There Is No Word in Japanese for "Compliance"

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The June 28, 2010 issue of the ACA Compliance Group newsletter, called ACA Insight ("The weekly news source for investment management legal and compliance professionals"), has at the top of its title page the following two sentence quotation:  "There is no word in Japanese for compliance.  That's a problem."  On the following page, there is a brief article entitled "A Few Thoughts on Foreign Offices," the third section of which reads as follows:

Third, local custom can also present barriers to compliance.  "There is no word in Japanese for compliance," said the CCO [VHM:  Chief Compliance Officer], '[t]hat's [VHM:  sic] a problem."  It is very difficult, for example, to get office staff to submit statements for personal trading reviews, and when you do finally get them, they're not in English.  Hire a native speaker for the home office to assist with translations and communication, the CCO advised.  It is absolutely necessary for a good compliance program.

The quotation on the title page had already led me to suspect that something had gotten lost in transmission, if not translation.  Reading the longer explanation quoted just above only served to deepen my suspicion that the CCO was misinformed.

Since the Japanese people are among the most compliant people on earth, how could it possibly be that they don't have a word for "compliance" or at least some way to express the idea of compliance?  I'm not a Japanese specialist, but it was easy for me to think of a few words that convey the notion of compliance right away, such as fukujū 服從, shōdaku 承諾, ōdaku 應諾, and so forth.  Indeed, it is likely that Japanese has more words for "compliance" than English (see, for example, this online dictionary; search under "compliance").

Michael Carr, who brought this issue to my attention, wrote to Janis Kerns, the editor of ACA Insight, expressing his skepticism, and she graciously replied as follows:

Mr. Carr –

Thank you for your email. Although the speaker I quoted was speaking from personal experience, and I do not generally fact-check quotations (which tend to be the speaker's personal views), this particular statement warranted further review. Although I do not read kanji, I located someone fluent in japanese who assured me there is at least one interpretation in japanese for regulatory compliance. I thought you would like to see the brief follow-up piece in this week's issue (on page 8).

I sincerely appreciate your time in reaching out to me.

Best regards,
Janis Kerns

Ms. Kerns went still further and offered the following clarification on the last page (p. 8) of the July 12, 2010 ACA Insight:

“Compliance” By Any Other Name…

ACA Insight’s quote of the week in the June 28 issue got some people talking. The suggestion that there might not be a direct equivalent in Japanese for the term “compliance” prompted several reader discussions.

It also prompted at least one proffer of a link to a website translation dictionary [VHM:  the WWW JDIC cited above] with several suggestions for kanji (Japanese script) representing the various meanings of “compliance.”

“A rose by any other name…,” as Shakespeare once said, right? However it translates, the compliance message is apparently getting through, and that certainly is “sweet.”

How did this gross misunderstanding arise in the first place?  My colleague, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, while agreeing with me that "the Japanese are the most compliant people in the world in general," put it this way:  "I can understand the frustration of Americans — who tend to want a clear answer, 'black or white,' and get exasperated by the noncommittal ways the Japanese speak sometimes.  Their answers are 'unagi no yo ni, norari-kurari' [VHM:  'slippery as an eel']."

Aside from linguistic proficiency, when trying to understand people who speak another language, we also need  to draw on considerable cultural expertise.


  1. HP said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    I develop classroom materials for teaching software used by engineers. In this field, compliance with regulations is not something I encounter often. In fact, the only time regulatory compliance came up was with a course on FEA software. Ordinarily, we try to teach the software, but not to teach engineering as such. But our Japanese represent told us in no uncertain terms that if we wanted the course certified in Japan, we needed to include an introductory lesson on the theoretical basis of finite element analysis. He even faxed us the relevant passages in the regulations that govern such things, which we had translated in-house, to make sure we were compliant.

    My point being that even generalizations like "unagi no yo ni, norari-kurari" are slippery themselves, and individual Japanese, like anyone else, are perfectly capable of being direct when called upon.

