No Offense Taken

by Brian on February 29, 2008

in Just For Fun

A Japanese company contacted me by email a couple of weeks ago expressing interest in the new startup I’m in the process of launching. The company, which was representing a large Internet Service Provider based in Osaka, wanted to explore possibilities for collaboration.

I was needless to say quite excited. This was the first time a potential partner had contacted me about my new company, a fact made even more significant given that we’ve done no publicity whatsoever. The Japanese company apparently had learned about me from a conference to which I’d applied (and was turned down from).

I wrote back immediately asking for more information. The Japanese company thanked me for my prompt response and suggested that we set up a meeting for the following week. Two representatives from the company would fly to Israel specifically to meet with me. Wow! My head was swelling with thoughts of where this lucky break could lead.

In order to impress my new suitors I scrambled to build a sample website for the company demonstrating our technology. It ought to be in Japanese, I thought, to demonstrate that our software supports Kanji characters.

The only problem was that I don’t speak Japanese. No worries. A few years ago, I tried to start a company called Onago which was to build web and mobile services for “on the go” travelers, hence the oh-so-clever name. I had assembled a technology dream team, but alas, the timing for the company couldn’t be worse – it was mid-2000 and the bubble had just burst and no one could raise money. We quietly shelved our plans and I took another job.

When we were doing an Internet name search for Onago, we came across a Japanese site of the same name (but without the .com suffix). I also knew that Onago was a kind of sushi. So, needing Japanese text for my current business, I paid a visit to

The site was a little strange, such that I could tell given that I didn’t understand a word that was written. It appeared to be a teenager’s blog. There were strands of what looked like poetry, lots of little hearts, and a recipe for preparing fish (complete with pictures).

That seemed innocuous enough for me. Throwing caution to the wind, and with still no idea of what I was reading, I copied several lines of Japanese characters from the site and pasted them into mine. In a few minutes I’d finished creating a web page for the Japanese company that had contacted me. I then sent them the URL of this new demo site and waited for their delighted response.

Unlike the previous day, I didn’t hear back immediately this time. Another day passed and then another. I became concerned. Had I done something wrong? Was the seemingly harmless text I’d blindly copied in fact been offensive? Had I unwittingly expropriated content from a pornography site and caused my suitors to lose face such that they were now assiduously avoiding me?

I should have known better. How many times have I castigated Israelis attempting (and I use the term loosely) to translate ads from Hebrew into what can best be described as pidgin English.

I typed “translate Japanese to English” into Google. A number of translation services came up on the list, including “Google Translate.” Duh…how could I have been so obtuse? I hurriedly pasted the text I’d used into the translation engine. The result was baffling. It read:

Garden of the holy. Also use the last!
We are introduced.
The same fixture
Garden dish made of the holy

I have been told that Japanese is a language based on metaphors. What did “Garden of the holy” mean? Could “We are introduced” be a code name for a dating site? What would be the implications of two things having “the same fixture?” My mind raced.

In desperation, I sent the text to my brother who lived in Japan for 5 years and speaks a decent Japanese (he had been traveling when I first needed the Japanese text). I also asked him to look at the website.

“I can’t figure this site out at all,” he wrote back. “Lord it’s strange. It looks kind of like a Facebook type of thing, but it could also be porn or maybe wife swapping. It’s pretty cheesy and a bit risky. Myself, I’d probably stay away.”

Oh boy…My fears heightened, I went back to myself and started digging deeper. I clicked some of the links. They all went to another site called Special Ribbon which had pages of pictures of women. I clicked one. Oh no…it was a very fat woman wearing a thong. Another click and there was an obese woman in her underwear. Another click. No underwear at all.

Did “Onago” have undesirable connotations going beyond fish?

After a week, I finally broke down and wrote to the Japanese again. Were we still meeting, I asked? The response came immediately. “Of course. See you on Friday.”

We had a very productive meeting. My presentation was flawless and the Japanese seemed impressed. At one point, the Japanese characters I’d copied appeared on the screen. The Japanese moved closer. “Ah,” said one of the Japanese, gazing intently at my site. “That means ‘Hi everyone!’” Everyone laughed, though mine was more a sigh of relief than a guffaw.

Nevertheless, the whole incident reminded me of a famous example from the automotive industry (which has since been proven to be an urban legend but is instructive nonetheless). Chevrolet had done what they thought was a comprehensive name search when they came up with the Nova. It apparently wasn’t enough. The name translated into Spanish as “no go,” about the worse appellation you could think of for a new car.

In the story, Chevy learned its lesson the hard way. I got off more easily. Now I’m working on a follow up site, also in Japanese. But this time, I’m getting a translator!

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