Community, Translation, and Wapuu: How Japan is Shaping WordPress History

Japanese WordPress community representatives at WordCamp San Francisco 2014
Japanese WordPress community representatives at WordCamp San Francisco 2014

Japanese WordPress users were some of the earliest to see the project’s potential and help bring the software to the non-English speaking world. At the end of 2003, just six months after Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little decided to fork b2, a Japanese version of WordPress was available.

WordPress-ME

The version was originally called “WordPress ME” and was maintained by a user called Otsukare, whose translation notes indicate that he believed WordPress would become “convenient and increasingly easy to use in the future.” This Japanese version corresponded with WordPress 0.72, as WordPress wouldn’t have internationalization support until version 1.2.

Otsukare was instrumental in demonstrating the demand for translation for all languages with the popularity of his multilingual fork of WordPress, which allowed easy modification via the use of a language file. It is rumored that this multilingual edition, along with discussions on the WordPress ME fourms, was influential in bringing gettext into WordPress.

Growing the Japanese WordPress Community Through Local Meetups

Over the past 11 years, local Japanese WordPress communities have grown steadily. Naoko Takano, who has been involved with the local community since 2003, attributes that growth to consistent translation and a reliable release workflow, managed by a dedicated Japanese package team.

japanese-package-team

An organized system around translation and documentation were two key ingredients that helped germinate the early Japanese WordPress community, but local meetups were ultimately the catalyst for its massive growth.

The first WordCamp Tokyo was held in 2008 with 60 attendees. WordCamp Tokyo today now pulls in 1200 – 1400 people, according to co-organizer Shinichi Nishikawa. This event is larger than past editions of WordCamps Europe and San Francisco.

Nishikawa reports that over the past seven years, Japan has hosted 15 WordCamps in Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Yokohama Nagoyo, Kobe, and Osaka. WordCamp Kansai, held in the Western part of the country, was organized by WordBench members of that area, including Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara and Wakayama.

Regional WordPress groups in Japan are organized on WordBench.org, a site that allows users to find, join, and create a meetup. The site was created in 2009 by Takayuki Miyoshi, the author of Contact Form 7, one of WordPress’ most popular plugins. WordBench has been running on BuddyPress for the past six years and was originally built on RC1 of the plugin.

wordbench

The site currently lists 48 local groups throughout Japan, named for their cities, i.e. WordBench Tokyo, WordBench Osaka, WordBench Kawasaki. Members and organizers use the site to post about upcoming events and recaps of meetups recently held in various locations. The site serves to keep Japan’s local communities connected and inspired.

Japan’s Unique WordPress Meetups and the Importance of Wapuu

In addition to the regional WordBench groups, interest-based meetups are also common in the Japanese WordPress community. In this format, members meet around different interests outside of WordPress, such as cooking or photography. For example, the WordPhotoclub meetup gathers together to go on walks and take photos. Members’ photos were printed and displayed at WordCamp Tokyo 2012.

WordCrab is another example of one of Japan’s unique WordPress meetups. Members from all over from Japan gather in the Fukui prefecture, where they combine WordPress sessions with a giant crab party where everyone feasts upon the region’s renowned crabs.

photo credit: WordCrab meetup
photo credit: WordCrab meetup

The Word温泉 (WordOnsen) meetup is centered around the enjoyment of hot springs. Members gather in Fukushima and stay at a hotel where they have WordPress sessions and a party night.

“In meetups we started doing more things than just learning WordPress,” community organizer Shinichi Nishikawa said. “We get friends together and go for a walk and eat lunch/dinner together.

“I think this a really good way to make the community stronger. People are talented in different things and by doing something together, other than WordPress, people can show their talents. And of course, it’s fun.”

Japan’s holistic approach to meetups incorporates various aspects of life and relationships, as opposed to simply centering around improving WordPress technical skill. As a result, members become more connected and meetups are highly personalized. That’s where Wapuu enters the picture to bring special meaning to each group.

Wapuu, the official mascot character of WordPress, was designed by Kazuko Kaneuchi in 2011. It’s distributed under the GPLv2 or later and can be modified by anyone to add more personality to the character.

