It is a fallacy to think that just because a literal translation of Japanese is easily understood by Japanese readers, it will also be highly intelligible to other (non-Japanese) non-native speakers of English. In Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, many English language publications are read and understood by people who do not speak English as their first language. The Japanese language shares structural characteristics with very few other languages. Retaining or imposing such structure on English results in text that is difficult to read and understand for all but those who can “see through” the English to the original Japanese construction.

“Japan seems different — because it is”

Activity in Japan is based upon group consensus and conformity. This means, ideally, that all important members of a group must accept a proposal before any new action is taken — and when it is taken, all members must conform. Interestingly, this ideal of consensus recognizes that there exists a multiplicity of viewpoints and not necessarily just one correct interpretation. This concept was expressed in the famous movie Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four people give differing, yet equally plausible accounts of a violent crime. This ability of the Japanese to simultaneously accept diffuse viewpoints permits a multi-faceted, almost “cubist” advertising approach. It frequently encompasses the whole gestalt of the product, unlike the narrow, single-point perspective of traditional Western ads. In some cases, it may even take on aspects of surrealism, complete with subconscious imagery.

The headline is the creation of a copywriter whose name I cannot remember. It is not mine.

N.B. I just noticed that Sean Mooney (ex-Managing Director TBWA/Japan) quotes and paraphrases me liberally (including the above) in his book, 5,110 Days in Tokyo and Everything’s Hunky-Dory: The Marketer’s Guide to Advertising in Japan, with absolutely zero attribution. Since copying is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess I should be happy, except that in this case it is plagiarism, to say nothing of copyright infringement.  My original text is at and has been since 1996, a good four years earlier than Mooney’s book was published. An earlier article of mine on the same theme is in the authoritative reference book, Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia; Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993.

I had my intellectual property rights attorney in LA look into this and negotiate with Mooney’s publisher. The publisher immediately recognized that my complaint was valid — that Mooney had in fact stolen fundamental arguments and large portions of the book’s text verbatim from my published work. Despite Sean Mooney’s unethical actions, the publisher’s figures showed that our potential damages would not be enough to make litigation worthwhile. They did agree, however, to cease printing and distributing the book. Whether they have done so is hard to tell, since it is still available on Amazon.


Bad English on corporate websites. Why does it keep happening?

Around the world, corporations are going online with websites targeting a global audience. These are often beautifully designed but poorly written. Part of the problem is the choice of content: corporate policy statements and executive biographies do not engage the reader. But a central issue at many Asian and European companies is management’s distrust of English written at a native-speaker level.

To produce English content, management uses its English speaking employees, or farms the source text out to a local translator. The less literal the translation, the less management is likely to trust it. This is because a good translation will not match the original, word for word. A similar problem arises if a writer is hired to create original English copy. Management cannot judge the quality of English and will try to second guess the writer. Whether using a translator or a writer, management will end up rewriting some or all of the English.

The solution is for management to learn to trust the writer. For this to happen, the writer must study how the company thinks and demonstrate this knowledge to management.

The client

Is always right.
It just takes them a hell of a long time to figure out what “right” is.

Wants to sleep at night.
It’s your job to replace all her worries with sweet dreams.