A dangerous translation: A case study of the Japanese periphery

10 minutes to read
Catalina Amengual Ripoll

International exchange has increased enormously in recent years, however mistranslations are still not uncommon. Many are harmless or even funny - but what if a mistranslation could actually lead to danger? Like being attacked by a wild bear in the middle of Japan?

Lost in translation

Our analysis of such a dangerous mistranslation is based on a sign (figure 1) found in 2016 on a hiking path between two villages on Honshu Island, the main island of Japan. As non-Japanese speakers, our attention was initially caught by the English translation: “Please have a thing out of the sound.” As written, it is not as clear what the sign maker might have meant. This attempt to communicate resulted in a rather bad mistranslation.

To better understand the overall context of the sign, we will first elaborate on the history of the location, in particular its importance as a former trade route and its modern impact on the location. We will then analyze the sign itself, the derived background of its makers, and the intended audience using discourse analysis. We will use a multimodal framework, as the sign uses different modes of communication (e.g. two languages, images, and color) and focus on indexical meaning (Blommaert, 2009). Furthermore, we will investigate the linguistic landscape in correlation to the three arrows. Third, we will further extend the analysis by investigating the impact of globalized mobility in times of globalization on the sign and its meaning. Especially in the context of the impact of tourism and English as the lingua franca on the location of the sign will be highlighted.

It was very fascinating to discover how much a single sign can already reveal about a place and its culture. 

Figure 1. Bear warning sign. Picture taken on 15 October 2016.


Location and history

The sign is located in the Kiso Valley in Japan, on a hiking path between two towns, or rather villages: Magome and Tsumago. Kiso Valley is a geographical area in Nagano Prefecture in Japan, about 320 km away from Tokyo, 215 km from Kyoto, and 100 km from Nagoya, Japan's 4th largest city and Japan’s leading industrial center (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). The following map shows Kiso Valley's distance from current important centers in Japan (figure 2).

Figure 2. Map of Japan, showing Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Kiso Valley.

Although Kiso Valley is a peripheral area today, we should also understand its historical importance. There used to be a 70 km trade route along the valley and it was an important means of commerce in the area (Kondo & Seino, 2010). From the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868), Kiso Valley formed a part of the 500 km Nakasendō route ("path through mountains"), that connected Tokyo and Kyoto. Nakasendō was one of the two means of transportation between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto (Gordon, 2003, p.24-25). Since travelers often made their trips on foot, "post towns" were built every few kilometers where people could rest, eat, and sleep during their journey (The Function of Post-towns, n.d.).

Magome-juku (馬籠宿) and Tsumago-juku (妻籠宿) were the 43rd and 42nd of 69 post towns along Nakasendō. Due to the importance of the route, these towns were quite prosperous and cosmopolitan, with a currency-based economy. However, they fell into poverty after the completion of the Chūō Main Line railway (1889), which did not pass through the towns (Aoki, 2002). 

The towns were restored to their Edo-period appearance in 1968-1971 and became a popular destination for tourists. Currently, they are fully inhabited villages with tourist shops and attractions (Murti, 2019). Visitors walk from one town to the next through the forest. This is where the sign was posted.

Stumbling across the sign along the path, visitors will try to understand its meaning through the language and various semiotic materials on it, including images, colors, symbols and their size and position. Through the analysis of these elements together with their indexical meaning, we can learn a lot about the maker of this sign, its intended audience, and its place. Moreover, different modes of communication used on the sign may help a visitor to understand its meaning. 

What can we learn about the maker of this sign?

Seemingly elaborate Japanese writing (at least to someone who does not know the language) situated next to a short incomprehensible sentence in English suggests that the maker of the sign speaks Japanese and is most likely a local to the area.

Apart from the text, we see a big picture of a bear, two more short writings in English (“caution” and “bear”), and the color red. The Association for Psychological Science (2011) states that red almost universally means danger. The red "splash", exclamation marks, and the words "caution" and "bear" imply that the maker of this sign wants to warn visitors that there is danger, and they should pay attention. This, again, indicates that the sign maker is familiar with the territory and the presence of bears in it.

If we look closer at the image, we see that the bear has a white collar. Especially for a person from Europe who is used to images of brown bears, this is a rather unusual illustration pointing to a location-specific species of bear. The white collar indicates that the bear shown on the sign is a Japanese black bear, which, according to Hiroyuki (2018), can pose a serious threat to farm crops and human life. As shown in figure 3, the Japanese black bear is found on Honshu island of Japan, where the sign is located. This is further evidence that the sign maker is familiar with the territory and the specific bear species in that area.

Figure 3. "Seeking Balance with the bear." By Nippon.com, 2018, retrieved from https://www.nippon.com/en/features/c03915/#


In addition, we asked a native speaker of Japanese to translate the Japanese text for us. The writing on the right reads as follows: “Recently, a bear has been witnessed around the area. Carry something that makes sound or noise with you and be extremely careful.”

Figure 4. Bear warning sign with translation. Picture taken on 15 October 2016.

