Seiyuu: the Artists of Japanese Dubbing

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Seiyuu or seiyu (声優) is a Japanese term used for Japanese voice actors and actresses. It is a robust industry in Japan that produces a large number of animated series (aka anime) and films that are beloved the world over as the talented seiyuu bring the vast number of characters to life. Each year, the annual Seiyuu Awards are held to honor these hard-working, talented voice performers.

These voice talents, in addition to providing their voices for animation, do voice work for companies looking to localize their video content for a Japanese audience. In this blog we will explore the seiyuu profession, tips for selecting a Japanese voice talent, and some of the preferences Japanese people have for subtitling or dubbing.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

Starbucks cafe

photo by Marianna Ole

Seiyuu: Japanese Voice Performers

Voice actors through just their voice are able to portray a wide range of feelings. Seiyuu translates as “voice actor” but can also literally mean “voice superiority” or “voice gentleness.” If you’ve watched a good Japanese dub, you can see why the term seiyuu is fitting.

In 1920s Japan, seiyuu were employed to voice radio dramas and performances. Their popularity on the radio peaked during World War II when they were called on to voice the various war-effort, Japanese propaganda radio programs. NHK, one of the main Japanese broadcasting companies, opened the “Tokyo Central Broadcasting Channel Actor Training Agency” in 1941, the first program of its kind to train voice actors.

In the 1960s, with the huge popularity of the animated series Astro Boy, the voice acting industry grew as more manga (Japanese comics) were being transformed into anime. During this time, seiyuu would also have to provide environment sounds with their voice (such as explosions, wind, animal sounds, etc…).

It is common for a seiyuu to voice multiple characters in an animated show, even characters of a different gender. For instance, it is common practice for female seiyuu to voice male characters, particularly younger male characters (as was done for the lead male characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Full Metal Alchemist). Accomplished seiyuu are able to adapt their voice not only to express a wide range of emotions, but genders, age, regional accents, and much more.

Seiyuu take pride in their profession and many of them are considered celebrities in Japan, participating in popular meet-and-greet conventions held throughout the country and abroad. It’s a path many actors have found personally and artistically fulfilling. As prominent voice actor Norio Wakamoto states, “The way of the voice actor is the path that you make for yourself.”

silhouette of airplanephoto by Ramon Kagie

Tips for Selecting a Japanese Voice Talent

It’s important when choosing a Japanese voice talent that you find the right talent that fits your content. Ideally, you need to hire a native Japanese-speaking talent that has dubbing experience and is able to speak in Standard Japanese dialect used in Tokyo. Standard Japanese is understood throughout the country and is the main dialect of choice when doing any formal voice-over or dubbing for marketing, e-Learning, or corporate videos.

However, when it comes to dubbing animated shows, you may need a seiyuu that is able to provide regional Japanese accents. South Park, the mature animated show from America, was dubbed in Standard Japanese as well as the Kansai dialect, a dialect of Japanese used in Osaka and its surrounding regions. Some Japanese perceive the Kansai dialect as individualistic and comedic, which may fit well with the direct, humorous language the kids use in South Park.

Generally, it is also better to hire a Japanese talent that is “in-country”–i.e. lives in Japan. The reason being is that language is constantly changing; there may be recent changes to phrasing or speech conventions that may escape a Japanese voice talent that has lived abroad for many years. Also, if a voice talent is immersed in a non-native language environment, it’s possible that they may pick up a local accent.

When listening to voice samples of in-country Japanese voice talents, its important that the voice quality of the samples you select will be ensured in future recordings. This is something, as a localization studio, we can assure our clients. Some voice talents–this is not limited to Japanese talents–may record their voice samples in a professional studio with sound engineers but will then do voice work from a home studio which may cause variation in the audio recording quality.

Here at JBI Studios, we can promise our clients that any voice-over/dubbing request will be of the same quality or higher as the high quality samples we provide in multiple languages. We are very selective of the voice talent we choose to work with and make sure that they meet our strict standards of excellence.

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photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem

Do Japanese Prefer Subtitling or Dubbing?

When it comes to choosing whether to subtitle or dub your content for a Japanese audience, it’s important to hone in on the age group of your target demographic. The Harry Potter series of films were available in Japan in both dubbed and subtitled versions. The content was incredibly popular with younger children and this demographic overwhelmingly preferred the dubbed Harry Potter films over the subtitled versions. For children who are still unfamiliar with certain kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese), coupled with the fast dialogue editing, dubbing was a more enjoyable viewing experience.

Therefore, foreign films geared towards children–particularly animated family movies (e.g. Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks films)–are generally dubbed in Japanese whereas more mature, live action content is subtitled. There are some Japanese that prefer subtitled content so that they can enjoy the original performance of the actor on screen. Others watch subtitled American films as a way to learn English phrases and American humor. As one Japanese YouTuber states: I prefer to watch the original English content because there are a lot of American jokes that are lost in the Japanese dub.

If you’re looking to dub or subtitle your content for a Japanese audience, be sure to check out our localization services. We work with professional, in-country partners that can ensure the authenticity of your localized content.

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