An unsung tool of the Japanese-English translation trade – the calculator

Because of the need to convert uniquely Japanese number concepts, a surprisingly valuable tool for the Japanese to English translator is a humble calculator.

For example, the floor area of a hotel room or apartment is often given in 畳 () or tatami mats, the size for which actually varies from place to place, but for rough and ready purposes can be considered to be 1.653 meters squared. Meanwhile, the area of a temple garden might be given in 坪 (tsubo), which is considered equal to two tatami mats or 3.306 meters squared.

Of course, how one handles such measurements also depends on the context of the material you are working on. In a tourism brochure, one would probably convert these straight through to meters (or feet, etc., if exclusively for a US audience), cutting off any needlessly long decimal points or even rounding to the nearest thousand, etc., if a particularly large number. Meanwhile if you were working on a historical novel, you might purposefully keep things in  and tsubo, possibly with an explanatory footnote the first time they were mentioned, to add an exotic flair.

Another numerical concept requiring frequent translation is the Japanese imperial year system. Traditionally, in Japan, years are dated based on the number of years which have passed since the emperor reigning during a given time period took the throne. This system is still widely used in official documents today and also frequently pops up in all manner of other materials. Interestingly, this is only used for years – days and months are the same as for the Gregorian calendar used in the vast majority of the world (so at least those don’t require any arithmetic).

Some people probably get this system right away, but I struggled with it for quite awhile and always had to look up online converters to switch Japanese years into Gregorian years, until I finally figured out the trick (and felt pretty stupid when I did). Because the year in which an imperial reign starts is counted as year 1, to convert a Japanese imperial year to a Gregorian year, all you have to do is subtract one from the Japanese year and then add that to the Gregorian year the particular emperor’s reign started. I know that sounds a little tricky, but if you’re working with modern and not historical materials, generally you only need to remember the starts of four consecutive imperial eras – 明治/Meiji (1868), 大正/Taisho (1912), 昭和/Showa (1926), and 平成/Heisei (1989). So, for example, 平成13 = 13 -1 + 1989 = 12 + 1989 = 2001.

Like with our  and tsubo, example, it depends on the context, but in most situations one would probably avoid noting the era name and just convert the date to standard Gregorian. Of course, the date format itself (mm/dd/yy? dd/mm/yy? yyyy/mm/dd?) is a whole other can of worms. And next year, in 2019, the current emperor will be stepping down, necessitating the creation of a new era name and start year for translators to remember. Better keep that calculator handy!

Turning Comments Off

Lately, I’ve been getting nothing but a deluge of spam comments on this blog, so for the time being, I’m turning them off. If you have any comments, questions, etc. concerning this blog or anything, please feel free to email me using the address indicated on the contact page.

A Quick Note on Translating Japanese Company Names

Just a quick note on how to translate Japanese company names/what to do when translating Japanese company names.

Needless to say, Japanese company names often come up in the course of translating Japanese material into English. For big name companies like Sony or Hitachi, finding out the official company name (i.e., does it, say, end with “Co.” or “Inc.” or perhaps another designation?) can be as easy as typing that name into Google, or even the English Wikipedia. For smaller companies, however, the process can be a little more complicated.

First, go ahead and pop that Japanese company name into Google and see if you can’t find the company’s homepage. Be careful not to just pick the first result that comes up – sometimes you will find companies with more or less the exact same name and who may have completely different official English name translations, or you might hit upon the website of a subsidiary or the parent company of the company you are looking for, instead. Also, you might be tricked into thinking a page dedicated to the company your looking for on a website which aggregates information about other companies is the website you are looking for. The latter is more of a problem when translating from Chinese, however.

Now, assuming you’ve found the real website of the specific company you are looking for, look at the top of the page and see if a banner image, etc., already shows the English name of the company. If not, see if there are any buttons near the top labelled “English” or the like which will take you to the company’s English website and, hopefully, their English name. Failing either of the above, scroll to the very, very bottom of the page. Many Japanese websites will use their English name for a copyright notice listed at the bottom of the pages on their website.

Next, and in conjunction with the methods detailed above, look for the company’s self-introduction page, often linked to under a button labeled with “[Japanese company name here]とは” or occasionally (and in English) “About” or similar expressions. The company’s self-introduction page will almost always list, in a tidy little table, basic information about the company such as their name, who the president is, how much capital they have, and what sort of business they do, among other information items. In addition, companies often list the official English translation of their company name here. I have often encountered cases where the English name here and the name used at the bottom of the page for the copyright notice and even on the official English site differed, so it’s important to check here even if you find an English name for the company elsewhere. If there is a discrepancy in the names provided, I would recommend first going with the official English name translation provided in the company information page, unless the name listed there is patently inappropriate for some reason. At any rate, if there is a discrepancy, regardless of which name you choose to use, be sure to leave a translator’s comment in your translation (via the comment feature provided in various document applications or, more traditionally, a highlighted comment in parentheses within the text) indicating the discrepancy and why you chose the name you chose as well as any recommendations you might have concerning the English version of the company name.

