No longer lost in translation

By Gavin Blair

Every foreigner in Japan has encountered the same brick wall at some time or another — the unknown kanji character. It could be a key word in a newspaper article, an important phrase in a business document or an instruction on a form, but the snag of even a few small kanji may render an entire sentence or paragraph unintelligible.

Of course there is always the kanji dictionary and, as long as you can identify the components and count the strokes correctly, it may be sufficient. Yet many who have tried to use those terrifyingly complicated tomes have come to the same conclusion — it may well be easier to memorize a few thousand kanji. Now, there are many electronic dictionaries that have light-pens with which kanji can be inputted onto a mini-screen. Here again though, get the strokes wrong or too far out of proportion, and you’re in the same position.

The ideal would be to have a device which allows for quick translation, without the need to mess with buttons, strokes and other tricky obstacles that lie in the way of comprehending an otherwise simple sentence. However, many confused foreigners who feel that kanji might as well be hieroglyphics will be relieved to hear about an innovative new device which successfully cuts out the pitfalls of the old-style dictionary — the Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader pen. The world’s first dictionary pen is a handheld device which is used to scan over the indecipherable kanji, instantaneously displaying the reading and definition of the character on its screen. The pen is produced by Israeli company Wizcom, and has been jointly developed, marketed and distributed by Japan21 Inc since April this year.

“I met with Wizcom back in 1999 and I was very impressed with the original Quicktionary product,” explains Mike Kato, CEO of Japan21. At the time it was just an English-to-Japanese dictionary, and Kato proposed that they localize by developing a Japanese-to-English version.

"I had been distributing the old model for seven or eight years and then in April, the Kanji Reader was launched. The technology is based around an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanner that has around 3,000 characters programmed into it, which is more than enough for everyday usage” says Kato.

The device can scan almost any printed material, including newspapers, magazines, textbooks and printer output, as well as reading font sizes from 6 to 22, both vertically and horizontally.

Shortly after the launch of the unit, Japan21 held a competition for users who wrote short essays on how they felt about the Quicktionary2 and what difference it had made to their study of Japanese. Interestingly, the winner of the Gold prize was a 12 year-old Japanese-American girl. “She lives in Hawaii and can speak Japanese very fluently but can’t read kanji so well. The Quicktionary2 allowed her to do homework from her Japanese language school without her mother’s help,” explains Kato.

The Quicktionary2 is not only useful for foreigners living in Japan but is also important for Japanese people who live abroad. It enables them to learn the language properly — a foundation for their cultural identity — and helps returnee Japanese get their kanji up to speed. However Kato affirms that the main market is the large number of people from overseas who can’t read Japanese fluently and find it impacts on their lives to at least some extent on a daily basis.

Kato explains how he ended up working on an Israeli technology venture and how it led to the establishment of his current company: “I first started doing business with Israelis back in ’96, working at a Japanese company but already thinking about leaving. I was working as a consultant to coordinate meetings between them and big Japanese companies like NTT, NEC, Dentsu and many others.”

He spent a week in June 1996 with representatives of an Israeli firm trying to crack the Japanese market. “It was a very busy time but very interesting. The last two or three days they tried to recruit me as a country manager for Japan. I thought to myself that I didn’t know how to work with this strange Israeli video-over-internet startup of around 100 people,” Kato says laughing. “By mid-July I had signed a contract with them, started up the KK in August and had my first order by September.”

The operations of the business started very well with Microsoft investing in the venture as it began to grow. However, not everything was smooth sailing. “The Japan end was the most successful market but the company as a whole was less successful,” reports Kato.

The firm sold off its key R&D unit to a U.S. company and matters deteriorated from there. “The CEO asked me to close the Japan operations but fortunately or unfortunately, the business was too successful in Japan and I felt responsible for the staff and customers here so I told the CEO that I couldn’t do it. I bought out the operation and took over full responsibility for everything. That’s how I became independent,” says Kato.

The people he had worked with around the world eventually provided him with many of the partners he has since worked with. “I also built a big network of overseas contacts who, when they had some business in Japan, would call me and say, ‘Hey Mike, can you help me?’ So this is my job now,” Kato explains. "I would tell them: Japan is problematic, the culture is different, they don’t speak English so well, it takes too long to get good personnel on-board"

He recalls that even back when the Japanese economy was booming, it was still often very difficult for outsiders trying to penetrate the market: “I would tell them, ‘Japan is problematic, the culture is different, they don’t speak English so well, it takes too long to get good personnel on-board.’”

Kato believes that country managers want to set up and expand the team but revenue can never grow fast enough. He got around this by setting up his own company “to provide resources and knowledge, basically all the essential things you need to run your business here in Japan.”

With a proven track record and years of experience behind him, Kato is clearly confident in his ability to deliver. After spending 10 years with Motorola in Tokyo, Kato believed he had learned many of the rights and wrongs for foreign firms setting up operations here. “Japanese telecommunication deregulation occurred in 1985, so Motorola had lots of opportunities at the time and 1,000 staff but not a lot of people doing business development. It’s a different culture, it’s not one-to-one sales. In Japan it’s more business-to-business and not a lot of people were willing to put in that level of commitment.”