    (I won't name the company I work for, but rest assured that Americans and even Germans are likewise capable of being slippery regarding compliance if it means a few extra $$$ in their pockets.)

  2. Ed said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    The "they don't have a word for x" is one of the hoariest and most inaccurate cliches used in describing foreign cultures. It always turns out the the other culture do in fact have a word for x.

    But is compliance, used in the context of regulatory compliance, really an English word or is it business jargon?

  3. HP said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    represent = representative


  4. Sili said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    It strikes as stupid (though arrogant is prolly more like it) to have a CCO who is not fluent in Japanese working in Japan.

  5. Greg said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Just to help clarify a bit, the kanji used in Japanese are rendered slightly differently than what you have for fukujū (服從) and ōdaku (應諾). They should be 服従 and 応諾, respectively. Nice post.

  6. HP said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    Ed: "Compliance" is business jargon, but business jargon is still language, no matter how impenetrable it may seem to outsiders. Reflexive resistance to business jargon always bothers me, because words and phrases like "compliance" or "go-forward basis" or "verticalization" have very precise meanings that would otherwise require paragraphs to convey.

    And my experience is that business jargon is becoming increasingly internationalized, which is really handy when dealing with colleagues whose native language may not be English. It's nice when a single word does the trick.

  7. anon said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Just curious, what's the purpose of sic in '[t]hat's [VHM: sic] a problem? (I understand the purpose of sic as an editorial note; It's just not apparent to me what's the issue here.)

  8. Faldone said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    @anon: Perhaps the single quote before [t]hat's that gets paired with the correct double quote at the end of the quotation.

  9. Faldone said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    The problem with the notion that there's no word for "compliance" in Japanese might be that while there are several words for what we perceive as compliance there might be no one word that encompasses all the meanings. If this is the case I would say that it's our problem, not theirs

  10. D.O. said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    So if we take what HP said at 11:43 am is it possible that Japanese have not settled (yet?) on a single word or a short phrase to express a concept of regulatory compliance?

  11. kuri said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    The katakana transliteration of "compliance," "コンプライアンス" ("konpuraiansu"), is widely used in Japan to mean "regulatory compliance" (and only regulatory compliance, not other kinds of compliance). I suspect that the foreign origin of (probably) the most widespread word used to convey the concept of "regulatory compliance" is what led to the claim that "There is no word in Japanese for compliance."

  12. fs said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    There should be a macron on "yo" in "unagi no yo ni", else it might mean something like "slippery in an eel's world".

  13. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    But the 14,400,000 google results for konpuraiansu suggests that modern Japanese has, in fact, a word for exactly the same thing as “compliance” in today’s regulatory, business sense. That this Japanese word came from English doesn’t change the fact that it’s part of Japanese now, just like the English word “tea” came from Hokkien Chinese but is now part of English.

  14. Acilius said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    Usually when a post on Language Log quotes a sentence of the form "Language X has no word for concept Y," the original was meant to suggest that speakers of language X are unfamiliar with concept Y. Which of course doesn't follow. But in fairness to the Chief Compliance Officer, he didn't say that the Japanese weren't familiar with the concept. His point seems to be that it is difficult to express that concept in such a way that he could be confident that it was clear to everyone who needed to understand it. That may be true even if the English word does appear in Japanese 14,400,000 times.

  15. kuri said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 2:37 pm


    I was just pointing out a likely source for the claim, not vouching for the correctness of the claim.

    In my experience it's quite common for Japanese people to think of a word like "konpuraiansu" — even though it's generally unrecognizable to non-Japanese speakers and carries a nuanced meaning specific to Japanese — as an English word, not a Japanese word.

    That's not accurate, of course, as you pointed out. Saying there's no word for "compliance" in Japanese is much like saying, for example, that there's no word in English for "coup d'etat."

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Given its history, I always take "X has no word for Y" ironically, in senses similar to that in "I don't know the meaning of 'fear'!" In this case, the local office had no procedures in place to implement and enforce regulatory compliance. One could say the same about numerous offices in the U.S., and express the lack in the same way. I suspect that literalists find Japanese a very difficult language, but English is different only in degree.

