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Localizing Your SaaS into Japanese: A Primer

Running a growing SaaS and thinking of entering Japan, the world’s third-largest economy? Here is a primer on localization considerations.


If your startup operates a SaaS (software as a service), then you are probably aware that a number of your customers located in foreign countries. If your SaaS is currently only offered in English, most of them are likely in countries where people have a strong enough grasp of English to use your service comfortably.

However, if you’re ready to expand your reach into the world’s third-largest economy, Japan, then this article will give you an overview of what to do.

Localization: Sooner is Better Than Later

Many successful SaaS have operated for over ten years without any localization and just accept the fact that they are going to miss out on markets where most professionals have a low level of English ability. Meanwhile, local entrepreneurs in the larger of those markets have likely replicated their service and localized it to fit their home market. If and when they decide to move into that market, the local upstart has already cornered it.

Why Japan?

Unlike some Asian markets, Japan has an open internet and strong intellectual property enforcement. Many SaaS operators such as Salesforce (Japanese site) have found great success in the land of the rising sun. Of course, local upstarts work to replicate successful SaaS businesses and adapt them to fit the Japanese market. However, they must comply with intellectual property regulations and are not sheltered from overseas competition.

In this article, we'll look at ways to localize your SaaS for the Japanese market in a cost-effective way.

Machine vs. Human Translation

While machine translation (MT) has improved dramatically over the years, as a general rule, it is still not so useful for translating UI elements. This is because choosing the right words or expressions requires an understanding of their context within the UI. Human translators can also struggle with this if you just give them a spreadsheet of text strings to work with. You will need to let them refer to the UI.

MT can massively expedite the translation of content, which is literal in nature and doesn’t require creative interpretation or a deep understanding of its content. Document types that MT performs well on include white papers, press releases, help desk articles, and legal items (privacy policies, license agreements, and terms of use). Qlingo (Japanese site) is an MT service which has been documented to give significantly higher quality output than well-known free online MT services. Furthermore, they have stronger security and privacy protections in place for your data. However, a human translator will still be needed to check and polish the output.

As for marketing items that require creative copywriting to hit the right tone and nuance, you need to use a human translator and have another one check their work. Items in this category might include your website, landing pages, and social media posts.

Localization: How Far Should You Take it?

If you just want to test if there will be sufficient demand for your SaaS in Japan, one first step is to just create a landing page in Japanese that introduces the service and then encourages people to sign up with the caveat that it is currently still only available in English. Your customers will be limited to those who have sufficient English ability to use the service. If you ask for feedback, the most common comment is likely to be, “We wish it were available in Japanese.”

If you’re confident that your SaaS could be successful in Japan, then you need to decide how far to go in terms of translation and localization. In case you’re not familiar with the difference, here is a quick overview:

  • Translation is a subset of localization. If you offer a clone of your English service in another language, then you have translated all text elements. However, it will still feel like a foreign service to the end-user. For example, the translations may be entirely correct but not phrased in the way a local would typically write.

  • Localization aims to make the user feel almost like they are using a home-grown service. For example, translations may be massaged to use words, phrases, and expressions that feel more natural. Then, if the budget allows, visual elements such as pictures, photos, or videos showing people may be replaced with equivalent ones that show locals.

Obviously, full localization is ideal, but it will be much more costly. Most SaaS vendors entering Japan start with just translation and see what reaction they get to the service.

If you have an international competitor who has fully localized your service, or there is a Japanese competitor, then Japanese users will naturally gravitate towards those alternatives unless yours has significant competitive advantages.

Localization Tools

This will be a complex project to implement, so you may want to consider having your team use a Translation Management System (TMS) to keep track of all items. It will also improve efficiency as translations can be reused and standardized.

Many of the tools you use in your current development process may also be useful, such as GitHub. It makes sense to use a TMS that can integrate with GitHub. If your system makes use of Markdown, some cloud-based TMS to consider include Crowdin, LingoHub, Memsource, POEditor, Qordoba, Smartling, and Transifex. Each service has a different pricing system. As a general rule, you should be able to start on one of their cheaper plans and upgrade as you need more features such as project management, external integration, and translation memory.

Take your time in researching tools before committing to one because it can be a hassle to change later.

Localization Workflow

If your SaaS has dynamically generated content that is retrieved from an API, the process of updating translations will be much more efficient. However, if you need to wait for maintenance releases to update your production site, things will be slower.

As for the human side of things, all resources involved in the process need to stay in-sync via whatever communication tools you have in place. For example, you should appoint a localization manager to coordinate software and technology decisions, coordinate teams, and task estimation. For many groups, this means a mixture of Slack, GitHub, and whatever TMS is selected.

You will probably find that it makes sense to have all tasks recorded in individual tickets (perhaps as GitHub Issues). Furthermore, you can label them to differentiate the priority, part of the SaaS, and scope of work required to implement. Discuss with your team the best ways to proceed.

Note that translators will expect to provide input and have it flow through to production without any hitches. However, they are only human and can either make mistakes or not choose the ideal wording to express the meaning in Japanese. Thus, you should have at least one more translator in the workflow to check their work and make any necessary corrections or adjustments.

Avoiding Localization Problems

Ensure that your translators have all the context that they need, such as annotated screen captures or designs of the UI. Use your TMS to monitor and record all translation strings for subsequent reference.

Testing is also important. Perhaps you may use your translators to make sure everything is on track. Since Japanese requires fewer characters to convey the same information as English, the length of text elements should seldom be a problem. However, make sure your testers cover all parts of your UI and even review any potential edge cases. Beyond the text, other items to review include currency, date, and number formats.

As your SaaS evolves translation (and localization if you’re going that far) and the subsequent testing must continue. Missed or problematic translations will hurt your brand image.

Hiring Localization & Operational Resources

Once you launch the Japanese version of your SaaS, you will need to find ways to get it noticed by your target market within Japan. A shortcut would be to hire an agency, but this is going to be expensive. Another option is to hire a native speaker to join your HQ marketing team, if you all work in the same location, or perhaps someone who can work remotely.

Once your site starts to get traffic and eventually signups, there obviously needs to be a native-speaker on standby to answer any inquiries or support tickets that come in. Copying-and-pasting the correspondence into a machine translation service won’t work since it’s crucial to respond with the right tone and expressions.

Opening a Japan office is obviously a significant undertaking and can be a distraction from your core business. If you can find native speakers of Japanese in your area and have them join your team, that would be ideal. However, you may want to consider having them on a contract that is somewhat flexible in nature in case you later need to pull out of Japan to save costs. This has happened to several SaaS vendors in times of financial crises. The ones who survived often came back to the Japanese market years later to resume the process.

One low-risk option is working with remote freelancers. This will allow you to hire specialists for various tasks and projects on an as-needed basis. Unfortunately, the top crowdsourcing sites tend to have few native Japanese speakers registered. Furthermore, their Japanese counterparts only offer sites in Japanese. Conyac is the only Japanese crowdsourcing site that is available in English and has a large number of Japanese freelancers who are fluent in English.

Wrapping Up

I’m sorry that I can’t provide you with a one-size-fits-all formula for localization success. However, hopefully, you now have an overview of what is involved when it comes to localizing a SaaS into Japanese. It could be after reading this that you have decided to postpone your Japan market entry — and that could be for the best. It’s probably going to be harder than you thought. If and when you are ready to move forward, I wish you the utmost success.


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