Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:
Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.

Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster

I just came back from a Golden Week vacation in South Florida, which is the closest thing to a “hometown” that I have. I spent my teenage years in Broward County, just north of Miami, and skipped town after high school to go to an upstate university. My parents moved out of town not too long after that, so now my time in school there is my only connection to the area.

On the long flight to Atlanta I finished watching Season 4 of The Wire (a show which comes up often in comment threads here). Season 4 focuses on a Baltimore middle school and examines the dysfunctional aspects of public education which leave many kids clueless and drive many other kids into a life of crime or destitution. One of the threads in its plot involves an ex-cop and a group of Johns Hopkins researchers who move a group of “troubled” kids out of regular classes and into a special classroom where they get more attention, which has its most noticeable effect on the regular classes—which suddenly become pretty orderly and conducive to learning, rather than total madhouses.

This was timely because I had just made arrangements to visit Hallandale High School, where I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school (before and after my year in Osaka). Hallandale is a bog-standard public high school, in the middle of what counts as “the ghetto” in Florida, and which is mainly notable for having a well-equipped TV studio and a large foreign language program. It is one of only a handful of Florida high schools which offer Japanese classes—and four full years’ worth of Japanese at that.

In my day, over a decade ago, Japanese was taught by a Chiba-native art teacher who was much more interested in art than in language teaching. Although there were four separate levels, all four levels were taught at the same time in the same classroom, which was primarily an art classroom. There was not enough demand to actually have separate class blocks for separate levels. When I returned from Osaka, I enrolled in Japanese IV, where my only classmate was an exchange student from Tokyo, and our main duty was to tutor the lower-level kids in basic vocabulary and writing kana. Japanese was often described as the most difficult class in the entire school: part of this obviously had to do with the difficulty of the language itself, but the relative lack of teacher guidance (since she was dealing with four levels at once) and the cruddy textbooks and materials didn’t help either.

Given this history, I was a bit surprised to discover that there are now three completely separate Japanese classes at Hallandale, that Japanese IV is now an Advanced Placement class (meaning that students can take an exam at the end to claim university credits), and that while our teacher is still teaching art, all of her language teaching responsibilities have been taken over by a newly-hired language teacher who is half-Japanese and splits her time between teaching Japanese and English.

My wife and I spoke to the first two classes, comprised of first and second-year students. At the start of each class, we introduced ourselves in Japanese, and I then asked the kids to tell me what we had just said. They got tiny bits and pieces, like our names, but that was about it. Then they took turns struggling to introduce themselves in Japanese using simple fill-in-the-blank sentences (“namae wa ____ desu. shumi wa ____ desu.“) and then did some exercises in writing hiragana where they were struggling to recall the characters. Nobody knew how to assemble a basic sentence on their own. Keep in mind that this was during Golden Week, so the American school year was almost over.

The kids in these classes were quite varied in their backgrounds and motivations. There were more than a few self-proclaimed otaku who wanted to learn Japanese because of their interest in anime and video games. There were a few kids who chose Japanese because they were interested in street racing and liked the movie Tokyo Drift (no accounting for taste, I guess). One was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and wanted to live in Japan “because they are the leaders in graphic arts.” Another had grown up as an Air Force brat in Okinawa and wanted to learn more about the side of Japan he had missed as a child.

Both classes were full of energy but highly disorganized. As each kid got up to introduce themselves in Japanese, their peers wasted no time in heckling their mistakes, putting words in their mouth and generally vying for the class’s attention. The teacher could only maintain the flow of the class by shouting over the shouts of the kids. My wife, whose only familiarity with American high schools came from watching 90210, was both fascinated and horrified by the scene.

We then went down the hallway to the third-year section, which also contained a handful of fourth-year students studying for the AP exam. The students were silent as soon as the teacher called for order, and again my wife and I did our introductions. This time, the kids understood everything. They introduced themselves relatively flawlessly, and were then asked to write down a list of questions to ask us in Japanese. Their questions were grammatically well-constructed even though they were working “on the fly” in the middle of class, and when we answered them with descriptions of our working environments, our lifestyle in Tokyo and our traveling experiences, the students still understood nearly everything.