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    …following up: Is linguistic analysis really derailed by intentional irony?

  18. Trond Engen said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    Is Janis Kerns a Ms.? To me it looks like the name of a Latvian Mr.

  19. Acilius said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    "Saying there's no word for "compliance" in Japanese is much like saying, for example, that there's no word in English for "coup d'etat.""

    That raises another set of questions entirely. What does it mean to say that a word is "in English" or "in Japanese"? When I tell a class of nineteen year olds from deep in the interior of the USA about a group that seized political power by an abrupt use of force, I struggle to avoid the phrase "coup d'etat," since they almost unanimously reject the idea that it is an English expression. I can refer them to as many dictionaries, search engines, and corpuses of English usage as I like, but only the ones who read The New York Times or listen to public radio will agree with me.

    Irritating as I find that quirk of theirs, my students are onto something. So "burnoose" and "sash" may both be "English words," but they aren't "English" in the same way. When English speakers use "burnoose" they are self-consciously borrowing from the Arabic (albeit in the form of an Arabic word derived from Greek,) while "sash" has lost all suggestion of Arabic to the Anglophone ear.

  20. Nathan Hopson said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    FYI, (法令)順守 (hourei junshu) is often used in Japanese as an explanatory gloss or substitute for the katakana loanword コンプライアンス. 順守 means "adherence, compliance, observance," etc. and is by no means a new coinage. Coupled with 法令, the narrow meaning is "regulatory compliance;" by itself the katakana is used in the broader sense.

    Google News search for 法令順守 + コンプライアンス illustrating above point:

    On a more personal (sardonic) note, I'm always annoyed that English doesn't have a word for so many of my favorites in Japanese (like やっぱり, それこそ, etc.)

  21. fs said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Nathan: Yeah, I've always missed 娑婆, myself.

  22. Chris Kern said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    懐かしい is one I wish we had a good word for.

  23. John Cowan said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    English notoriously lacks a word for "having sex with a neighbor to whom one was once married and whose house is on fire." Shock! Horror!

  24. Janne said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

    The usual reason for "there is no word for X" is that there's no one-to-one mapping between the word covering the concept in one language, and the concept in another. So, "compliance" might map to one of several words or expressions in Japanese, depending on context (though I suspect 遵守 actually covers it pretty well).

    But that goes the other way around, too: there really is no word in English for 面白い. Depending on the context it can mean 'interesting', 'funny', 'fascinating' and a range of similar meanings. You'll see the result of this in Japanese learners of English; they'll tend to latch on to one of those translated words ('funny', say) and use 'funny' for the whole range of meanings.

    And Japanese is no more indirect or circumspect than English. English, too, is full of circumlocutions; it's just that as a native or proficient user you don't hear the surface words but what the speaker means. If somebody says "I really don't think that's a very good idea…", or "We'll get back to you on this", or "we'll certainly seriously consider this", or "this was great! don't call us, we'll call you", you know it all means "No." A Japanese "それはちょっと難しい…" ("that's a little difficult") is just as clear and unambiguous.

  25. John Maline said,

    July 15, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    As a matter of fact, there are 88 words for "compliance" in Japanese!

  26. jc said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 12:17 am

    Ed commented: "The "they don't have a word for x" is one of the hoariest and most inaccurate cliches used in describing foreign cultures. It always turns out the the other culture do in fact have a word for x."

    Actually, it often turns out to be literally true that "Language X has no word for Y". For example, I recently read a claim that a particular language "has no word for free speech". I fired off a reply pointing out that English has no word for "free speech". That's why we use two words for the concept.

    The "X has no word for Y" meme is usually used to imply that speakers of X can't express the concept Y. This often turns out wrong, not because X has a word for Y, but because X has a perfectly good way to express Y; it just isn't a single word.