“Thanks to the freedom of the GPL, there have been many forked versions of Wapuu,” Nishikawa said. “All local Wapuus are created by someone who belongs to each local community and they hold something that represents where they are from.”

photo credit:  Naoko Takano - WordPress History
photo credit:
Naoko Takano – WordPress History

Wapuu is so well-loved that the creature ends up making its way onto swag, cakes, and nail and coffee art at Japanese WordPress events.

photo credit:  Naoko Takano - Learnings from Growing Local WordPress Communities
photo credit:
Naoko Takano – Learnings from Growing Local WordPress Communities

The name “Wapuu” was given to the mascot by a users’ poll. “Japanese people pronounce WordPress as ‘WAADOPURESU,'” Nishikawa said. “Wapuu sounds like an abbreviation of WAADOPURESU, taking ‘Wa’ and ‘Pu’ from it.”

Modifications of the mascot have recently started popping up at WordCamps outside of Japan. WordCamp London’s wapuunk was so popular that it inspired WordCamp Philly and WordCamp Belgrade to create their own unique modifications to the character.

For whatever reason, Wapuu seems to have a special power to bring people together, regardless of culture or location. WordPress has the Japanese community to thank for its unique open source contribution to meetup branding.

The Challenges of Contributing to WordPress Across the Language Barrier

Despite having a large WordPress community thriving in Japan, with many of the top websites built on the software, Japanese developers have a difficult time contributing back to core.

“Language is the biggest barrier,” Nishikawa told the Tavern. “There are many good developers in Japan (and in other countries) who don’t speak English. Most of them can read documentation but joining in the conversation in tickets and on Slack is a different thing.

“In my opinion, there is English for native speakers and English for international people, and they are different,” he explained.

“It’s difficult to say how different they are, but for us who are not native, ambiguous words, abbreviations like ‘FWIW,’ jokes, and slang are difficult,” Nishikawa said. “Sometimes nesting a long sentence in another long sentence by using ‘that,’ ‘which,’ and ‘including’ is difficult.”

He explained that overcoming the language barrier is more than simply learning English; it also includes the hurdle of trying to understand the abbreviations and expressions that are infused by the culture around native English speakers.

“People would say that you can understand because it’s code, but if we look at the conversations in tickets, the surrounding discussion often concerns more than just the code,” he said.

“Non-English speaking developers are trying to learn English, but it would be good if people in the ticket / Slack would keep in mind that there are people who don’t share the context or culture behind the words they write,” Nishikawa suggested.

“If we make the words and expressions easier to understand, someone who understands 80% will have the opportunity to understand nearly 100%.”

However, Nishikawa is unsure of whether or not it is productive to request these kinds of changes, given that communication can never really be separated from culture.

“Maybe a more welcoming atmosphere needed?” he said. “On the other hand, I know that the discussions include a great deal of context and many cultural things. It’s a place for communication, too. So, I don’t know if it’s right to say that something needs to change.

“Additionally, there are many talented developers who don’t understand English at all and I have no idea what can be done for them,” he said.

Nishikawa said that he felt much more connected to the community after attending WordCamp San Francisco and the following summit and contributor day.

“Even for developers who didn’t speak English, we had translators and discussed things, looked at the code and shared the WordPress projects they are working on,” he said. “After these face-to-face conversations, developers are more relaxed and motivated to work in the core Make project. Inviting developers to meetups/camps in the English world or inviting core contributors travel and join local contribution days will be a big trigger to involve more people.”

The Future of WordPress in Japan

Nishikawa believes that WordPress has a bright future in Japan, thanks to the efforts of Otsukare, Naoko Takano, Takayuki Miyoshi and all the plugin developers, Tenpura (the author of WP Multibyte Patch plugin), bloggers, community organizers, an army of dedicated translators and more.

He is hopeful that positive experiences for developers at global meetups like WCSF will help the Japanese WordPress community find ways to contribute back to core and other projects.

“There have been a few people who had contributed separately, but now I feel there is a small groove of people who are more interested in contribution,” he said.

“For the community, we hope that the activeness of the Japanese community will be exported to other Asian (and global) communities, especially with Wapuu or the unique “more-than-learning” style of meetups.”

