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No N2? No Problem: 3 Tech Tools for Working in Japanese

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to achieve a certain test score or receive permission to start using Japanese on the job. Of course, if you’re serious about a long-term, Japan-related career, it’s important to study hard and learn as much Japanese as you can. The more you know, the better your chances for success.

However, knowing how the language works and using the right tools to communicate accurately are more important than rote memorization. Even if you can’t remember a particular grammar point or kanji character, familiarity with how the Japanese language should look and sound—along with knowing what dictionaries, apps, and reference materials to use—will allow you to accomplish more in Japanese than you ever thought possible.

In this brief column, I’ll share three tools that will help you read, write, and learn from Japanese correspondence more efficiently. Working with these tools may not be as fast as having everything stored in your head, but they will help you take a confident leap into the world of living and working in Japanese.

1. Google Translate (OCR Function)

Are you struggling to read a printed Japanese document or book page? What if you could bring all of those printed vocabulary words and expressions into the digital realm, to be processed more quickly and efficiently? The Google Translate App (iOS and Android) makes this possible.

While most people rely on this app for translating signs, menus, and notes, for those reading and writing in Japanese every day, Google Translate is a superb way to import large segments of untranslated Japanese text into a word processor or other application. Simply use the app’s scan function to digitize anything in front of your smartphone camera lens. From here, you can share the scanned text to the destination of your choice.

How do I use this feature? Mainly for digitizing parts of books and magazines that I want to read, learn, and review anytime and anywhere, quickly adding unknown words to Kitsun.io to create digital flashcards.

2. DeepL

Although Google Translate’s OCR capabilities are amazing, the app’s namesake function, translation, leaves much to be desired. Even though Google Translate is great for getting the gist of Japanese content, it’s still incapable of producing natural language. I’ve found that DeepL performs much better in this respect. Not only is this a great tool for quick, accurate translations, but it’s also a reliable way to check your own attempts at creating Japanese prose. That being said, as with all AI translation tools, it still can’t reliably match the accuracy of a professional human translator. Regardless, this app often points me in the right direction when I’m trying to express my thoughts in Japanese.

3. Rikaikun

For those moments when you’re stumped by the odd kanji character in an email or on a website, the Rikaikun browser extension is a lifesaver. Sure, Google Translate is great for a quick overview of digital Japanese content. However, if you’ve learned enough about how Japanese works, you’ll get a better understanding of what you’re trying to read by quickly revealing the meanings of keywords and kanji in their original context. Rikaikun makes doing this as easy as the click of a mouse button.

Nothing to Lose

Boost your Japanese productivity and accuracy by giving these tools a try. All of them are free, so you have nothing to lose. Technology can’t (at least for now) trump the intuition and nuance that comes with properly learning Japanese. It can, however, help you linguistically punch above your weight, enabling you to work in Japanese well before a JLPT test score has deemed you worthy to do.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.