Kato ended up taking on increasing responsibilities to fill the voids that had been allowed to develop. “So I did everything,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t a telecom expert.” He goes on to explain how his language skills made a big difference in those days: “At that time, being a good English speaker in the Japanese business world had a lot of kudos. Now, effective communication is essential in any business, especially when providing a gateway service as I do.”

The combination of Kato’s skills, and knowledge of the challenges faced by companies entering the marketplace in Japan, has been a successful one for his company and its partners. In 2003 this success led to Japan21 being approved for the “Greensheet System” (an alternative share market system sponsored by the Japan Security Dealers Association).

“It is still a small company and I would like to keep it as streamlined as possible with a select group of very professional people at its core,” says Kato. Japan21 currently represents and manages the Japanese operations of a number of overseas technology companies working in fields such as biometric security, high-tech communications solutions, semi-conductors, PC-based translation applications, open source software consulting, multimedia processing and delivery, as well as mobile network monitoring and surveillance.

“Being creative is the key to my success in business,” explains Kato. He gives his background of patent licensing in the automotive safety field as well as the product development of the Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader as examples of his creativity. In fact, Kato is a strong believer that creativity is essential for on-the-ground operations and troubleshooting.

After doing business for 30 years, Kato is looking for a new challenge. His future plans include the creation of a fund with the objective of financing M&A deals and bringing innovative ideas to market. “Having experienced the salaryman lifestyle, I know that is not for me. I now concentrate on building true value for businesses, not just as a sales representative or distributor, but from the planning and development stages.”

The Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader demonstrates the additional value provided by Kato and Japan21 by being involved at early-stage localization. Kato is constantly searching for new partners, innovative ideas and products to help develop for the Japanese market.

© Japan Inc

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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The idea is good and if it works without glitches when it scans characters, then that's good. However, one disadvantage is that it can't scan kanjis that are on billboards or other signs that one sees when walking/driving...

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Better off memorizing the kanjis that use these devices.

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I started studying kanji nearly ten years ago and gave up about a year later. I just ask a Japanese person. No batteries needed.

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The Quicktionary2 is not only useful for foreigners living in Japan but is also important for Japanese people who live abroad

errr, and the 100 million Japanese in Japan. think they are all 100% proficient in Kanji? nonsense.

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Every foreigner in Japan has encountered the same brick wall at some time or another — the unknown kanji character.

Yes, and the same thing could be said for every Japanese.

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When you are going to understand that having three writing system is uncomfortable and a big barrier against integration with the rest of the world...

These people is trying to change japanese to romaji, and i think they are the most intelligent and consecuent people in this country. Take a look in the web page and support them, because is really stupid spend long years only learning kanji being foreigner, because many japanese dont know it well too...

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Am sticking with Jack Halpern's Kodansha dictionary. Tried, tested, and very user friendly.

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I find trying to read japanese in all romaji makes my head hurt. Especially with the spelling used on that site.

Once I also thought that kanji were a waste till I learned more Japanese and found that they have their uses. Japanese has many words with the same pronounciation but the Kanji make their meaning immediately obvious. Example: Kami can mean God/Spirit, Hair or Paper. You can get it if you see the whole context but as a word alone its meaning becomes unclear.

As for the advertised device, IMO, good for the tourists and novice learners but like with any language aids may they electronic dictionaries, Furikana, etc they will hold you back if you rely too much on them.

Look at what has happened to the average japanese learning to speak english they pronounce everything in Katakana english as they rely on the Furikana for pronounciation.

Those aids are nice but nothing beats language mastery like studying and learning it.

Just my view.

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omabalion, that site sucks. I have to agree with TheNewZen. If you only have the will to study it will become much easier. Never perfect but easier. That site is a way for lazy people including lazy Japanese.

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omabalion, that site sucks. I have to agree with TheNewZen. If you only have the will to study it will become much easier. Never perfect but easier. That site is a way for lazy people including lazy Japanese.

Yeah. I initially thought omabalion was being sarcastic. Thanks to him, I have to take an aspirin.

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Usually it's just as incoherent when you can read that missing kanji.

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How can you read something that is missing? Now that's incoherent.

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I wonder how effective this device is. You first have to know where the kanji combination starts and ends. That in itself requires a high level of knowledge. Also, I doubt that it would cover the problem of names, which have endless variations in readings. But it could be a handy tool. I also like Halpern's Kanji Learner's Dictionary, but I find that the Internet is probably the most effective tool out there for reading text data.

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Actually I used to struggle a lot with Kanji till a friend recommended the J.W. Heisig Books and Study method.

Once I started on it I threw out a lot of my study aids and books.

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I think the language in the future will eventually change to all Hiragana or katakana. For one, many Japanese have difficulty with the readings. Only reason they even use it was because of China's influence over them for so many centuries.

Also you can see a shift towards it. Look on some of the major trains. Alot them only use katakana for the station name on the teleprompter on the train. It is because senior citizens were having problems reading the small Kanji characters in pixels.