We were both amazed. Here was a room of kids who had never been to Japan, who were only a year or two ahead of the kids who were absolutely hopeless in Japanese, and yet they spoke Japanese nearly as well as I spoke it after a year in a Japanese high school.

What happened?

When we mentioned this to the teacher, she explained that two years of a foreign language are now required in order to graduate from Hallandale High. The result of this requirement is that first and second-year foreign language classes are filled with kids who have no particular want or need for a foreign language. Many don’t pay attention, and this distracts the other kids so much that they can’t effectively learn—even the otaku among those kids weren’t even minimally proficient. The third and fourth-year classes don’t have this problem; the only kids in them are the kids who really want to learn Japanese, and they study and practice it with each other like crazy.

Thinking back, this was also the case in my high school in Osaka. Everyone had to take lots of English classes in order to graduate, but almost none of them were really interested, and the few kids who actually were interested had no outlet for their energy. I have always rolled my eyes at the idea that Japanese people will speak better English if they just start earlier—not a chance. Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to. As long as English is simply treated as a universal requirement, everyone will study it and nobody will really learn it.

Forgiveness vs. permission

A former boss of mine sometimes liked to say that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” He was a lawyer, of course.

In Japanese, the distinction is not quite as clear, as the usual word for both acts is the verb yurusu. Traditionally, though, there are different kanji characters for the two senses of the word. The usual kanji you see in Japanese nowadays, “許す,” originally only referred to permission (i.e., before the fact); by some accounts, the proper kanji to use for forgiveness (i.e., after the fact) is the more archaic “赦す.”

Not many people bother with the distinction nowadays (see this little social media experiment) and Microsoft’s Japanese input method editor helpfully suggests that the latter kanji is not commonly used in this sense (“常用外”); although it is one of the Joyo Kanji learned in compulsory education, schoolchildren generally only learn its usage in Chinese-derived compounds like 赦免 (shamen) and 恩赦 (onsha), both of which are used to refer to “pardons” of particular individuals and “amnesty” regarding a particular offense.

赦, the forgiveness kanji, [unsurprisingly] comes from China. It was imported to Japan in the late 600s AD. Before this time, there was no concept of human-granted amnesty or pardons in Japan (see this Japanese Wikipedia article), and even under the common-law system introduced in Japan around that time, amnesty was at the imperial court’s discretion and limited to lesser offenses. The system was formalized in the 1700s under the Tokugawa shogunate; under this system, various pardons and amnesties were handed down through the court bureaucracy at the order of the shogun, often at seemingly auspicious times such as the enthronement of a new emperor. The emperor regained control over the amnesty/pardon process under the Meiji Constitution of 1889, and still conducts the final seal of approval under the modern constitution, although the actual decision is now made by the cabinet.

Today, the most avid users of the “forgiveness” kanji as a verb are Christians, who are used to the extensive discussion of forgiveness in the Bible, where the old kanji 赦す is used in most common translations. A simple Google search for the term mostly turns up Christian-related web pages.

It was through Christians that I found out about “the other kanji for yurusu.” Before getting married earlier this year, I had been going to weekly “marriage classes” with the future Mrs. Jones at a Catholic church in Tokyo (more on this here), and one of the main points of discussion was the great importance of forgiveness in a marital relationship.

This perspective is by no means limited to Christians: the broader secular Japanese society (as well as most rational human beings) also acknowledges that one has to “forgive and forget” if they want to survive a lifelong marriage with someone. Long-time readers of this blog may even remember that “I’m sorry” is as important as “I love you” in the estimation of the “National Husbands’ Advisory Association.” Forgiveness is a common theme in the Abrahamic religions as well as in Buddhism (English Wikipedia has a pretty good round-up), but the Buddhist perspective seems to place greater emphasis on simply detaching completely from the mundane world, as opposed to taking things seriously but channeling the heart to forgive them anyway. That said, Japanese people are generally not Buddhist until someone dies, which might explain how many marriages here end up absolutely wrecked (even if not quite in a state of divorce).