    Of course, there are true cases where the concepts simply don't line up. That may be the situation with Japanese and "regulatory compliance" (for which English also has no single word and thus attaches an adjective to the more general word "compliance"). The borrowing of an English word is evidence that this may have been true. Such borrowing is one common way to get a more precise word than the ones you already have. And it can lead to the curious situation we seem to have, in which Japanese actually has a single word meaning "regulatory compliance", while general English doesn't.

  27. Joshua said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:14 am

    Trond Engen: In the United States, "Janis" is almost always a female name.

  28. Pekka K. said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    Most languages don't have a word for '"you would give it to us to drink", he said,' but fortunately Georgian does. The word is dagvalevinebdito, as this page explains. Clearly, not having a word for this concept, many people find themselves simply unable to complain about slow service in bars and restaurants!

  29. jc said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    Joshua: Look at, a fun site that lets you type the start of a name to compare the frequencies of similar names. Thus typing "JAN" (Or "Jan") lets you compare "Janis" and "Janice", the more common spelling. You can see that people stopped naming their girls "Janis" around 1980.

    Too bad it's just for the US; it'd be interesting to see such data for other parts of the world. I'd imagine Canada is similar to the US, except for favoring French spellings over Spanish.

  30. Zubon said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    Acilius: I expect that most Americans would accept "coup" as an English word. Now that you mention it, "coup d'etat" might not get the same recognition. Funny thing, that.

  31. John Cowan said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    As Robbins Burling pointed out back in 1970, the Garo language has a bigger vocabulary than English, for in addition to its native vocabulary it can freely borrow any English word, and indeed any Bengali word as well.

  32. Jim said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    "It strikes as stupid (though arrogant is prolly more like it) to have a CCO who is not fluent in Japanese working in Japan."

    Cheap is prolly more like it – too cheap to send him to language school or pay someone with the language the extra money to hire him or her.

  33. Rubrick said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    I hear linguists have 60 words for not having a word for something.

    [(myl) 60 LL posts (list 1, list 2), anyhow. Or close to that, I haven't counted. Always good for a chuckle. ]

  34. Rodger C said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    @Joshua: I share Trond's skepticism, being well acquainted with one Janis Starks, an unmistakably male bookseller of Latvian extraction in Bloomington, IN.

  35. Lugubert said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 4:56 am

    Isn’t it possible that Janis is a simplified spelling of Janice?

    If you find a Jan in Scandinavia, it’s a male. (Jan from Hebr. Yohannan via Greek and Latin; cf. John)

    Ed wrote : "Compliance" is business jargon, […] business jargon is becoming increasingly internationalized …
    The English word is used in Sweden for patient compliance regarding taking prescribed medication.

  36. Patrick said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 5:25 am

    When I was in university, my sociology professor held that the Japanese had no word for "love". This is ridiculous, as anyone with a basic understanding of Japanese can point out. As she continued to speak, it became clear that she meant to say the Japanese had no traditional concept of romantic love as in the West–another highly debatable point, given that the oldest Japanese novel is about romantic, courtly love. Somehow, I think it would have been better for the professor to have talked about a subject she actually knew something about, though from the contents of her lectures, I am not sure what subject that would be. I lost respect for the whole field of sociology after taking her course.

  37. Rodger C said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    "I lost respect for the whole field of sociology after taking her course." Not a unique experience.

  38. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    "And it can lead to the curious situation we seem to have, in which Japanese actually has a single word meaning "regulatory compliance", while general English doesn't."

    It does – "compliance". In regulatory circles, nobody talks about "regulatory compliance". They just say "compliance". Banks have "compliance officers", not "regulatory compliance officers".

  39. David J. Littleboy said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 12:48 am

    "Not a unique experience."

    Yes, but those guys have a rough gig. Their job is to say something deep, profound, intriguing (and academically saleable) about how a group of people no different from you and I really are different and interesting. It's real hard.

  40. Craig said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    Forest for the trees.

    Can anyone seriously claim that the Japanese (or anyone) can't understand the concept "If you want to achieve X, you must do Y and Z, for these reasons"?

    Is this this way of thinking nothing more than a cultural construct?

    Or am I hopelessly naive?

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