Export Knowhow

Konnichiwa! – Does your product speak Japanese?

Japan is one of the world’s biggest economic powers, and yet Japan is seen as a difficult market for Swiss SMEs and start-ups. Learn why this is closely linked with the language and culture of Japan.


Japan is the world’s third largest economy and the Japanese language has close to 127 million speakers. These are almost exclusively native speakers in Japan, as well as some Japanese minorities in the USA and South America. The biggest Japanese community outside of Japan is to be found in Brazil, where it has been engaged primarily in coffee cultivation since the start of the 20th century. So it is no surprise when you come across a well-developed and popular coffee culture in Japan, in spite of the strong dominance of tea.

Japanese purchasing power is enormous... but only if you speak the right language

Japan has close to 119 million internet users, which corresponds to a full 92% of the Japanese population. This includes 99.4 million active users of the mobile internet. Digitisation has clearly made a big impact in Japan, and Japanese society is penetrated by the media every day on a wide variety of channels. Perfect conditions for ensuring that your product reaches its target groups as widely as possible, if it weren’t for a few snags: Japan is ranked relatively low on the EF English Proficiency Index, in 53rd place, in addition to Japanese being one of the most complex languages in the world. This makes Japan one of the hardest markets for foreign companies and it requires a high level of sensitivity for Japanese culture and the Japanese language. Only around a third of Japanese customers would order something on an English-language website. Among Japanese women the proportion who would not use an English online shop is 47%. Do you want to do business in Japan? Then you must do it in Japanese.

Not all Japanese is alike – The right choice leads to business success

The complexity of the Japanese language is almost unrivalled, and in-depth knowledge is required, not only on a linguistic level but on a cultural level too. Did you know that Japanese uses up to three different alphabets in the same sentence? Japanese uses the “Katakana” alphabet for loan words, primarily from English. The “Hiragana” alphabet is mainly used for verb and adjective endings. Around 50 percent of modern Japanese comprises words of Chinese origin and these are known as “Kanji”. These Kanji represent the third alphabet and they are used in the form of Chinese characters for nouns and word roots. A Kanji character can also be read in two or more ways. For a correct translation into Japanese, it is important to know when which alphabet and which Kanji is used. In comparison with other languages, Japanese appears rather imprecise in terms of visual impressions For example, the Japanese term “aoi” can mean blue, green or even pale. In contrast, audible impressions are rendered with enormous precision. This can be a key factor when marketing certain products.

Conditions for successful internationalisation in the Japanese environment

Internationalisation is a key existential milestone for any company – be it a successful SME or a young start-up. The localisation of marketing-related content has a special role to play in this process. Decisive factors are the translation of the website and presentations, and the transfer of product master data into new languages. As an important part of any localisation project, the translation must take its cue from the particular cultural framework conditions of the target region. As a target market, Japan plays an extraordinary role in this context. As a result of its geographical location, the roots of Japanese culture display similarities to both Southeast Asian and Siberian cultures. In addition, there is the later influence of Chinese and Korean immigrants and the opening up to West in the post-war period, and with that the beginning of today’s Japanese pop culture. However, the Japanese have great national pride, because from all these influences they have created their own, homogeneous Japanese culture, which wants to differ clearly from the earlier influences. It is all the more important to address Japanese customers in their own language, in a correct and culture-specific manner, to achieve success with your business. When carrying out translations into Japanese, you must choose a strong partner who will guide you to success with the aid of specialist native speakers.


About 24translate

24translate has been successfully supporting Swiss SMEs and major corporations with their translations and localisation projects since 2002. Market research data has been made available with the permission of Nimdzi.

Learn more about the Japanese market

Would you like to learn about your business opportunities in Japan? Contact Jacqueline Tschumi today and discuss your export project. We at Switzerland Global Enterprise offer you initial free country consultations, prepare more detailed market and competitor analyses as required, support you in finding the right business partner and inform you about legal regulations.



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