Anyway, to my predominantly non-Catholic Japanese classmates, most of whom just wanted to get married in the nice church (theology be damned) but were polite enough to humor the clergy, the distinction between 赦す and 許す was harder to understand, let alone justify. One of my more-or-less-atheist Japanese co-workers took a look at the writeups on forgiveness provided to my Marriage 101 class, and said “I could never let my husband think he’ll be forgiven for everything… but otherwise it sounds like a good idea.”

I guess life wouldn’t be interesting if it were so easy.

The Boy Named Demon

Turning Japanese, a new blog on Japanese naturalisation written by several naturalised Japanese citizens (including some regular commenters on this blog) has had a number of informative posts on the topic since launching recently. The latest post tackles the issue: do you have to take a Japanese name when you naturalise? The post ends with question, and a reference that may not be familiar to everyone, which has Curzon, MF’s vice chairman of legal niggling, taking issue:

As a side note, just because a 漢字 {kanji} is legally acceptable for use in a name doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s appropriate. Characters like 悪 {aku} (bad), 闇 {yami} (darkness), 無 {mu} (nothingness), are on the list… but depending on how you use them, a name with a very negative connotation may not be accepted. Remember the parents who tried to name their child 悪魔 {Akuma} (demon)?

The reference to the child “demon” may not be familiar to everyone. It refers to a somewhat famous case that rocked Japan in the early 1990s, when a father (with the apparent approval and support of his wife) submitted a birth certificate to the municipal office that named his son Akuma, using the kanji characters for demon. Most people think the municipal office rejected the name and the parents had to choose a different name. But the case was actually more complex, and dragged on for several months, and the parents actually won a court case they filed against the city—only after this court victory did they chose to initiate a compromise that brought the fiasco to a close.

The story begins on 11 August 1993, when Shigeharu Sato (30), who managed a “snack” bar, went into the Akishima municipal office to submit the legal birth certificate for his son. In Japan, the birth certificate issued at the hospital merely states the technical details of the birth—the child is not legally registered until a legal birth certificate is submitted at the local municipal office, which must be done within two weeks of the birth, and at which time a name is given. The paperpusher at the municipal office’s koseki (family registry) window accepted the forms containing the name Akuma without asking any questions.

The following day on 12 August, a different person working in the same division took issue with the name. He referred the matter to his superior in the Legal Affairs office, who responded that there was no problem with the name. However, he changed his mind the following day on 13 August when the papers were to be finalised, and having doubts, the form was completed but the mayor’s seal was not placed on the document. The municipality thus did not complete the family registry procedure. The parents were not informed of this until 28 September—six weeks later—when the mayor of Akishima officially informed the parents that the child’s name of Akuma was unsuitable, and that the child’s name was temporarily noted as “undesignated” on the family registry until they chose an acceptable name.

The father immediately filed a complaint with the Hachioji division of the Tokyo Family Court on 4 October, representing himself and without consulting a lawyer, on the basis that the town’s actions violated his parental rights. He asserted that the name Akuma was fine, as it used characters permitted by article 50 of the Family Registry Law, and that his son was fortunate to have such a unique name. Did he suffer from lack of counsel, or the bizarre nature of his request in the face of courts that many believe are conservative? No—the court quickly came to a ruling that supported the right to reject an unfavorable name, but ruling in favour of the parent plaintiffs less than three months after the complaint was filed. To translate and summarise the ruling:

In the structure of rights in society, the right of naming a child is part of parental rights, and parents may assert this right against other members of society. If there is a clear issue with regard to the suitability of the name chosen by the parent that could affect the child’s welfare, then, as the child has no ability to assert its right to refuse that name that could damage its welfare, the family registry authorities may think they can reject a name on that basis. Indeed, on the face of it, the name “Akuma” is a violation of the parent’s right to name their child.

However, while it may be possible for a municipal office to reject a name such as Akuma on the basis that this is violation of parental rights, in this case, as the municipal office has already accepted the document, it was a violation of its authority to thereafter delete that name, and the name is valid.

This ruling accurately follows an academic concept of administrative law, that an administrative notification is finalised upon “submission” (juri) to the correct administrative organ, and not at the time of “arrival” (toutatsu), meaning that no proactive action by the administrative organ is required.

