Japanese Media Cheat Sheet

Over the years of reading manga, playing Japanese video games, and watching anime, I've picked up a number of useful axioms, recurring translation habits that, if you don't know about them, can produce some unintuitive/confusing translations, and just general mental note-taking that's helped me make better sense of Japanese works... while reading/playing/watching in English.

This is intended to be a resource for other people who enjoy English translations of Japanese works, helping them to understand what they are missing... or at least why the works they enjoy can at times seem incomprehensibly strange.


Hime

It normally gets translated as 'princess', and that's probably accurate enough to works operating in a more feudal sort of context, but in more modern contexts it's probably not particularly accurate, and cases I've seen that I suspect to be alternate translations are generally actually worse, such as 'mistress', which can potentially work when it's a maid talking to her female boss sort of thing, but carries unfortunate connotations when attached to a man talking to his girlfriend/wife/whatever.


Hime is, basically, "a highly respected woman". I suspect 'Ma'am' would be a more accurate translation in most more modern cases for capturing that the woman is being treated with more respect and formality than is usual -in America, at least, 'miss' is a more typical, semi-casual way of speaking to a woman, 'Ma'am' more formal/respectful.


In Sailor Moon English translations consistently identify the Senshi as all being princesses: I strongly suspect this is a functional mistranslation of Hime, as while the Senshi are all, back in the whole "Silver Millennium" era thing, important people occupying positions of respect, the manga indicates that they are the most highly ranked members of a military force of planetary guardians, not that they are any kind of authority-by-blood or otherwise fitting to the English word 'princess'. (Admittedly, the intent here may be more about the romanticization than the literal meaning!)

Me, Myself, and I

Japanese has multiple words that work as “I”, which carry different connotations when being used, signaling to listeners something about how the speaker thinks of themselves or wishes to be perceived by others. English having only the one word meaning “I” occasionally leads to awkward translation issues -for instance, one form of “I” could be approximated in English as “I, a tough young man” ('Ore', pronounced roughly like "oh-ray", not like the English word 'ore') but can be used by girls and sometimes is, which lends itself to humorous statements that, in English, would require an incredible awkward construction like “I, a tough young man, am a perfectly girly girl.” Since English translations almost never bother to approximate the implications of the various “I” words, these scenes usually simply become completely impossible to translate. (The example scene would become simply “I am a perfectly girly girl” and completely lose the joke)

On top of all that, the Japanese language has no grammatical requirement to actually use pronouns in a general sense: "I would like to go to Restaurant X" is generally not literally accurate as a translation of what is being said in the original Japanese, which would be closer to "Would like to go to Restaurant X", with it being implied rather than explicitly stated that the speaker is providing a preference. This can also lead to awkward, confusing translations.

Oh, and Japanese pronouns A: can work as non-pronoun words, providing room for puns, subtle secondary means, etc, and B: can have their meaning/social implications altered by context. (A common example is "rude in public, signals emotional closeness in private")

Also worth noting is the usage of the speaker's own name in place of a personal pronoun. This is most strongly associated with young children (It's something Japanse children do spontaneously), but is also deliberately invoked to attempt to capture the 'cute factor' associated with young children. This is why, for instance, animal mascots and humanoid characters who are clearly evoking the image of an immature child will often utilize their own name in conversation instead of saying 'I'. ("Lila would like to play!" rather than "I would like to play!") Put another way: if a character in Japanese media does this, the audience is probably either intended to assume they're legitimately immature, or intended to interpret the character as cute. (Or 'kawaii', I guess, though kawaii isn't that distinct from the English 'cute')

Swearing

When it gets down to it, Americans -whom handle a lot of the English translations of Japanese works- are, as a culture, fairly casual/rude compared to practically the entire rest of the world. (Australia is a notable exception) Japan, meanwhile, is one of the most formal/polite cultures in the world. Usually a translation attempts to convert local norms for the original material to local norms for the translator's culture -that is, the way everybody is speaking in a manga is normal for Japan, and then the English translation tries to retain that quality by making them speak in a manner that is normal for English-speakers. (Americans, specifically, if translated by Americans)

Since there's a tremendous gap in the level of politeness/formality employed in everyday culture between Japan and America, this 'normalization' is actually a major shift.

A concrete example: in Megaman Battle Network 6 the protagonist is a middle schooler, and one of his classmates insists on calling him "Mr. Lan" until eventually Lan insists they're close enough this friend can just call him "Lan", no 'Mr.' needed. My inference is that this is an awkward attempt to retain a conversation about use of honorifics; probably in the original Japanese Lan's friend was using the honorific 'san' (Or possibly 'kun', though it's not terribly important to this point), which is a fairly standard bit of politeness that people who are close enough friends will drop as part of being close friends. Americans, however, are already casual before friendship occurs, and so this conversation ends up making Lan's friend seem like a weirdo, rather than like he's being a bit slow to realize Lan considers him a friend.

So. Swearing.

Japanese doesn't have swearing.

What it does have is context-inappropriate behavior that is shockingly rude. For instance, dropping the use of honorifics entirely is considered to be extremely rude if the person you're talking to doesn't actually consider you to be that emotionally close to them. There's also a form of 'you'-type pronoun that is, again, considered shockingly rude when aimed at people you're not extremely close to: pretty much anytime you see a character in Japanese media saying "You (swear word)!" they literally just said "You!" but did so in a way that was contextually very rude.

Americans, meanwhile, are so casual-by-default that it's basically impossible to be rude outside of explicitly formal contexts without resorting to swear words or active insults.

The standard kludge solution for translations that are willing to be rated P-13 or higher? Swear words replacing contextual rudeness. It's basically either that or translate everybody as speaking formally at all times so you can have people speak informally as the exception that's rude -and even that would be shaky, since a lot of readers would not actually have it occur to them that dropping into casual speech might be a form of rudeness.

As a concrete example: Hidan of Naruto. In some translations, Hidan is a swearing machine, which leads to a lot of fans imagining him as a very angry person, but his body language indicates that he's mostly calm or whining, not angry. My inference is that in the original Japanese he's being overly casual/rude in his choice of words, evincing a level of respect for others that is lower than the social bare minimum. This would be consistent with his insistence that everyone else is a 'heathen' and his general indication that he has no respect for 'heathens', not to mention that he's explicitly disrespectful of his partner -Kakazu- valuing money.

tl;dr: They're (almost) never swearing in the original Japanese, they're being appallingly rude. (Exception: sometimes, a character is swearing in the original Japanese -in English. Theft of swear words in Japanese media seems to be on the rise)

“That Person” or “That Man” and variations

When Team Seven introduces itself in Naruto, Sasuke speaks of wanting to kill 'a certain someone', 'that man', or other odd phrases in this vein. (Different translators translate it differently)

On hearing this, Naruto is concerned Sasuke is referring to Naruto, which makes little sense in a typical English translation, particularly if he said man. Similarly, Japanese-produced media frequently involves scenes in which characters conspicuously speak of someone without ever naming them, or even using inappropriate gender pronouns. (eg 'that man' where it turns out to be a woman)

This all comes back to the fact that in everyday Japanese conversation it is completely normal to refer to people via a word meaning, approximately, 'that one'. This is pretty much exactly as ambiguous in Japanese as you might expect, and so stuff like having a Shadowy Council Of Mysteriousness conspicuously fail to ever name the individual they're talking about isn't that unnatural or conspicuous -in Japanese.

Then English norms are imposed on every conversation except the ones demanding Japanese norms be obeyed to retain their original meaning, and these specific scenes suffer for it.

Gender and names

Japanese has gendered names much like English does (Names that are usually or always found on boys and not girls, or on girls and not boys), but there's an important difference compared to English.

In English-speaking cultures, the default in conversation is to use personal names and leave out family names, except in fairly formal contexts, whereas in Japan the default is to use family names, except among extremely close friends and family.

This is one (of many) things that contributes to increased potential for gender confusion in Japanese: the English equivalent would be referring to your friend John Smith not as “John” but rather as “Sir Smith” (Think “sir” in the military sense: in the army you call superior officers “sir” whether they're male or female) and by extension calling his sister Elizabeth “Sir Smith” as well. This is then compounded by the 'that one' thing in the previous section, compounded further by the fact that pronouns are optional in Japanese, and then further compounded by the fact that Japanese pronouns don't necessarily incorporate gender even when referring to others. That is: in English, even if you referred to Elizabeth Smith as "Sir Smith" as described prior, you would say "Sir Smith will be joining our company today. She is here to..." The use of she would reveal her gender in English, but the Japanese equivalent sentence wouldn't necessarily allude to her gender in any fashion at all.

The overall result is that characters whose gender is either contrary to initial expectations or, in some cases, remains ambiguous all the way to the end of the series, is simply much easier to do in Japanese without any linguistic oddities getting involved. (An English work that studiously avoided gendered pronouns and so on would look decidedly odd)

Subpoint: Baseball!

In baseball, everybody gets referred to by their family name, not their personal name. (eg in radio narration)

I suspect there's a connection between this point and baseball's popularity in Japan.

What Measure Is A Non-Human?

The (Or maybe a, I'm not fluent in Japanese) Japanese word for 'human' is probably more accurately translated as 'person' or 'mortal' in English.

I say this because translated Japanese media is full of examples where 'human' is used yet is clearly an inappropriate descriptor, such as when referring to a wolf-man or even just plain a wolf, but the common ground is of 'person-ness' (They are all thinking individuals treated with respect etc that humans normally only afford other humans) or that the speaker is a god or god-like being expressing contempt for the beings it is speaking to, which it clearly views as utterly beneath it. (Sneer "Humans. Pathetic.")

Playing With Dolls

One Japanese word for “doll” is pretty literally “human-shaped”. (“object” is implied, not explicit)

It thus carries some fairly noticeable connotations that don't exist natively in English: to refer to someone as a doll in Japanese is to indicate they are not really a person at all, but a thing that looks and perhaps acts like a person, but ultimately is something less than human that is pretending at being human, and poorly at that. This crops up in a fair amount of Japanese media, with characters being told "You're just a doll" in a manner that suggests it's intended to be insulting or demeaning, among other examples.

I also suspect this connects to another phenomenon, where Japanese media does not make a hard-and-fast distinction between robots, cyborgs, fully organic clones, and still other cases of "artificial" people. This lack of clarity often leaks through into translations in various subtle and not-so-subtle forms, where "robots" bleed and bear children, individuals alluded to as "cyborgs" are apparently assembled in a factory and have only a skin-deep resemblance to humans, and "clones" turn out to be metallic recreations of the flesh-and-blood person they're a "clone" of, the translators having done their best to guess at the authorial intent well before they have a chance to see concrete behavior of the non-person/non-human person in question and then turned out to have chosen the wrong word...

... or been stymied by the fact that there is no word that quite works. Some of these artificial people are, to all appearances, indistinguishable from regular flesh-and-blood people except inasmuch as some mad scientist somehow manufactured them in a lab, and yet are not a clone of a specific individual, a concept the English language currently struggles to describe in a succinct manner.

Worse, sometimes the Japanese creators seem, themselves, unclear what they actually mean, with one scene depicting these un-persons as flesh-and-blood and a later scene depicting them as gears of steel, suggesting their internal concept -their actual word- is inherently ambiguous as to what form the un-person is taking, physically. All they really know is the character is an un-person that looks like a person.

Genius

The Japanese word generally translated as “genius” means, most literally, something like “divine blessing”.