He also believes the future of WordPress in Japan will be brighter with the internationalization improvements that are continually being added to core.

“For the users, when everything is translatable, people are happier. If WordPress can become more mobile friendly, it will be used more by young people. When the WP-API is in core, there will be more diverse apps available.”

Nishikawa has had such a positive experience organizing WordPress community events in Japan that he is now active in growing the community in Thailand.

“We now have meetups twice per month in Bangkok for developers/users/designers. We don’t have ‘session-oriented meetups’ anymore but we try to have casual talks every time, where everyone can speak in their own languages. Translation is more than welcome but we don’t want to rely on someone.”

As Japan’s community-oriented approach to learning has paid off with highly active meetup groups and some of the largest WordCamps on the globe, Nishikawa is hoping to bring his experience to Thailand and help organize a WordCamp Bangkok in the near future.

“Community has made my life/job much more exciting and fun,” he said. “Many things will differ culture by culture but the core value of community should be the same everywhere.”

26 Comments


  1. Absolutely love this article. I always enjoy seeing historic parts of WordPress brought up in articles, like the 11 year old forum thread and seeing a response by Matt. Those were the days! I love how the Japanese WordPress community puts a capital C in Community. It was a blast meeting some of them at WordCamp San Francisco last year. I also found out that they’re huge fans of the Tavern :)

    I hope the WordPress internationalization efforts and language pack projects can help the Japanese people and others in contributing to WordPress core. Great article and thank you Japanese WordPress community for Wapuu!

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  2. I first really learned about internationalization back in 2007-2008 from a Japanese theme user. He pretty much taught me what I needed to know to make my themes be worth using in other languages. Ever since then, I’ve made this a top priority. So, Yoichi, if you happen to find this post on WP Tavern, thanks!

    A little note about the current theme on WP Tavern: it has a built-in Japanese stylesheet that auto-loads if the language is set to Japanese. :)

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    1. Interesting to hear that you catered for an individual language like that. I’ve only ever added support for RTL languages, but not thought (or known how to) cater for individual languages.

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      1. I’ll have to do a tutorial. I actually have several language-specific features that I reuse in my themes.

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  3. I first noticed WordPress had a large following in Japan after WordCamp SF 2014. It was great seeing them show up full force. Their WordCamp website for Tokyo also topped our list as the most impressive of all 2014 sites we reviewed. You could tell they put some hard work into organizing the event. I think the growth of the community can be largely attributed to great community leadership (I really like their style of MeetUps), internationalization efforts, and the culture’s long standing ability to recognize great technology. I was privileged enough to visit Japan (Tokyo + Kyoto) last year… this gives me another reason to head back soon. WordCamp Tokyo here I come! :)

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    1. Yeah we remember your article. Lead designer, Yutaro Miyazaki and all member of web designing team were really excited with it! They started preparing for this year’s one.
      Articles about us from outside Japan always make us happy! We really hope to see you.

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  4. This was a really interesting read! Some great takeaways on how the community in Japan was built and how it’s growing that we can all learn from.

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  5. Another prohibiting factor for contributions is the time difference of course. For bug scrubs Aaron Jorbin tried to mitigate that by having more than one, scheduled 9 hours apart. It’s obviously harder to do that with Dev Chat though.

    Great article Sarah, nice work!

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    1. Time difference is probably the number 1 reason I don’t contribute to core more. It’s near impossible to contribute in a substantial way when you can’t make meetings and such.

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  6. Thanks so much for writing this, Sarah! I enjoyed reading about the Japanese community from an external perspective and realized once again that so many people in different parts of Japan shaped the WordPress community by getting involved.
    Hope to read more about other communities in the US & world too!

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  7. This does highlight an issue though and that is language barriers. Not to over generalize or be racist lol but it seems like most of the WordPress contributions come from middle age white guys. There is nothing wrong with this but it makes you wonder what would be different if we had a major release lead by one of those developers who were not the best at English what would be different.

    I also would like to see more Asian influenced themes. Go on themeforest and look around and you will see that most of the themes are exactly the same. They are all using the same basic layout with maybe a few changes here and there.

