigrant workers (especially Japanese-Brazilians), and the country’s most powerful business group, the Nippon Keidanren, is strongly in favour of granting more foreigners permanent resident status. When the Japanese government finally faces up to the Big Decision – increased immigration or a crippled economy – it will, I’m sure, choose the former.

Japan-related Links of the Week: 8 May 2010

Posted 07 May 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Tokyo

A run down of some of the best Japan-related stories from this week:

Japanese visitors will be invited by tour operators to contribute £5, a charge already nicknamed the “Peter Rabbit tax”.

The tale of Peter Rabbit and a £5 ‘tax’ on his Japanese friends
The Times (Robert Jenkins)

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Okinawa’s status as home to one of the highest life expectancies in the world has been tied to a combination of healthy diets, exercise and self-sufficiency.

World’s oldest woman dies in Japan aged 114
The Daily Telegraph (Danielle Demetriou)

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Japan has the lowest percentage of children among 27 countries with populations of more than 40 million, trailing Germany at 13.6 percent and Italy’s 14 percent.

Japan’s children population at new record low
BusinessWeek (Mari Yamaguchi)

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Along with a flair for airy-fairy waffle, Mr Hatoyama has exhibited breathtaking indecision.

Things fall apart in Japan
The Economist (Banyan’s column)

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If you get groped on a train, please tell the nearest police officer.

Crackdown nets 77 gropers on Tokyo trains
The Daily Yomiuri

Japan-related Links of the Week: 24 April 2010

Posted 24 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Japan, Japanese Politics, Links of the Week, News, Only in Japan, Tokyo

A run-down of some of the best Japan-related stories from this week:

After years of economic stagnation and widening income disparities, this once proudly egalitarian nation is belatedly waking up to the fact that it has a large and growing number of poor people.

Japan Tries to Face Up to Growing Poverty Problem
The New York Times (Martin Fackler)

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I was making the same amount of money as assembly line workers at auto factories.

Charm offensive: the hostess bites back
The Independent (David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto)

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Now stripped of the interest groups that supported it for so long, the LDP has failed to reinvent itself for the age of floating voters and is rapidly becoming a loose alliance of koenkai. As more politicians leave the party, it becomes harder to imagine that the LDP will ever adapt.

A New Dawn?
Observing Japan (Tobias Harris)

Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara

Posted 22 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Books, Entertainment, Gaming, Only in Japan, Shopping in Japan, Technology, Tokyo, Travel


Having lived in Tokyo for over five years I should really know all there is to know about the place. But I don’t, and the place I probably know the least about is Akihabara. This once shabby district, which is five minutes from Tokyo station, has a global reputation for being the ultimate otaku paradise. While on the campaign trail former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, a self-confessed manga geek, famously said ‘Tadaima!’ (‘I’m home!’) upon arriving in the area.

Akiba, as it’s also known, has become something of a tourist hotspot in recent years. A number of travel agents now offer guided tours that take in the delights of maid cafes, anime stores, used computer game markets and monster tentacle porn tryouts (probably). If, however, the thought of a tour bus full of other people (bleurgh!) is too much for you, White Rabbit Press’s Tokyo Realtime series might be right up your street.

Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara consists of a CD, a map and a glossy little photo booklet. The CD contains an audio tour of Akihabara. To start the tour, find your way to the starting point on the map, hit “play” on your iPod/iPhone/iWhatever and away you go.

Bonus points are awarded for the map: it’s plastic, so you don’t have to worry about it disintegrating into a soggy mess on rainy days.

The audio tour includes interviews with well-known otaku, such as Danny Choo (also known as the Tokyo Stormtrooper) and Morikawa Kaichiro. Morikawa, an expert on Akihabara, is a professor at Meiji University and the author of several books, including “Learning from Akihabara”.

At the time of writing I have yet to properly put the guide through its paces, but as I’ve got some time off work next week I might cast my inhibitions aside, don my tourist hat, string a camera round my neck and get stuck in.

You can buy Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara here. Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho is also available, though unfortunately it doesn’t contain any interviews with Nigerian bouncers, Russian hostesses or love-hotel owners. It does, however, have an interview with a rope-bondage artist.

Tokyo Realtime: Behind the scenes audio tours

The Collective Noun Challenge – Japan Edition

Posted 15 Apr 2010 — by Andy in Tokyo
Category Entertainment, Tokyo

English has a fantastic array of collective nouns. Here are some of my favourites:

  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a paddling of ducks
  • a superfluity of nuns
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • a murmuration of starlings
  • an observance of hermits
  • a labour of moles
  • a kindle of kittens
  • a business of ferrets
  • a piteousness of doves
  • a richesse or martens

Great, aren’t they? They’re much better than a group of this or a bunch of that. It’s a shame that nobody bothers to invent new ones these days. So, here’s a little challenge for you:

Can you think of interesting collective nouns for the following Japanese words?

  • otaku
  • salarymen
  • OLs (Office Ladies)
  • tarento
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