If no English version of the company name is provided anywhere on the official site, or if the company apparently has no website, you’ll have to guess at the pronunciation of the characters used in the company name (unless, for some reason, the company name is written only in katakana or hiragana). Often this is a straightforward process if the company name just describes what the company does, such as company names with words like “重工業” (jukogyo, “heavy industries”) in them. If the pronunciation of the characters in the name are not straightforward, however, such as personal or place names, you may just have to guess by searching on Google for websites which provide readings for personal and place name characters and choosing the one that seems most likely. If it’s apparently a place name, or you know more or less where the company is located, you can try matching up the name with a location, which will then tell you or help you find the pronunciation of the name.

For example, if the company you are looking for is named “大田重工業” (a name which I just made up and bears no relation to any real companies) and you know the company is located in Ota (大田), Tokyo and not in the city of Tsuyama, Okayama (which has a neighborhood whose name is also written “大田” but which is pronounced “Oda”), you can be pretty sure the company’s name is pronounced Ota Jukogyo and not Oda Jukogyo. Using the Japanese version of Wikipedia can be a big help in finding out whether there are any regional names which use the characters you are looking for and where they are located. If the company name you are looking for is apparently using a place name as part of its name, even just knowing what half of Japan the company is in can sometimes be a big help in narrowing down how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

Now that you’ve figured out the pronunciation of the name, you can test it out to see if it’s ever been used in English. You can try typing variations of the name, in English letters, inside double quotes in Google (to specify you want exact matches only) to see if the company has ever been mentioned in any news articles or websites which aggregate company information. If you get any hits, be sure to compare the information on the page to see if it seems to match the company you are looking for. If the company name contains any general terms (like 重工業 mentioned above), you can try typing in different translations of those terms plus the place or personal names that are part of the name with and without double quotes to see if you can any hits or near hits. With any luck, you’ll find a more or less “official” English name for the company.

If searching on Google proves unsuccessful (and assuming you’ve at least discerned a likely pronunciation for the name), you’ll just have to write the pronunciation of that name in English. In this situation, do not, I repeat, do not “translate” the name. Just leave it as is. The standard protocol if you don’t have an official translation for a company name is to just write it in English letters and otherwise leave it untranslated. For example, if the company’s name is “大田重工業株式会社” (or “株式会社大田重工業”, the placement of the “株式会社” part doesn’t matter) and you have no official name for it, you would write “Ota Jukogyo K.K., not “Ota Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.” (the “K.K.”, short for “kabushiki kaisha”, is how you typically write the legal designation of “株式会社” in English if there is no official translation [even though it’s really pronounced “kabushiki-gaisha“, I know]). The “untranslated” abbreviations of other Japanese legal designations, in the rare case you encounter them and don’t have an official English name, can be found with some Googling.

Regardless, and again, in any situation where you are not 100% certain what the company name is, be sure to leave a translator’s note explaining the situation.

As for romanization systems, you may have noticed I used a modified Hepburn romanization (if you don’t know what that means, take a quick trip to Wikipedia-ville). Hepburn includes a system for writing long vowels, but I omit long vowels as I feel using this will just confuse readers not familiar with the way Japanese is spoken, and this seems from my limited experience to be the majority view among translators. So, for example, I write the long “o” sound in 大きい(おおきい) and 書道 (しょどう) as just another “o,” not “ō,” “ou,” or “oh” (or possibly “oo” in the case of 大きい, which would be even more confusing for those not familiar with Japanese). Regardless of which romanization you choose, be sure to use it consistently throughout the document and, if the document is to be part of an existing translation, be sure to follow the existing romanization scheme being used.

Lastly, if possible, it’s best to just ask what the official English translations are of any company names that appear in the document to be translated before/when you accept the job. Of course, if the client has no direct connection to the companies listed in the source text, you will most likely have to revert to the method described above.

Akira Predicted the 2020 Tokyo Olympics


To the right is an image floating around the Japanese internet of late. It’s a screenshot from the hit 80’s anime movie AkiraAkira takes place in 2019. The billboard announces the Tokyo Olympics to take place the following year. Quite prescient.

Loosely translating from top to bottom, it reads: “Tokyo Olympics – Only 147 days left – Let’s work together to make it a success”.

