Sunday, March 8, 2015

Life as a Japanese website

Arriving in Japan is similar to regressing to early childhood; you know what you want to say but you can't get anyone to understand you. Unless you arrive speaking Japanese you're unlikely to find someone who speaks your native language even if it's English, the global default. And that's only the start of the problem, next comes written text. Unlike phonetic languages where you have at least the chance to figure it out, with kanji you either know it or you don't. No halfway house. It's understanding or ignorance. And that's a pity because Japan has some of the most enjoyable experiences, including some of the best food, in the world, and it's all one unfathomable character away.

The rise of the website has helped. If I were to choose the most enjoyable dinner experience, it would be the same every time. A small, family run, sumiyaki restaurant in Akasaka central Tokyo, sitting around an open fire, brazing a mouthwatering slice of Kobe beef. You walk into an old, concrete office building and you step out on the fourth floor in 17th century Japan. But look it up online and you'll receive a page of impenetrable symbols, clearly useful, if only you could read them. Some websites, that don’t take advantage of modern translation software, provide basic English these days, but it is basic. Japanese, lacking a definitive particle, is the devil incarnate as far as legacy translation systems go. Just find a Japanese post on Facebook and hit the translation button, it can be hilarious and absolutely baffling.

So the market for an effective translation system is wide open here at the moment. Expats usually have the luxury of a bilingual assistant, but with the best will in the world they're not going to be too happy to translate your order for you on a Saturday evening. Most people simply give up. Pizza Hut has a simple English structure so that's often what it ends up being for dinner. But there is so much more available. The Internet was a game changer for foreigners in Japan. Ordering books from Amazon US was a complete revelation when it became available but move past the major corporations and English disappears almost completely. To be fair so do their customers, 99.9% of whom will be Japanese. But it would be so good to be able to read all those illegible ideograms and open up Japan to the adventurous but illiterate amongst us. Yoroshiku onnegaishimasu.

Amazon Japan's English language site. At least the books are good...

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