    I want to see more Asian influenced themes in the market because it might solve the design rut that WordPress themes have fallen into. Frankly these themes are not even about the best design anymore its more about how many features they can throw in. Which is fine but I am tired of them all looking the same.

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    1. Scott,

      Allow me to introduce you to my friend Helen Hou-Sandí:

      https://make.wordpress.org/core/2015/02/03/new-lead-developers-helen-and-dion/

      Also, I think you’re totally right about the mostly white thing, though I’m not sure of the age statement. There are a lot of younger (and older) folks contributing to WP who are maybe not as vocal as the ones in the middle.

      There may very well be a gap in the theme market for “asian influenced themes,” but I personally am not sure what you mean by that. Could you maybe point to some sites as examples, or detail more what influences the design of an “asian based theme?”

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  8. This. Is. So. Inspiring. To. Read! Thanks, Sarah, great article!

    Regarding difficulties in contributing back I can totally relate to what Nishikawa says as well as to the timezone issues mentioned in the comments. On the other hand, there always seem to be a few people who somehow overcome all of those issues and contribute to a .org project continuously and powerful.

    I’ve been wondering if/how communities grouping around a certain language could create “bridges” to the global context for themselves. A bridge, for example, could be a particular project that group would commit contributing to—a core ticket, a plugin or theme for WordCamps, anything other than translations. :)
    One person from the group whose English language skills would allow for communicating back and forth with .org would fill the role of an “ambassador”, so to speak, and coordinate feedback between .org and the local group. Everyone else in that group would be free to collaborate in their language.

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  9. This is really cool. It is always interesting to see how the internet gets utilized and developed in other countries, as many of us only really have our point of view on everything. Their WordPress swag is pretty cool too and you have to love that Wapuu mascot!

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  10. Where can I buy one of those Wapuu stuffed animal holding the WordPress logo?

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      1. The idea of the special WordCamp ticket with stuffed animal is exist! Last year we tried to do that but didn’t make it. :(

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  11. I was told about Japanese community by a close friend – Philip Authur Moore, who visited a WordCamp in Tokyo and I was very interested in the stories, the way they built communities, how did they create Wapuu. We (Philip and me) since then have been trying to develop the community for Vietnamese people here in Hanoi. But it takes time to reach to same level as in Japan :)

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  12. Thank you Sarah :)

    And thank you Nao and Shin and all the amazing Japanese contributors out there. You’re an inspiration to us all.

    Many of you might not know, but when in 2014 international downloads of WordPress surpassed English downloads, Japanese actually constituted almost 1/3 of those international downloads. This only goes to show what the impact of WordPress can be in regions where English is not widely spread.

    WordPress is not even 100% translated into some of the top 10 most spoken languages like Hindi and Bengali yet. The Indian languages are quite poorly represented and imagine the impact that part of the world can have on the project.

    Time difference is only one of the restrictions for non-English speaking communities to get involved more. For the Polyglots team, we tried having two weekly chats, one for Europe, South America and East Asia (most locales are in that region) and one for the Asia / Pacific region. We thought this might help more people from that region to get actively involved, but the Asia / Pacific chat was not popular at all.

    Very soon it dawned on us that language was actually what stopped people from actively participating. We had constant feedback about that.

    Imo translating the development handbooks, the codex, all the documentation and using the local wp.org sites to rally contributors is the step forward. Plugin and Theme directories in local languages will help too.

    Caspar’s idea about people from different regions owning small parts of the project sounds really great. Even if development is always centred around English, we can probably use tools to bridge the language barrier and work together.

    Thank you again for the fantastic write up, Sarah.

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  13. This article is very interesting and awesome. It even inspired me to not just write an article about that topic by myself, but to contribute with developing a community-website to provide and improve the link between the japanese community and the rest of the world.

    You can read about the details in my article. Please support me with that project and give me a (or a few) helping hand.

    http://norntale.com/connecting-the-japanese-wordpress-community/

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  14. I love this… and I love the Wapuu too. I’m a huge fan of manga and anime. Every time I see it, I think “Wapuu, I choose you!” I finally contributed to translating WordPress in es_MX (there were only 18 contributors!!!)… as this was inspirational to me.

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