Long before Hollywood films like Lost in Translation popularized contemporary Japan in the imagination, Matthew Alt of AltJapan was actually finding himself in translation. As a technical translator for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and later as a producer of English versions of Japanese video games, Alt understood Japanese culture well enough to move to Japan, start a business, while remaining relatively immune to the impact of the culture shock that sometimes confronts newcomers.
To hear Alt talk about Japan could best be described as cultural immersion. Perhaps owing to a decade of living and working in Japan, Alt has skillfully brought pieces of the cultural puzzle together, demystifying many aspects of contemporary Japan via books, articles on CNNGo and Wired, and most recently, his interview with AsianTalks. Here’s what he had to say about Japan, a country he now calls home.
AsianTalks: How long have you been living as an expatriate in Japan, and was living abroad always on the horizon for you?
This year marks my ninth year here in Tokyo. But I was raised in Washington DC, in the suburbs there.
Japan was a big thing for me. I’ve been studying Japanese ever since I was a kid — 14 or 15 years old. And before coming here I worked for the Patent and Trademark Office as a technical translator and I enjoyed it very much, but the time came when I wanted to strike out on my own. And that’s when Hiroko and I founded AltJapan.
AsianTalks: Tell us about your company.
Our main business produces the English versions of Japanese video games, but also comic books, animations and film, things like that. But on the side we write books that are basically about Japanese culture, and the connection between Japanese traditional and pop culture.
The first book we wrote together was called “Hello Please!” It’s about cute characters, like the cute mascot characters you see all over the place on Japanese signs and Japanese books. In the book we talk about why Japanese are so obsessed with cute characters like that.
AsianTalks: And why all the obsession with cuteness?
Well you know, it’s interesting. We get this question a lot. And I think a lot of people misinterpret this obsession with cuteness, with a kind of condescension or infantilization. But that isn’t the case at all here. I mean Japan has a culture that is very comfortable with cuteness. You can embrace cuteness without necessarily sacrificing your masculinity or seeming like a child, and a perfect example of this is the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), they have cute mascots that look like something that stepped right out of South Park!
I think the simplest answer is because cute mascot characters play a wonderful role of being kind of mediators in Japan, going in between organizations that might seem powerful and scary, and reaching out to individuals they need to reach out to.
AsianTalks: Do you have any advice for launching your own business? How did you get your start?
We moved gradually. We didn’t just say to ourselves, “We’re going to quit everything and just start a company.” I think it’s really important to have realistic expectations when you go into something like that. And in our case that meant working at night and on the weekends to build up our client base, our business, before taking the plunge, and saying okay this is doing well enough, that we know if we put more time into it, that we can build it into something bigger.
AsianTalks: What’s it like to work with your spouse?
(Laughs) We get this question a lot! We love it. But you know I don’t know if it would work for everybody, it’s just our personality types mesh very well. Whereas I am kind of the more outgoing person and tend to be focused more on sales, and bringing in new clients, and Hiroko is a very meticulous type of person who is much more suited than I am toward balancing books and keeping things on track with discipline and things like that.
AsianTalks: In addition to your main business, you’ve written several pieces for CNNGo. How do you come up with your article ideas and how does Japan inspire you?
My last article grew out of a frustration that I share with a lot of my friends. The Western media tends to take what seem like strange aspects of Japanese culture, take them out of context, compare them to how Americans would do them, and use it as a chance to say “Wow, aren’t the Japanese weird.”
And I don’t think necessarily they’re trying to be condescending but at its very worst it comes across as borderline Orientalist. Like, “Look at these strange people and their strange customs.” But the fact of the matter is when you start examining each one of these so-called weird or strange things in context, you realize that there’s an essential humanity to them, an essential logic that isn’t very strange at all, unless you take it out of context.
And Hiroko and I are personally very much into what I call myth busting or bubble-bursting. For example we wrote an entire book about ninja. I mean, why are foreigners so obsessed with ninja? Why are foreigners so obsessed with things like this, and explored that. And basically most of our ideas come from frustration, asking why people are misunderstanding this.
So when we see things like that, we try to channel that into our creative energy, and whether that manifests itself in writing an article, or a new book idea, you know, depends on how big the idea is.
AsianTalks: This month of course marks the one-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake. Is there anything you’d like to share about your experience of the earthquake as it happened?
This sounds really silly but it was a huge shake-up. I mean it literally was a shake and psychologically it was very traumatic for everybody involved, especially the people up North.
But for all of us we were really — in the weeks after the disaster when we were coming to terms with just not only how many people had died and lost their homes, but also the potential that this nuclear accident could harm greater swathes of the country. I mean it was very nerve wracking, it’s almost hard to put into words. I’m glad I went through that experience because I think it was very important for everybody to see what happens when natural disasters of this sort strikes.
AsianTalks: Finally, do you continue to work as a translator, and what is that like? Also, could you briefly describe the difference between translation and localization?
Yes. I work as a translator, which means I deal with speaking and writing in Japanese every day. I’ve been studying Japanese ever since I was a kid — 14 or 15 years old, very fortunate that my public high school in Maryland had one of America’s then-pilot Japanese programs in a public school, and probably thanks to our proximity to Washington DC. I’ve been studying it ever since then, majored in it in college, came over here as often as I could, whenever I could scrape money together.
Localization and translation are almost like flip sides of the exact same coin because you can’t have localization without translation. Translation is basically the simple art of rendering a Japanese text into English. Localization takes that a step further, by actually polishing the translation, and making sure that it is suitable for the target audience.
In our field, entertainment, the ideal is that the person reading the localized text doesn’t even realize it was originally written in the foreign language. Whereas in a translation that’s not what the end game is. Translation is about communication, whereas localization is about entertainment, and entertaining the people reading it.