Language Society

Why Study Japanese? An American expat’s perspective (Part 2)

In my last article, I gave an outline of why I think studying a foreign language can be a worthwhile investment for students and professionals. In order to gain a better understanding of how this is possible, I asked my friend Benjamin Boas for an interview. I met Ben when he was doing some work for The Japan Economic Foundation, and was impressed with the life he had made for himself in Japan. As he had pursued the study of Japanese, among other interests, to further his career, I thought Ben would be a great source of information on how learning a foreign language – like Japanese – can open up doors of opportunity for your career.

I was able to secure a time to meet with Ben in Kamakura, a historical and traditional town with many tasty eateries and a laid-back vibe, where its not uncommon to see people sipping beer before noon as they meander among the food stalls. Being a true Seattleite, I was lucky for Ben to pick a coffee shop for us to meet and talk at. With coffee and chocolate in hand, I broke in with the questions.

What is your job right now?

Ben: I specialize in English writing based on Japanese sources. I do some translation, but I also make original content and recommendations in order to make the content more appealing to Westerners. I don’t like to do straight translation because lots of people can do that. One of my main jobs right now is working for an internet media streaming company which I’ll not name, but which you’ve definitely heard of. It recently opened in the Japanese market, aiming for Japanese customers. But they also want to globalize their content, so they need to do English translations for things like descriptions of video content.

For someone who became interested in Japan from manga and videogames, this job is like a – a tenshokuin Japanese, a perfect job! At first I thought, "Why would you need me, don’t you have professional writers in America for this?" -- and they do! But the problem is they’re not familiar with Japanese content, and when they look at translations of the descriptions for Japanese content, they don’t know what to make of it. You can’t just translate something directly – straight translations are boring. You have to understand what the video is about. The manager who hired me assured me that, for this job, they actually need someone who knows Japanese content.

How did you find that job?

Ben: A friend of a friend. Most of my good jobs come from people finding me, rather than me finding them.

In regard to the other work you’re involved in, you wrote a book in Japanese, right?

Ben: Oh, yeah. I wrote two actually. I was really into comics when I was learning Japanese, so I wanted to make my own comic. It has furigana so it can be more easily understood by foreign people who are learning Japanese, and it also has a section on how I studied Japanese.

For the other westerners who are studying Japanese, I wanted to touch on how difficult it is said to be. The US State Department lists Japanese as the most difficult language for native English Speakers to learn. You seem to have done well with Japanese, so do you have any advice for students who want to study Japanese but are afraid they can’t learn it?

Ben: Well, it does take a lot of time to achieve fluency in Japanese, compared to languages which are more similar to English. But you should also think about why you’re studying Japanese. If you want to live in Japan and make friends with Japanese people – that doesn’t require a very high level of fluency. On the other hand, if you are set on being a professional translator of Japanese literature, you’ll need a very high level of Japanese ability.

There is a grind if you want to be literate in any sense in Japanese. There’s around 2,000 Japanese kanji you really do need to memorize if you want to read print media without a dictionary. To me, that’s the most difficult part of the language. The rest I think can come in practice. But for me, I just really wanted to learn the material so I could understand the videogames I was playing. I became frustrated when I didn’t know, so I was always motivated to learn more. If you find yourself unmotivated to learn Japanese, maybe you should stop and find something that does motivate you. For me, I just wanted to learn as much Japanese as I could.

To wrap it up, I’d say you really need to have a goal in mind for WHY you’re learning Japanese. Even if its just to go out drinking with Japanese people – you need to have some goal in your sights. If your only goal is to study for the sake of studying, then it can be hard to gauge your own progress.

What has the study of Japanese meant for your career up to this point?

Ben: I did the things I was interested in, and wanted to keep learning. It was much later when I realized that I could make money off of those interests.

This article is split into three parts, so be sure to check out part 1 & part 3 & part 4 as well!

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