While it certainly gets used in contexts where “genius” is probably reasonably close to capturing the meaning, it also gets used in contexts and ways that make a lot more sense in the context that its literal meaning is about divine favor. If you're talking about being blessed by divinities or reality itself or something, that isn't something you acquire through hard work and clever ideas, it's something you acquire by being favored, for their own reasons, by higher powers.

In particular, Japan is very prone to A: falling firmly on the side of “nature” when it comes to “genius” over “nurture” and B: assigning the descriptor “genius” (After translation) to any family that is notably more successful than other families, usually suggesting, heavily implying, or outright stating that the family must have something innate to them that makes them better than other people that they have more success than typical.

By contrast, the Western (Or at least American) usage of “genius” is agnostic on the point of “nature vs nurture”, and can largely be summarized as either being used to describe a person who is a source of good ideas that most people would not generate, or descriptive of a good idea that most people would not have generated.

Either way, the West generally does not use the term in a pluralized manner unless it is referring to a case where a large number of unrelated individuals who have all separately earned the title 'genius' convene. Families are not “families of geniuses”, or genius themselves, nor are nations, criminal organizations, businesses, or ecosystems.

In short: the English word “genius” is a title earned, indicative of a past accomplishment with, perhaps, an indication of future expectations, whereas the Japanese word that gets translated as “genius” is strongly tied to notions of intrinsic qualities, or extrinsic qualities that cannot be reliably acquired through action, which definitely predict future success.

This is particularly important to understanding why Japanese media often grapples bitterly with the inequality of genius vs non-genius: the American 'genius', being a title that is earned through a novel and effective idea, is always waiting somewhere in the future for anyone willing to generate new ideas. If you are 'stupid' and you know someone who is 'a genius', you may hold to the idea that someday you will abruptly even the scales and be hailed as a 'genius' yourself, or even reverse the scales and be hailed as the greater 'genius'. Don't get bitter: get even.

The Japanese 'genius' is an observation of past performance -even by association with others!- with an attached expectation about future performance and a connotation that the qualities involved cannot be changed, earned, or stolen, only granted by the whims of distant powers. If you are in competition with someone who is a 'genius', then the expectation is that the 'genius' will always be a 'genius', and you never will be, or at least won't be for such a long period of time that they will remain far, far ahead of you regardless. Under that school of thought, you're just plain screwed by circumstances beyond your control, and there's nothing to be done except rail impotently at forces that care nothing about your fury at the inherent unfairness of it all.

Kakkoii, Cool, Manly

Kakkoii: Usually translated as “cool” in English translations, but can also mean “handsome” or “manly”.

Cool: A vague-but-positive descriptor in (American) English with implications of emotional control, impressive physical aptitude, which is especially prone to being used to describe acts of rebellion or a simple disregard for the will of authority figures.

In Japanese media, male characters will often be almost obsessed with, after English translation, 'coolness'. I historically found this a bit strange, as the American exaltation of anti-authority is a far, far cry from the Japanese exaltation of fitting in and, to a slightly lesser extent, obeying authorities. This made a lot more sense to me when I learned that "cool" is almost always a translation of Kakkoii, and specifically that Kakkoii can mean "handsome" or "manly".

These legions of male teenagers in Japanese media are, in other words, insecure about their manliness, just like the stereotypical American male teenager. It's just being lost in translation.

A flipside to this is that Japanese female characters will tend to be uncomfortable, at best, with being told they are 'cool', and in some cases may flip out and attack the person giving them a compliment. This makes a lot more sense when you know they're not being told they're awesome, they're being told they're awesomely manly.

Rival! Frenemy Mine!

There's a kanji that can be read as “rival” but also as “friend”.

Yes, the rival-who-is-actually-my-best-friend notion so common to shonen is embedded in the language.


Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Coward!

The kanji usually translated as “coward” is a combination of the kanji for “lacking” and “lower body”. This could be interpreted in a few different ways, but probably the most generally accurate English translation would be to say “spineless” or “gutless”.