Having all hiragana or katakana would take away one less obstacle for people trying to integrate into this society. It would be a good compromise. They will not have to make major changes to their language. It will open the door to more opportunities for so many.

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I second three points:

1) Better to study yourself. It actually helps you to remember the kanji next time you want to read it if you take the time to look it up rather an wave a magic wand over it. 2) Heisig's methods rock.

3) Halperns dictionary rock.

Heisign method plus Halperns dictionary, you'll be able to understand and read most of the importnat kanji (like the top 500 to 1000 by frequency) in no time.

Of course, if you don't ever want to learn Kanji, then this pen might be for you.

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Japan and China should adopt the Korean alphabet. The difficulty of the traditional chinese script in Japan and China a barrier to free communication. An Alphabet would make it easier for the common person to become literate and would faciliate the transmission of ideas to all quarters of the citizenry. NK is an exception since their political system is a greater barrier. In China the rate of illiteracy is still high because of the difficulty of learning Chinese. It's time for China and Japan to adopt an alphabet and I believe the Korean alphabet would work better for these cultures since the Korean script is to some extent based on the Chinese script.

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Nothing wrong with kanji, it's a great from of expression in a written language, extremely versatile, very efficient and concise.

As with OCR technology my mobile phone does all that and better. Just snap a shot of that business card or sentence you can't decipher and use the "henkan" button to get the reading of it. If the dictionary on your mobile isn't good enough just google it. I'm sure they can just code an appli for mobiles and charge 525yen a pop to do the job.

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I tried 5 or 6 machines like that in the recent years. They didn't work well enough to be helful. If they made progress, that can be a useful tool for beginners. On my first years, I've carried around Zaurus PDA to hand-write kanji and look them up in dictionaries. That would be lighter and if the included dictionary is available in several language options they'll sell a lot to travellers.

I no longer need them, I've learnt the 500 every day use characters (that makes one a day during less than 2 years). In the street, in case of problem, I always find Japanese people around me, so I can ask them. At home, I try to get my readings on internet (I ask people to mail instead of writing letters) and my computer reads and writes for me. After a while, you get used to it and you can read 25000 kanji without having studied them (and what is weird is the 2500 are not the 2000 joyo kanji +500" but the 800 first educational kanji + 1700 not in the list*).

Edgar 2 : "Japan and China should adopt the Korean alphabet."

You seem to be illiterate in all Asian languages. Korea had briefly abandonned kanji and started using them again a few years later. They needed them. And well, their case was special, because when they introduced the hangul alphabet, Korean had no writing, less than 1% of scholars knew classical Chinese and were using it like Latin was used in Europe. Nobody was accostumed to read/write in a previous Korean system, while 90% of Chinese dialects and Japanese have been reading/thinking/writing with kanji for over 100 years. Also Chinese primary school have been systematically teaching alphabetic pin yin reading in 1st year at school for about 40 years, and that doesn't solve their problem, they need to teach hanzi after. As you know in pin yin, Hong Kong is "Xiang Giang", which doesn't even look like Hong Kong. OTHO, the kanji 香港 is the same in all China, in both Koreas, in Taiwan and in Japan. They are more and more exchanges and communications in Asia and the kanji/hanzi are more and more useful. I apreciate the possibility of seeing my favourite films in Cantonese, Taiwanese, Mandarin as they all are available with a hanzi subtile than anybody can understand without having to be able to read aloud. The Cold War and pre-computer area linguists that were in favor of getting rid of the charecters have nearly all changed their minds.

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I can write kawa and yama in four kinds of script; Romaji, Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji. Learned that without any electronic thingamajig.

All you need to learn kanji, or anything, is a strong desire. I personally never had the desire.

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those terrifyingly complicated tomes

Not that complex - I started using the Nelson when I was 17 and found it perfectly logical and easy to use. If you're using it regularly, as I was later, during my third year at university, you can open the dictionary in more or less the right section for the radicals you look up more frequently.

As with any aspect of learning a language, it's all about practice. My kanji knowledge improved dramatically when I was doing a lot of translation for courses during my third year, and again when I started working in Japan and had a lot of translation work to do. If you don't use kanji in everyday life, your knowledge won't improve and you'll be reliant on these gadgets.

Now, if they could develop one of these to read Japanese doctors' handwriting (equally illegible as doctors' handwriting in English), I'd buy it like a shot!

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Chinese characters were developed to create a free exchange of information, etc. China always had lots of tribes and thus many languages and dialects.

The Goverment created a unified writing system that was/is used by all, readings/pronounciation is regional but everyone can communicate using the written word. As the meaning don't change

Kinda like using High German or Queens English.

I can travel to any place that uses kanji and by writing down in kanji a place-name, food, etc I can communicate. No need to actually speak the language. Same way I can read most signs, yeah not perfect but good enough to get the meaning.

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sorry, above should be read "The question needs to be asked whether the elite in china really want full literacy...

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I actually just have the kanji tattooed onto my body.I have started into a bad habit of writing the ones on my back backwards though so I am open to new ideas.

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