The mayor immediately petitioned to the Tokyo High Court, and the story became national news. The father went on TV and made bizarre statements like “I want to call my next child “Emperor” (帝王) or “Explosion (爆弾)!” But facing further time and money on an issue, he sought a compromise. He first proposed to use the hiragana (あくま)for “Akuma,” which the municipal office rejected. He then chose different characters for the same name (exact kanji unknown but believed to be 亜区馬, 亜駆 or 阿久真). The mayor withdrew his appeal and the high court never made another decision on the matter.

During this fiasco, Akishima asked for help from the national government to clarify the rules for accepting family registry names, but no proactive action was taken then, nor to this day, to restrict the use of characters available for use on the family registry. The Ministry of Justice maintains a list of characters that can be used on a family registry as required by the implementation regulations of the Family Registry Law, and that database include both “悪” and “魔.” As far as the judiciary and the authorities are concerned, the rule as stated by the family court stands as valid—as long as you can get your birth certificate received by the municipal office, you can use any characters you like. To the best of my knowledge and research, there is no government order or anything legal that officially prevents the use of negative characters.

ENDNOTE: Family values advocates won’t be surprised to hear the unpleasant aftermath. The father’s business went bust in 1994, the parents divorced in 1996, and the father, who obtained custody, was arrested months later for possession of heroin, at which time he had links to the yakuza. Akuma was cared for by his paternal grandparents and then placed in an orphanage. When his father was released after serving four years in jail, he refused to take custody of the child due to his economic circumstances. Akuma will today be in high school, if he is still attending. His mother said in an interview in 2006, “After my ex-husband was arrested I looked after the child, but circumstances were too difficult and we lived apart. After that he was raised by my ex’s parents. I don’t know what happened after that, but when he grows up, one time would be enough so I hope to see him when he’s older.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the parents abandon their children when they wanted to call him “demon.”

Japanese insolvency terms for dummies

When I started translating Japanese contracts, one of the most confusing aspects was the array of similar legal terms that commonly pop up in the “termination” section. Here are some common ones, along with what they actually mean.

差押 (sashi-osae)
Attachment. This is where a creditor “locks down” certain assets to keep the debtor from selling them or giving them away. Once attachment is completed, the debtor cannot legally transfer their ownership of the assets in question. Attachment usually precedes compulsory execution (below). The term is also used to refer to government seizure of evidence during a criminal investigation.

仮差押 (kari-sashi-osae)
Provisional attachment. This is a form of attachment which takes effect during litigation, where there is a chance that the defendant/debtor will have to eventually pay the plaintiff/creditor. If the defendant wins, the attachment is lifted. Assets can legally be transferred when a provisional attachment is in effect, but the transfer can be rescinded later if the provisional attachment becomes a regular attachment.

強制執行 (kyosei-shikkou)
Compulsory execution. This is a court-ordered process to seize the debtor’s assets and sell them at a public auction (競売 keibai), with proceeds going to pay off the creditor(s) and any surplus going back to the debtor. There are separate procedures for real estate, ships, movable assets and intangible assets.

仮処分 (kari-shobun)
Provisional injunction (or, when translated too literally, provisional disposition). This is a court order of some kind, usually to refrain from doing something like selling an asset or negotiating a transaction; it is given during litigation and requires a showing of necessity by the plaintiff as well as (usually) some sort of collateral to compensate the defendant in case the litigation is dismissed.

破産 (hasan)
Bankruptcy. In Japan, this legal term is only used for liquidation bankruptices, not for reorganization bankruptcies. Bankruptcy can be initiated by either the debtor or their creditor and is supervised by a court, which usually appoints an independent trustee to manage the bankruptcy if there are enough assets to pay the trustee. This is by far the most common legal procedure for adjusting debts, with over 100,000 annual petitions every year for the last ten years.

会社更生 (kaisha kousei)
Corporate reorganization (new type). This is a procedure intended to keep large distressed companies afloat by adjusting the due date (and sometimes the amount) of their financial liabilities. It is supervised by a court but requires the consent of creditors and shareholders in varying proportions depending on how the plan would affect their interests. If nobody can agree, the company goes into bankruptcy (above). Shareholders are generally wiped out, management get fired and replaced by a court-appointed administrator, and new equity investors (often prior creditors) get to choose new management. This is the procedure used by JAL, NOVA, Willcom, Dai-Ichi Hotels, Huis ten Bosch and most other high-profile corporate bankruptcies in the last decade: usage of the procedure peaked at 88 filings in 2002, although statistics are only available through 2008 so there may have been a second peak more recently.

民事再生 (minji saisei)
Civil rehabilitation. This is a smaller-scale version of corporate reorganization. It can be used by individuals, but the most frequent users are small companies, mainly because the procedure allows management to remain in control. The procedure is also conducive to selling a business in order to repay its creditors (Lehman Brothers Japan being a recent prominent example), and can sometimes be more beneficial from a tax perspective.

会社整理 (kaisha seiri)
Corporate reorganization (old type). This is an outdated term for an outdated form of small business corporate reorganization which legally ceased to exist in 2000 (although a few cases lingered in courts for several years after that). It was effectively superseded by the civil rehabilitation procedure.

解散 (kaisan)
Dissolution. This is a voluntary procedure which companies can execute at any time by a resolution of a super-majority of shareholders, whether or not the company is broke. Once shareholders vote to dissolve, the company is liquidated (清算 seisan) by a court-appointed supervisor. Creditors get paid off first (in order of priority), followed by shareholders. If there is not enough money to go around, or if there is some other insurmountable problem with the liquidation procedure, the company sometimes goes into special liquidation (特別清算 tokubetsu seisan), which gives the court more leeway to preserve assets and halt asset seizures.

If you want to read a lot more, there is an online outline of Japanese corporate insolvency law here, courtesy of the massive law firm of Anderson Mori & Tomotsune.

8819 LDP

That’s not a license plate number: it’s the LDP’s cryptic way of tying themselves to the paternity leave system. Read out loud, it sounds similar to papa ikukyu (パパ育休) or “Daddy Childcare Leave.”

The code makes a very subtle appearance in the recent TV commercial featuring Sadakazu Tanigaki’s ridiculously impassioned speech about making Japan number one again. This spot has been coming up once in the rotation during every World Cup game I have seen so far (except, of course, the ones on NHK).

The slogan appears on the green silicon bracelet he’s wearing.

You can buy your own here, although you have to register as an LDP merchandise customer first, and I’m not sure whether non-citizens are definitively eligible for this. They do specify that you have to be a resident of Japan and that they will only ship within Japan.

(Thanks to Mrs. Peter for the tip)

Fneeter

フニーターとは、最低限の労働しかしないフリーターのこと。
A fneeter is a “freeter” who only does a minimal amount of work.

That’s from the Nihongo Zokugo Jisho website.

I think this is the first Japanese word I’ve heard of which is derived from two Japanese words both derived from English (“フリーター” and “ニート“). Are there other examples I’m overlooking?

What is Japan’s National Language?

It may surprise some readers (but perhaps not others) that Japan has no official language. This may seem trivial, but remember that Japan’s constitution, the basis of its entire legal system, was largely drafted by US lawyers and then translated into Japanese (which is why the Japanese language, such as randomly granting rights to “citizens” or “anyone” without a meaningful discrepancy, is so scattershot). What, then, is the law regarding the use of Japanese, and where is Japanese language use mandated by law?

The instances are surprisingly few. Perhaps the most important is Article 74 of the Courts Law:

Article 74: In the courts, the Japanese language shall be used.

The pre-war Foreign Courts Cooperation Law also provides that any document submitted to the Japanese courts must contain a Japanese translation.

The other instances are pretty minor and frankly merely procedural:

  • Japan’s Patent Law and other related intellectual property laws requires that all international patent registration documents be submitted in Japanese. These laws were primarily amended to bring Japanese domestic law into line with the international treaties on IP registration that Japan has signed.
  • Under the Notary Public Law, notaries can draft proof documents—that are in Japanese.
  • Foreign doctors doing clinical work in Japan must speak Japanese, or another language approved by the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare.
  • The conversion of a foreign driver license requires that it be translated into Japanese by an officially approved translation body, under Article 107-2 of the Road and Transport Law.
  • Foreign company reports designated by the cabinet to contain public interest information or information for the protection of investors must be in Japanese, under Article 24 of the J-SOX Law.

