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Correction to This Article
This article about Galaxy Systems misspelled the names of Mike Yoshikawa, a translator for the firm, and Minoru Yamamoto, who is executive director of the Japanese External Trade Organization.

Digital age threatens Japanese translation service in District

Tadahiko Nakamura has operated Galaxy Systems since the 1970s. The service scours newspapers for stories about Japan and delivers the news to Japanese professionals in their native language.
Tadahiko Nakamura has operated Galaxy Systems since the 1970s. The service scours newspapers for stories about Japan and delivers the news to Japanese professionals in their native language. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)

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By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010

For 35 years, Tadahiko Nakamura has wandered outside his Northwest Washington apartment every day at 3:30 a.m. in search of the morning newspapers -- the raw material that he and five other translators will turn into essential reading for the official Japanese community in Washington and beyond.

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With the voices of late-night revelers still echoing across the street, Nakamura and his staff will weed through a pile of U.S. newspapers to produce a daily news digest in Japanese, which will be distributed, via e-mail and bicycle, to some of the most prominent Japanese diplomats and businessmen in Washington.

Nakamura's company, Galaxy Systems, which shares space in Adams Morgan with a Japanese market and travel agency, employs five translators who compose a colorless, four-page packet crammed with Japanese characters.

The translators, all recent Japanese immigrants, are surrounded by stacks of newspapers, each littered with bright orange sticky tabs identifying stories that mention Japan. They would all prefer to be somewhere else.

Kenji Sakamoto hopes to become a playwright.

Mike Yoshikaway wants to be a foreign policy adviser to the Japanese government.

Kisato Takenaka would rather be designing computer software.

But for now, they share the same cramped office space, their fingers covered in newsprint, trying to convey the nuances of American politics and finance in their native tongue.

"When I started here, I didn't know what the words 'House' and 'Senate' meant," said Takenaka. "I learned everything from these newspapers."

Nakamura launched the digest as a graduate student in the 1970s, when Japan's economy was booming. He scanned 25 newspapers every day, summarizing and translating relevant stories for companies looking to open offices and factories in the United States. He provided a similar service to the Japanese embassy, which was in the midst of free trade talks with the Nixon administration.

The embassy, where Nakamura worked briefly, has paid Galaxy Systems for more than 30 years to compile clips of every story that includes the words "Japan" or "Japanese" in a number of Washington-based publications.

"I kept telling them, 'Power is not just in Washington,' " Nakamura said. "If you want to understand American politics, you need to read papers from all over the country."


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