The translation of the Japanese text demonstrates a great difference in meaning compared to the English text on the sign. This indicates a very low proficiency in English or perhaps an automated translation. Finally, the Japanese writing on the left is the name of the town. We can, therefore, assume that the local municipality made this sign.

What audience is the sign trying to reach?

Based on the fact that both English and Japanese texts are present on the sign, one could argue that it addresses both locals (either people living in that specific area or visitors from other parts of Japan) and foreigners (most likely, tourists hiking through the Kiso Valley).

However, as we can see, the message hardly reaches the international audience: not only does the English mistranslation not make sense, also the Japanese writing (should it be translated correctly) might not be particularly clear to a foreign visitor. From the Japanese sentence, it appears that an object that makes noise is usually carried to scare away bears. The Japanese speaker that translated for us explained that this is common knowledge for locals. Nonetheless, it is not necessarily common knowledge to foreign visitors.

As Kiso Valley visitors continue walking along the route, they will notice bells from time to time, accompanied by a yellow sign – this time with only Japanese text (figure 5). Presumably, by reading the first sign (figure 1), tourists should be able to guess that they are supposed to ring the bell to make noise in order to frighten away bears. Unfortunately, this might not be the case, due to the mistranslation and the lack of cultural adaptation of the message.

Figure 5. A bell and a small bear warning sign. Picture taken on 15 October 2016.

What does the sign tell us about the place?

The Japanese and the English texts as well as other semiotic elements on the sign imply that the place where the sign is situated is very popular among both national and international tourists. Since tourists might not be aware of the possible presence of Japanese black bears, the sign maker tried to instruct tourists on how to scare those bears away. If only local people visited this place, the sign would probably be unnecessary because local people would know that there are bears in the area and to carry noisemakers. Additionally, the English text would not be required if only Japanese speakers visited this place. 

When travelers walked the Nakasendō road during the Edo Period, Kiso Valley and the post towns along the route were important for internal trade. Despite their importance, no signs in European languages would be found in Kiso Valley in that period due to Japan's isolationist foreign policy at that time (Watanabe & Sakamoto, 2020). Nowadays, Kiso Valley is a rural peripheral region, with only a few dozen houses in the reconstructed post towns. However, the place is now much more international, as can be seen from the use of the English language on the sign.  


Why is there English text on a sign in Kiso Valley, Japan? Kiso Valley is far from both Tokyo and Kyoto. It is not situated in the center or understood as a contemporary metropolis (Wang et al., 2013, p.4) and, hence, it is a periphery in Japan, where English is not widely spoken. This can only be related to mobility and, thus, globalization.

According to Blommaert, globalization can be understood as “…intensified flows of capital, goods, people, images and discourses around the globe…” (2010, p.13). These ‘flows of capital and people’ are two of the three forms of globalization in the margins described by Wang et al. (2013, p.13). 

Regarding flows of capital, Wang et al. (2013) refer to economic activities that depend on others around the globe. This is easily related to heritage tourism, usually found in marginalized areas, and generally the main activity among locals (Wang et al., 2013). Since tourism is the most important economic activity in Kiso Valley, it can be inferred that local history and traditions have been emphasized to attract more tourists. This is what Hobsbawn and Ranger (quoted in Wang et al., 2013) call invention of tradition.

These phenomena can be understood through linguistic landscape analysis, which shows how public space is a useful tool for understanding and even predicting sociolinguistic change. Globalization has not been prosperous for everyone, and has resulted in an unequal distribution of resources and infrastructures (Blommaert, 2010, Wang et al. 2013), including linguistic resources. English is the global language, which in Fairclough’s (cited in Blommaert, 2010) galaxy metaphor is a central constellation. English is a power-indexical resource distributed unequally around the world. 

It can be deduced that, as a marginal space, Kiso Valley does not have complete access to the infrastructures of globalization, understood here as resources to learn formal English. The truncated English language present in this case is the result of an unequal distribution of resources. The sign maker uses his or her linguistic resources as a functional tool to make tourists beware of bears, but, due to these limitations, the message remains unclear.

The analyzed bear warning sign found in Kiso Valley demonstrates that public spaces are not neutral but normative. They are witnesses of social and, consequently, sociolinguistic change. The presence of English language – the lingua franca of the globalized world – next to the local, Japanese language is indexical: it is an evidence of globalization and increased mobility in the world, which reaches even a remote Japanese hiking trail.

In conclusion, this mistranslation could lead to serious danger for people that are not knowledgeable about the area around the sign. However, when analysed through linguistic landscaping, even though globalization has reached Nakasendō in the Kiso Valley, a certain cultural and linguistic barrier is still present. The sign is used to instruct tourists on how to scare away Japanese black bears, yet mistranslation prevents easy understanding for non-Japanese speakers. With the constant change of linguistic landscapes highly influenced by mobility due to globalization, it will be interesting to investigate further adaptations in the future - even in peripheries, hundreds of kilometers away from the metropolis.


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