Innovative scanning dictionary pen to help with the hardest parts of the Japanese language
By Gavin Blair
Every foreigner in Japan has encountered the same brick wall at some time or another—the unknown kanji character. It could be a key word in a newspaper article, an important phrase in a business document or an instruction on a form, but the snag of even a few small kanji may render an entire sentence or paragraph unintelligible. Of course there is always the kanji dictionary and, as long as you can identify the components and count the strokes correctly, it may be sufficient. Yet many who have tried to use those terrifyingly complicated tomes have come to the same conclusion—it may well be easier to memorize a few thousand kanji. Now, there are many electronic dictionaries that have light-pens with which kanji can be inputted onto a mini-screen. Here again though, get the strokes wrong or too far out of proportion, and you’re in the same position.
The ideal would be to have a device which allows for quick translation, without the need to mess with buttons, strokes and other tricky obstacles that lie in the way of comprehending an otherwise simple sentence. However, many confused foreigners who feel that kanji might as well be hieroglyphics will be relieved to hear about an innovative new device which successfully cuts out the pitfalls of the old-style dictionary—the Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader pen. The world’s first dictionary pen is a handheld device which is used to scan over the indecipherable kanji, instantaneously displaying the reading and definition of the character on its screen. The pen is produced by Israeli company Wizcom, and has been jointly developed, marketed and distributed by Japan21 Inc since April this year. “I met with Wizcom back in 1999 and I was very impressed with the original Quicktionary product,” explains Mike Kato, CEO of Japan21. At the time it was just an English-to-Japanese dictionary, and Kato proposed that they localize by developing a Japanese-to-English version.
“I had been distributing the old model for seven or eight years and then in April, the Kanji Reader was launched. The technology is based around an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanner that has around 3,000 characters programmed into it, which is more than enough for everyday usage” says Kato. The device can scan almost any printed material, including newspapers, magazines, textbooks and printer output, as well as reading font sizes from 6 to 22, both vertically and horizontally.
Shortly after the launch of the unit, Japan21 held a competition for users who wrote short essays on how they felt about the Quicktionary2 and what difference it had made to their study of Japanese. Interestingly, the winner of the Gold prize was a 12 year-old Japanese-American girl. “She lives in Hawaii and can speak Japanese very fluently but can’t read kanji so well. The Quicktionary2 allowed her to do homework from her Japanese language school without her mother’s help,” explains Kato.
The Quicktionary2 is not only useful for foreigners living in Japan but is also important for Japanese people who live abroad. It enables them to learn the language properly— a foundation for their cultural identity— and helps returnee Japanese get their kanji up to speed. However Kato affirms that the main market is the large number of people from overseas who can’t read Japanese fluently and find it impacts on their lives to at least some extent on a daily basis.
Mike Kato explains how he ended up working on an Israeli technology venture and how it led to the establishment of his current company: “I first started doing business with Israelis back in ’96, working at a Japanese company but already thinking about leaving. I was working as a consultant to coordinate meetings between them and big Japanese companies like NTT, NEC, Dentsu and many others.”
He spent a week in June 1996 with representatives of an Israeli firm trying to crack the Japanese market. “It was a very busy time but very interesting. The last two or three days they tried to recruit me as a country manager for Japan. I thought to myself that I didn’t know how to work with this strange Israeli video-over-internet startup of around 100 people,” Kato says laughing. “By mid-July I had signed a contract with them, started up the KK in August and had my first order by September.”
The operations of the business started very well with Microsoft investing in the venture as it began to grow. However, not everything was smooth sailing. “The Japan end was the most successful market but the company as a whole was less successful,” reports Kato.
The firm sold off its key R&D unit to a US company and matters deteriorated from there. “The CEO asked me to close the Japan operations but fortunately or unfortunately, the business was too successful in Japan and I felt responsible for the staff and customers here so I told the CEO that I couldn’t do it. I bought out the operation and took over full responsibility for everything. That’s how I became independent,” says Kato.
The people he had worked with around the world eventually provided him with many of the partners he has since worked with. “I also built a big network of overseas contacts who, when they had some business in Japan, would call me and say, ‘Hey Mike, can you help me?’ So this is my job now,” Kato explains.
"I would tell them: Japan is problematic, the culture is different, they don’t speak English so well, it takes too long to get good personnel on-board"
He recalls that even back when the Japanese economy was booming, it was still often very difficult for outsiders trying to penetrate the market: “I would tell them, ‘Japan is problematic, the culture is different, they don’t speak English so well, it takes too long to get good personnel on-board.’ ” Kato believes that country managers want to set up and expand the team but revenue can never grow fast enough. He got around this by setting up his own company “to provide resources and knowledge, basically all the essential things you need to run your business here in Japan.” With a proven track-record and years of experience behind him, Kato is clearly confident in his ability to deliver. After spending ten years with Motorola in Tokyo, Kato believed he had learned many of the rights and wrongs for foreign firms setting up operations here. “Japanese telecommunication deregulation occurred in 1985, so "At that time, being a good English speaker in the Japanese business world had a lot of kudos. Now, effective communication is essential in any business"Motorola had lots of opportunities at the time and 1,000 staff but not a lot of people doing business development. It’s a different culture, it’s not one-to-one sales. In Japan it’s more business-to-business and not a lot of people were willing to put in that level of commitment.” Kato ended up taking on increasing responsibilities to fill the voids that had been allowed to develop. “So I did everything,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t a telecom expert.” He goes on to explain how his language skills made a big difference in those days: “At that time, being a good English speaker in the Japanese business world had a lot of kudos. Now, effective communication is essential in any business, especially when providing a gateway service as I do.”
The combination of Kato’s skills, and knowledge of the challenges faced by companies entering the marketplace in Japan, has been a successful one for his company and its partners. In 2003 this success led to Japan21 being approved for the “Greensheet System” (an alternative sharemarket system sponsored by the Japan Security Dealers Association). “It is still a small company and I would like to keep it as streamlined as possible with a select group of very professional people at its core,” says Kato. Japan21 currently represents and manages the Japanese operations of a number of overseas technology companies working in fields such as biometric security, high-tech communications solutions, semi-conductors, PC-based translation applications, open source software consulting, multimedia processing and delivery, as well as mobile network monitoring and surveillance.
“Being creative is the key to my success in business,” explains Kato. He gives his background of patent licensing in the automotive safety field as well as the product development of the Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader as examples of his creativity. In fact, Kato is a strong believer that creativity is essential for on-the-ground operations and troubleshooting.
After doing business for 30 years, Kato is looking for a new challenge. His future plans include the creation of a fund with the objective of financing M&A deals and bringing innovative ideas to market. “Having experienced the salaryman lifestyle, I know that is not for me. I now concentrate on building true value for businesses, not just as a sales representative or distributor, but from the planning and development stages.” The Quicktionary2 Kanji Reader demonstrates the additional value provided by Kato and Japan21 by being involved at early-stage localization. Kato is constantly searching for new partners, innovative ideas and products to help develop for the Japanese market. JI