Learning this was an eye-opener for me: historically, most of the time when I've been consuming Japanese media and someone is saying “coward” I've just been kind of mystified as what exactly is meant to be cowardly in the scene, but if you replace "coward" with "gutless" or "spineless" in the vast majority of these somewhat odd scenes they make perfect sense.

Evolve Onward And Upward

You go looking up the Japanese word for evolution, and you get pointed to “Shinka”. Shinka can alternatively mean progress.

In other words, if you're looking at an English translation of a Japanese work and it's using the word evolution it's entirely possible the original intention isn't precisely about Darwinian evolution. It's about making progress. Pokemon uses Shinka, for instance -in other words, a Pokemon is progressing when it becomes another Pokemon, which... well, fair enough. It may be that Shinka is perceived as having a more biological-sounding slant, such that it sounds better as a way of referring to progress in organisms, I don't know, but in any event this is probably why Japanese media is strongly prone to talking about 'evolution' as an onwards and upwards thing -Western writers are plenty guilty of this, mind, but it still gets handled differently in the details.

1000 Years Ago...

If you're seeing this, odds are good someone is doing a literal translation of something that's not being used literally. In particular, if one plotpoint says something like "A thousand years ago, a great evil was sealed away" and a later plotpoint establishes a more concrete date of 800 years or whatever, that's probably not a fail on the Japanese writer's part, it's an error on the translator's part: what's being said in Japanese also just gets used to mean basically "A long, long time ago..."

Note that in conjunction with Japan's love of Star Wars, almost every case of a Japanese story opening up with "1000 years ago" is actually a fairly direct riffing on Star Wars opening line of "A long, long time ago..." If you've played a JRPG, you've probably seen this. Just mentally fill in with "A long, long time ago..." or "in the time before time" or whatever sounds most poetic to you: it's probably more accurate than taking it to mean the planet circled around its star one thousand times exactly.

Siblings

Japanese does not have an everyday-use word that can be translated as "brother" nor as "sister". Your options in everyday language are to say, essentially "older brother/sister" or "younger brother/sister". This is so pervasive to the language even twins will select one to be the older sibling and the other the younger sibling, even if nobody has any idea which one came out first. This extends to the plural -you can say "my older sisters" but there's no easy way to simultaneously refer to your older sister and your younger sister without getting into weird bureaucratic language.

This in part ties into a broader rule of thumb that age is a factor in determining social dominance in the culture, and determining who is the social lesser in a situation is so important there's an entire complicated, indirect ritual for working out who is older and more experienced without ever directly citing age. (For whatever reason, it's considered rude to actually directly mention your age or ask for someone else's age) But it's also just a linguistic limitation, and in fact there's also no word at all in everyday usage that is gender-neutral on the topic of siblings.

This is why some translations of Japanese media will have characters persistently refer to a sibling as "Big brother!" even if they have no younger siblings to be distinguishing from. The lack of a gender-neutral way to refer to multiple siblings probably also shapes family sizes in the media -everything is simple and easy if you have a pair of siblings of whatever combination of gender, slightly complicated if you have a trio of one gender (The middle sibling has no easy way to refer to their older and younger siblings, but this can be resolved by just not putting them into situations it crops up in), and very complicated if you have a group of three or more with mixed genders. (This can and does get resolved by having the odd-gender out be the main one who gets speaking time, but it's a kludgy solution)

A lot of translations are basically Mad Libs, The Translation. (Plus Grammar)

This tends to be reduced in higher-quality translations, though even then it often sneaks its way in with particular terms getting translated in a fixed, repetitive way that sometimes produces incongruous results in a sentence, but the main point is that very often if you learn that an English word in one scene is being used as a translation for a specific Japanese word you can then infer that any other time you see the English word it's standing in for the Japanese word.

... just don't make the mistake of assuming every work chooses the same translations. There's conventions that are fairly universal, but even those have exceptions.

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