Studying the Japanese market for medical devices is a challenge given the language barrier. Chrome’s auto-translate feature is a joy for us analysts but we are left in a lingual blackout when information is in PDFs. Copying and pasting text into Google Translate helps but it impedes how quickly we can glean Japan market insights. To reduce this frustration I’d like to share the following Japanese language tips.

Japanese is bursting with foreign loan words, especially in the medical field. Scanning regulatory documents from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare or a product catalogue shows heavy use of katakana, the alphabet used to replicate the sounds of foreign words for Japanese ears.

The thing is, the symbols in the Japanese alphabet correspond to a consonant and vowel pair, meaning that words follow a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern. This makes English words sound odd. Consider the word for stent:

ステント (su te n to)

The ‘st’ sound is incompatible in Japanese, there must be a vowel separating consonants. As you can see, the one exception is ‘n.’ Words always end in vowel sounds or ‘n.’ Hence, ‘stent’ becomes ‘sutento.’ Here’s another example for my colleagues researching the orthopedic market:

スクリュー (su koo ryu-)

This is the word for ‘screw.’ In English there are three consonants mashed together, ‘scr.’ In Japanese they are politely separated.

In addition to the consonant-vowel pattern Japanese lacks many sounds present in English. For example, there is no ‘v’ sound. Here’s the word for vascular:

バスキュラー (ba su kyu ra-)

The ‘v’ sounds becomes ‘b.’ And of course, ‘l’ becomes a sound close to ‘r.’ You can see this in the word for balloon:

バルーン (ba ru- n)

Thankfully, balloon ends with ‘n’ so this translates well into Japanese. You may have noticed dashes in the katakana words, they simply extend the vowel sound associated with the preceding character. It is used to interesting effect for the word catheter:

カテーテル   (ka tay- tay ru)

As you can see, there is no ‘th’ sound either. I could go on. There is one more word I’d like to share with you that threw me for a loop when I was looking at a product catalogue:

トレーニングマニュアル (to ray- ni n gu ma nyu a ru)

This turned out to be ‘training manual.’ I think I still need one for katakana.



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