Not the Magazine You’re Looking For

I was just playing Dead Island: Riptide, a zombie game which takes place on a tropical island, and in one section you have to travel through some tunnels dug by the Japanese in WWII. While there, I found this bunker labeled “雑誌”, which, while technically meaning “magazine” in English, more specifically and exclusively means the paper magazines people read. So unless this is supposed to be a room filled with old editions of TIME, the word they were looking for was “弾薬庫”, which means “magazine” in the sense of a storage depot for munitions. I suspect the developers flipped open the nearest Japanese dictionary and used the first entry they saw under “magazine”. Needless to say, I encourage people to always use a professional translator, no matter how small the job.


On Japan and PB&J Sandwiches

Perhaps it is a testament to how well I make them, or perhaps to how “Westernized” (or at least “not very Japanese-like”) my girlfriend is, but I have gotten her hooked on PB&J sandwiches, This is remarkable in so much that Japanese people, at least the rare ones who have tried PB&J sandwiches, hate them (as do many Europeans, so I hear, but I have no means to verify this). I like to think that the reason most Japanese people do not like this American culinary tradition is because they have not had a good PB&J sandwich. I suspect that if they have had one, or attempted to make one on their own, they have used Japanese peanut cream and Japanese jelly.

peanut cream

Japanese peanut cream

I once had some Japanese peanut cream that tasted likely the inside of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, only creamier, and it was truly sublime, in a junk food kind of way. I have never been able to find it since, however, and every other variety of peanut cream I have tried has been a bizarre, translucent caramel-colored slime which tasted neither of peanuts nor butter nor the flavor of anything else I have tasted yet so far but, to describe it more succinctly in three words, is not good. Of course, Japanese people, or at least some Japanese people, like peanut cream, or it would not be on sale. Human beings tend to like what they were fed as children, regardless of how people from other cultures may feel about it as adults. Still, I do not feel peanut cream is an adequate substitute for true peanut butter, which is generally available in Japanese supermarkets (usually only Skippy, the chunky type, luckily my favorite). American peanut butter is, however, very expensive, and I have heard Japanese complain that American peanut butter is too hard to spread and too sweet. As to the first criticism, I suspect they are putting it in the refrigerator, which of course would make it a bread-destroying nightmare. As to the second, I don’t know where this is coming from; in my experience, Japanese peanut cream is far sweeter than Skippy peanut butter.

The other essential half of the PB&J equation is the “J”, which most people take as “jelly”, but I far prefer jam. This, again, is where I suspect the scant few Japanese who have tried PB&J sandwiches (and didn’t like them) have gone wrong. Even American jelly is an oversweet sludge far distanced from its fruity roots, and Japanese jelly doubly so. Here in Japan, I use an imported French jam with no sugar added from the local import shop. If I were in America, I wouldn’t dream of being such a snob and buying such an expensive jam, but so far it is just about the only real jam I have been able to find, and, thanks to the no added sugar, is not too sweet. I also almost always use raspberry, both because it’s my favorite fruit and because it balances well with the slight saltiness of the peanut butter without overpowering it.

This, anyway, is the recipe I use when making PB&J sandwiches for my girlfriend (Skippy chunky peanut butter and no sugar added raspberry jam), and she can’t get enough of them.

Birthday Trip to Tokyo Disneyland

We went to Tokyo Disneyland for my birthday.


Apparently, it’s very unusual to find Mickey at Disneyland (other than in the parades and such), so we were very lucky to get this shot. Here you see Mickey with two girls dressed up in costumes for the Disney Halloween celebration that goes on throughout the month of October.


We got to ride the new Star Tours ride, which was probably the thing I most wanted to do this time around. While you wait in line, you walk through a “spaceport” and get to see various animatronic vignettes before the ride. The line for Star Tours is probably the most entertaining in the park, and possibly more entertaining than some of the other attractions.


Although you can’t tell in this static photo, the movements of C3PO were very dynamic and natural. Almost the entire ride, including the animatronic scenes, is in Japanese (so you’ll be missing out on a lot if you ride Star Tours in Japan and don’t speak Japanese), but I was impressed with the quality of the voice and the acting for C3PO. I believe the actor used is the same one who has been used for all of the Japanese dubs of Star Wars, and his timing was perfect, especially during the ride itself. Normally I hate Japanese voice overs, but I was perfectly satisfied with not being able to hear the original English thanks to the actor for C3PO.


A real-time computer-generated camera filter of guests walking by serves as a “security scanner” – the display on the screen at the back is also properly mirrored on the screen in front of the security droid.


The security droid has some basic recognition routines and will respond to what’s happening around it. Here he’s admonishing me for taking a picture (true story). We rode Star Tours twice and the second time, a bunch of guys were waving there arms at the security droid, to which he responded,”Yeah, I see you. Don’t worry. I’ll have my eye on you, no matter where you go.”