In my search of the Japanese law database houko.com, those are the only significant instances where the law mentions Japanese.

Thoughts on legal translation

A thread popped up on the Honyaku mailing list today regarding the use of “will” and “shall” in legal documents. I took the rare (for me) step of responding. Since we have many translators in the audience, I’m cross-posting my response here, with a few edits to consolidate another comment in the same thread.

Law is a conservative field, and legal drafting is generally adverse to change, despite whatever trends may be popping up among certain forward-thinking lawyers. “Shall” is still the most common way to set up an obligation in a contract, and is probably the least controversial way to translate a phrase like ~しなければならない or ~するものとする when used for that purpose. There is nothing wrong with using “will” or “must” for this purpose, but it is not really the standard usage.

On which is “better”: It really depends on the subject matter and specific usage in question. I mostly work with institutional financial transactions, where the contracts are all drafted by a handful of large law firms from Word templates, look more or less the same, and they generally use “shall” to set up obligatory commitments. In this context, it would almost be stupid not to say “shall” since that is what everybody expects to see. A consumer contract, on the other hand, might need different language, since a reasonable non-professional may not understand the meaning of “shall” in a particular context.

However, I would never use “shall” for more than one purpose in one contract—that seems to be asking for trouble.

That said, please use consistently different translations for different terms in the original document. For instance, I usually translate ~しなければならない as “must” and ~するものとする as “shall,” regardless of the apparent intent behind the terms.

I say this because there can be hair-splitting in the interpretation of a contract based on inconsistent usage of words like “will” and “shall.” For instance, if the contract usually uses “shall” to create obligations, but inconsistently uses “shall” elsewhere to state a condition or a representation of fact, that inconsistent usage may be relevant in arguing about the contract later. The party reading the translation may want to note that inconsistency or dispute it with their counterparties, but they cannot tell that there is an inconsistency unless that inconsistency is reflected in the translation with similarly inconsistent language.

The same applies to tense. Past tense, present tense and future tense may add nuances to the contract that lawyers will argue about later. If a sentence otherwise sounds like an obligation but is stated in the past or present tense, it may be interpreted as a representation or warranty, which makes a huge difference. (An obligation binds the parties to do something, whereas a representation/warranty is a statement of fact which the parties rely on—the other parties can claim damages from whoever “said” the statement if the statement is incorrect.)

Sadly, there are many contract drafters (both lawyers and non-lawyers, both Japanese and non-Japanese) who fill their contracts with incomplete, inconsistent or illogical terms. As the translator, you should not cover these up—you have to read these documents word-for-word and directly translate any incompleteness, inconsistency or illogicality in the original. Otherwise you are likely hurting your client by concealing the bad drafting of the underlying document.

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has a good online glossary of Japanese contract terminology if you want to learn more about the nuances of different terms. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any similarly straightforward English-language resources. One good “dead tree” book on English contract terminology is “Drafting and Analyzing Contracts” by Scott Burnham (ISBN 0820557889), but it is aimed more at lawyers and law students who want to write contracts, not so much at translators and analysts.

Question: Do you think it would be a good idea to suggest that clients include a definition in English translations of contracts to make it clear that “shall” means “has a duty to” and consistently use “shall” only in that sense?

This is not legal advice for any particular situation, but only a general observation: I see efforts like this in professionally-drafted contracts from time to time, most often when written by lawyers from the Commonwealth countries. To use a tired metaphor, it is a double-edged sword. If you explicitly define “shall” to mean something in particular, it’s much harder to argue that “shall” means anything else, so you have to be especially careful to avoid any other usage of “shall.” If you don’t define “shall,” then you can use the context of the word to argue your way out of any inconsistent usage, by claiming that it was never explicitly limited to any particular meaning.

Perhaps this discussion illustrates the value of getting a lawyer involved in drafting! But in any event, I hope it illustrates the value of keeping original terminology distinctions intact as much as possible.