Crafting Natural English from Japanese - Episode 12

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Welcome back to our series on creative J>E translation, where we translate the idea behind Japanese words, not merely the words themselves. If you’d like to go back to the first episode, click here. For the full episode list, click here.

Today we have two closely related words: 地方 and 地域. But first:

A Note Before Continuing
The examples below come from actual projects that I have worked on for my customers, although I have modified the text to some degree in order to maintain confidentiality. Also, keep in mind that when it comes to translation, especially creative translation, there is usually more than one right answer. You may have different ideas for how to render these examples into English that could be just as valid or even better than mine. Much like writing, I’ve always thought of translation as an art, not a science. Of course, it also helps to have a good editor, so I’ve only selected examples from translations that were checked by a second pair of eyes.

Let’s get to it!

1) 地方 (chihou)

Overly common translation: region
Suggested alternatives: countryside, outlying region (relative to Tokyo)

2) 地域 (chiiki)

Overly common translation: area
Suggested alternatives: locality/local, community, region, territory, place, here, zone

As you can see, these two words, 地方 and 地域, are very similar. In fact, in certain instances they can both be rendered into English as “region.” As always, context is everything. Let’s start with the more straightforward of the two, 地方.

While I have labeled “region” an overly common translation of 地方, there are still many cases in which it is the best choice. This is particularly true when it comes to the major geographical regions of Japan:

  1. 北海道地方 - Hokkaido region (usually appearing simply as 北海道/Hokkaido because it comprises only a single prefecture of the same name)
  2. 東北地方 - Tohoku region
  3. 関東地方 - Kanto region
  4. 中部地方 - Chubu region
  5. 関西地方 - Kansai region / 近畿地方 - Kinki region
  6. 中国地方 - Chugoku region
  7. 四国地方 - Shikoku region
  8. 九州地方 - Kyushu region / 九州・沖縄地方 - Kyushu and Okinawa (region)

Another common use of 地方 is in reference to basically everywhere in Japan except Tokyo. In this case, I feel that a phrase such as “outlying regions” is a more accurate description since Tokyo is also part of a region (Kanto). “Outlying regions” also conveys the unspoken nuance of 地方 that contrasts the central metropolis of the Tokyo area with other parts of Japan. Furthermore, in my opinion, “regions” may be misunderstood to mean something akin to “countryside,” even though the 地方 include Osaka, the 10th-largest metropolitan area in the world with 19.281 million people as of a 2018 UN population estimate. (Kyoto, where I live, is included in that area).

Depending on the context of your text, you may find that other expressions like “less populated areas” or perhaps simply “rural areas” would be better when it seems the writer is referring specifically to such places. However, in that case the Japanese will probably use 田舎 (literally “countryside”) instead of 地方.

Let’s now take a look at 地域, the more versatile of today’s words. For your convenience, I’ll show you the common and alternative translations again.

Overly common translation: area
Suggested alternatives: locality/local, community, region, territory, place, here, zone

With 地域, we need to be even more attentive to the context than when dealing with 地方. Though of course, there are many times when it’s perfectly fine to translate this word as “area.” Here’s an example from a text on the history of a rural part of Japan.

It is also an area where people often travel through mountains.

In context, 地域 can imply an area that is near to whatever the subject of the text is. You could describe this as a locality, though often the adjective “local” makes for a smoother sentence.

These are the kinds of local people we want to serve.

In this next example, we can see from the context that 地域 more specifically refers to a local economy.

The organization will start up projects to stimulate the local economy, working and brainstorming with community members.

Here’s a case where I opted to use the word “community”:

The focus is not only on the Faculty of Tourism, but also what community members and the reality of their circumstances can teach us.

Like 地方, 地域 may refer to a region or regions.

Southeast Asia and Africa are two regions where we have offered cooperation in customs.

Under this regional framework…

Sometimes, though, 地域 may at first glance appear to refer to a region, when in fact it’s a territory. Context is especially important here. Look at the follow translation pair:

all countries and territories

How in the world would we know that 地域 refers to territories? Because in the same document, there is a list of 国・地域 that does not contain any regions like the European Union or ASEAN, but it does include Hong Kong, which is a territory of China. (Officially, Honk Kong is classified as a special administrative region, but otherwise it is usually referred to in the news and elsewhere as a territory). That is what our example here is referencing.

Here’s another such case:

the 67 countries and territories that have acceded to the Asian Development Bank (ADB)

To get this one right, we need to do some internet sleuthing. The answer is at the ADB website’s list of members, which includes — you guessed it — Hong Kong.

Yet another way to translate 地域 is very simply “place” or even “here.” There are two translations in this example. I think the second one flows better, but both are technically correct.

There is no convenient mass transit, making this a place where a privately-owned motorcycle or car is indispensable.
There is no convenient mass transit here, making a privately-owned motorcycle or car indispensable.

Finally, I recently came across a term with an official translation that renders 地域 as “zone.”

Fukushima Prefecture’s difficult-to-return zone has become much smaller.

If you’ve been following this series, you have seen yet again how important context is in translation, especially from a high-context language like Japanese into a low-context one such as English. Thanks for reading and happy translating!

For other episodes in the series “Crafting Natural English from Japanese,” click here.

Click here for the full archive of The Kyoto Linguist. You could also read the randomly selected article below.


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