Forget dubbed films! Dive into Japan’s foreign film industry and become a fan of celebrity subtitlers.

If you’re a film buff, you probably have strong feelings about “subbing” vs. dubbing—or subtitling vs. dubbed voiceovers—but do you know the name of the translator who subs or dubs your favourite movies? Bet you don’t. But in Japan, your answer might actually be “Yes!” Unlike North American film industries, which favour dubbing, Japan has been mostly subtitling their films since the 1930s. Most movies shown in Japan today are translated by an elite group of popular subtitlers, and a few have even reached celebrity status—with their very own fan base.

A subtitler’s name can influence box-office numbers, and when a film is featured at the Tokyo International Film Festival the subtitler always appears at the debut. Some of Japan’s most successful English translators have even published their own autobiographies, how-to books and textbooks. The reigning Queen of Subtitling is the wildly popular Natsuko Toda, who’s translated blockbusters like Star Wars and Titanic— though some detractors have called her the Queen of Mistranslation. But even with some slip-ups, fame is well-deserved in this industry. Subtitling is a highly demanding art form: subtitlers must translate lines with enough detail to capture the original tone and content, yet short enough for the average viewer to read in a snap—all while matching their translation to the rhythm of what’s happening audio-visually. And in order to meet tight screening schedules, they’re usually given less than two weeks to complete the project.

But fame is a double-edged sword. Since many Japanese are subtitle-savvy, audiences get angry when they spot a bad sub. In 2002, Lord of the Rings audiences lashed out at Natsuko Toda for mistranslating the series’ first instalment. Fans even asked director Peter Jackson to have her replaced. Though Toda completed the series, The Hobbit trilogy was taken over by Takashi Anze, a subtitler who has worked on other big-name films like Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises and the Total Recall reboot. Still, Toda’s own fans remain loyal, and she recently toured the country with Tom Cruise to promote their 2014 film, The Edge of Tomorrow.

Japan’s love of subtitles isn’t limited to foreign films. TV programs regularly use telops, or colourful, playful subtitles for native shows: telops can clarify heavy dialect and overlapping dialogue, provide additional information or just emphasize a humorous line. Japan’s celebrity subtitlers and TV telops are part of a unique “subtitle culture”—a quirk some hope to extend to foreign visitors. People have recently asked broadcasters to introduce English telops to news programs in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While this is all brand new to North Americans, for the Japanese, the writing’s on the wall—or screen, as the case may be.


Make sure you know the DOs and DON’Ts of subtitle appreciation


For a taste of the unique and extensive culture of subtitling, be sure to see a movie or watch a television show the next time you’re in Japan. Here are some tips to make the most of your Japanese viewing experience:


DO catch a flick on the big screen

Head to one of Japan’s immaculately clean movie theatres—and see if you can spot the subtitler’s name in the credits.


Bentobox, Magazine, Japanese, Toronto, life, cultureDON’T put your feet up

Let the words do their work! Just like gabbing on your cell would, blocking the subtitles will get you a one-way ticket to exit-ville.

DO watch a popular variety TV show

Enjoy the cute telops scrolling across your screen in all different colours and sizes.

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe