Language Society

Why Study Japanese? An American expat’s perspective (Part 4)

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.

Ben: One guy I knew who was interested in Japan, but more career-oriented than I am, spent two years of his undergraduate degree here on an extended study abroad program. Most of the “experts,” whoever they are, would say that would be detrimental to one’s career, because, generally speaking, college education in Japan is not as rigorous as in America. But he did it anyway, and when he went back to America, he got a position as an adjunct lecturer at his own university because the university wanted to have a class on Japanese politics, and he just knew more about it [than the other professors].

He went on to law school, then moved back to Japan. He worked in a few firms. He developed a specialty working in Japanese law as a non-Japanese lawyer, and developed a reputation as someone who can work with Japanese companies as a non-Japanese person. After he caught the attention of a law firm in the Middle East, he moved there and made partner at like 30 years of age.

So he’s very rich then.

Ben: For him, Japanese linguistic and cultural ability has been the cornerstone of his career. Japanese companies love him because he can interact with the rest of the world for them. Companies that want to expand into Japan love him because he can interact with Japanese companies for them.

He spends maybe a couple months out of the year in Japan now, probably after getting the firm to transfer him here temporarily. He’s living the dream life! So, if you are particularly career-oriented, there are ways to use Japanese ability to advance yourself. But I think the key is to make it your own path. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing what he’s doing – but it’s working for him. You have to find the career path that suits you. I wouldn’t want to do what he does. He deals with big oil companies, while I publish books with comics in them, which he’d probably find absolutely ridiculous. It’s not that either of these is a more viable or less viable career path. Its because we picked them ourselves that the outcome has been positive.

You had also told me that you have a job which involves media content creation for anime. Some people who read this might consider that to be a dream job. Can you tell me about how to get a job like that?

Ben: You really can get that sort of job. It’s very difficult to look for those sorts of jobs specifically. A, how would you know where to look? And B, how would you even know it existed in the first place? I didn’t. Like you said earlier, it’s very important to go around and meet a lot of people.

Companies and people have economic needs that would surprise you. You can’t plan this stuff, but when a content manager is used to making descriptions based on the Western aesthetic, even creating descriptions for Japanese content can be difficult. This isn’t only about the language itself, but also requires an understanding of what makes “good” media in Japan. This is where a Japan specialist becomes very useful for her.

I’m a bit of a risk-taker so coming here without knowing exactly how I would make it work out didn’t sound like a terrible prospect to me. But a lot of people I’ve met – like former classmates of mine – are very passionate about Japan but also afraid of what they could do for work after they come to Japan. I want to say something to alleviate the fears of the people who really want to come to Japan but are afraid that they wouldn’t be able to create a life for themselves here.

Ben: If you make every single decision in your life chasing after some imagined stability, I think you’ll find that you tend to not make any decision at all. There’s no way to pick an option that’s absolutely safe. On the other hand, it’s the only life that you have. At some point you’re going to die anyway, so you have to take on some risk.

I think it’s hard to teach how to do this sort of life change. Because it’s more about having the mindset to do SOMETHING.

Ben: I think it’s impossible to teach to someone else. The only thing you can do is, if someone comes to you and wants help with that sort of a transition, you might be able to help them teach it to themselves. You can’t teach it to someone else, and you certainly can’t help someone who hasn’t asked for help. That’s more like coercion, although your intentions may be pure. Until someone is ready to make a change for themselves, there’s nothing any third party can do.

This article is split into three parts, so be sure to check out part 1 & part 2 & part 4 as well!

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