The “boarding gate” for the new Star Tours – mostly the same as the old one, with a new coat of paint and banks of 3D glasses for riders to pick up.



We also saw Michael Jackson’s Captain EO tribute, which was so 80’s it made my teeth hurt. Before you get to watch the movie, you have to stand in this hall and watch a cheesy making-of video. And I guess this is considered part of the attraction and not a line, but standing around watching small video monitors in a crowded room is not what you want to do when you’ve been walking around all day. However, unlike Star Tours, almost everything for Captain EO is in English. This short pre-show in the hall is in Japanese, but there are English subtitles, while the Captain EO movie itself is all in English, with tiny, hard-to-read (even for native speakers) Japanese subtitles in the right right of the screen.

It was also interesting to note the contrasts between EO and Star Tours. They’re both “4D” attractions, with effects occurring in the theater along with 3D visuals, but you could really feel how the technology had progressed. For example, the 3D glasses for Captain EO are this weird, continuous curved shape, from earpiece to glasses to the other earpiece, so you can’t really tuck the earpieces behind your ears comfortably like you would a normal pair of glass. Not only that, but the design manages to practically push the lenses into your eyeballs. The glasses for Star Tours were much more comfortable. Also, with Captain EO, they failed to take into account the fact that with 3D, you lose about half the light of the video because of the glasses, so the image was really, really dark and hard to see. Needless to say, Star Tours didn’t have this problem. Still, Captain EO was good, 80’s fun, although it pretty much hit my tolerance limit for interpretive dance.


The castle is decked out for Tokyo Disneyland’s 30th anniversary celebration. 30th anniversary decorations were everywhere, which was kind of annoying because they took the place of many of the Halloween decorations that would normally be up this time of year. For example, there seem to be no Halloween decorations along this street, although there were the last time I went during Halloween. Perhaps they will put up more as Halloween approaches?


And this is when we went through that time warp – or I accidentally took a picture without noticing, one of the two.




I was rather satisfied with how these pictures came out and couldn’t choose which to delete.


They did a great job recreating the set of the movie for the line for the Monsters, Inc. Hide and Go Seek ride.


The detail on the desk was amazing. The sponsor for the ride is Panasonic, and the radio at the left actually had a little Panasonic logo on it, probably taken directly from some Panasonic production line.


Again, great detail, with a full garbage can in the back and work forms waiting to be stamped on the desk.


I imagine this section of the gift store is unique to Tokyo Disneyland – the senbei (rice cracker) section. Check out the awesome senbei-styled tin in the upper left, with Mickey-shaped nori (dried seaweed).


Even the Genie tins here are filled with senbei.



This Mickey-shaped cheeseburger was, unfortunately, the least satisfying meal we had at Disneyland – I was expecting a cheeseburger, but it tasted more like a Japanese hamburg steak.




Almost everybody who goes to Tokyo Disneyland buys a commemorative popcorn bucket (or at least, Japanese people do). We went with the Star Wars one, sold near Star Tours.


The Star Wars characters have been “Disney-fied” with mostly core Disney characters, but notice the Stitch Yoda – a key indication this was made for Japan (other than the “Tokyo Disneyland” logo) – for no particular reason that I can discern, Stitch is considered incredibly cute in Japan and is very popular among Japanese Disney fans, as evidenced here.



The Haunted Mansion, decked out specially for its Halloween season-only Nightmare Before Christmas conversion. They really went all out with the conversion, and it felt really well done.

Notice, however, how dark it is outside. This isn’t because my camera’s bad at taking pictures at night or the Haunted Mansion is kept purposefully dark – the whole park is incredibly dark after sunset – as in, you won’t be able to see the face of the person standing next to you. It would be nice if they put a few more lights in.


The 30th Anniversary decoration at the entrance to the park.


I had to buy the senbei-styled tin. It’s the perfect mix of Japanese and Disney.


My girlfriend, knowing my love for Coke, bought me this special 30th Anniversary Coke. Inside is a special 30th Anniversary Coke bottle, and supposedly they didn’t make that many (which means, what, only 20,000 or so?).

“Witches of the Orient” match to be shown for first time since 1964

On October 23, 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics, Japan and the Soviet Union contended for gold in women’s volleyball. In a stunning victory, Japan won 3-0 in a match which still retains the highest ratings for a sports program in Japanese history at 66.8%. The Western press referred to the slightly-built but skillful Japanese team as the Witches of the Orient.

Although broadcast by NHK, it was standard practice at the time to re-record over the expensive tapes used to record television programming, and it was long thought that nothing but highlights of the match remained. Recently, however, NHK has discovered a sports lover in possession of recordings that had been broadcast live overseas during the match. The match will now be broadcast for the first time in full since the Tokyo Olympics on BS1 on January 2, 9 p.m.