Senpai Success Story #1: Ashlee (Bilingual Executive Assistant)


Welcome to the first Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

Senpai Success Story #1: Ashlee

If you’re looking to enter into a field where you will regularly interact with Japanese speaking people, my first word of advice would be to be prepared to answer the question, “why did you decide to learn Japanese?”  Undoubtedly you will be asked that question by every person who is excited to be able to speak to you in their native language. It’s natural that they would be curious as to why, of the thousands of languages there are out there, you selected Japanese.  So it makes sense for me to start my story from the same place. 

Why Japanese?!

The short and simple is that I am and have always been a nerd.  And the truth is that my story starts with an anime that I’m sure most people are familiar with, Sailor Moon.  From the moment I saw it my eight-year-old self was hooked. It was a group of kick butt female super heroes in awesome costumes, what wasn’t to love? I started to draw my favorite characters, made up alternate story lines with new characters, acted out my favorite scenes… I taped every episode, and I hunted through local comic book stores and flea markets for any of the translated manga issues that I could find.  With the pace of my collecting and consuming, I quickly ran out of content in English—I had watched every episode that was aired and every rerun; I had read all of the manga that was published until the pages were falling out. But there was more, the stories weren’t finished, and I needed to know how it ended.  So I went onto eBay and found the next issues of the manga, ordered them, and waited what seemed like an eternity for them to arrive at my door.  When they finally arrived I was elated to have new content, but there was, of course, one major problem—they were all in Japanese.  I didn’t let that stop me though, I begged my mom to buy me a Japanese dictionary and set to work on my very first translation project. 

It didn’t go well.  I spent hours trying to match kanji when I didn’t even know what kanji was, and find definitions before I realized that this was not the best way to go about things.  I needed to learn the Japanese language so that I could read these things before I was reading them to my grandkids.  And so began my journey of Japanese language learning.  Of course, by the time I did actually learn enough Japanese to read those Sailor Moon manga, it had already been translated and imported in its entirety—but words cannot describe how good it felt to be able to read those old manga on my own, in Japanese for the first time.

So, how did you get here?

Well first, I should define what “here” is.  I currently work for a Japanese company as a Bilingual Executive Assistant.  What that means is that I spend a good portion of my day using my language skills to assist our local Japanese employees in their day-to-day needs; to communicate between our local company and headquarters in Japan; and to help facilitate discussions between our American and Japanese employees through interpretation.  Japanese is as essential to my role as my laptop is.

So, how did I get here?  A lot of self-studied Japanese, a short pit-stop in Boston and some soul searching took me to Oakland University (OU) here in Michigan with half a degree’s worth of random credits and no real plan except that I really liked Japan—the culture, the history, the art… my love for all of these things had only grown as I was able to seek out more native content with my language abilities.  So I decided to just fill my last credits with Japanese classes and try to find a way to use it to keep a roof over my head.  I was, of course, met with an overwhelming amount of doubt from my friends and family, “Why Japanese?”, “What kind of job can you get with that?”, or my favorite, the dodgy, “That’s an… interesting choice…”.  I could have let this doubt sink in and stop me, but that’s not the kind of person that I am.  Instead, it turned into fuel for my fire and I was determined to make something out of this decision and prove myself.

In my second semester at OU there was a job listing that my professor mentioned to the class, it was an ad seeking a “Bilingual Administrative Assistant Intern.”  This was it.  I went straight home and opened the listing, I read it over and over again trying to decide how best to adjust my resume so it showed off the right qualities but I kept getting stuck on one word… fluent.  I could hardly call myself fluent.  Here I was, a mostly self-taught culture nerd who had never even been to Japan.  I went back and forth on whether I could justify applying for a position that required fluency and eventually decided that it just couldn’t hurt to try.  The truth is, it could have hurt. I was determined to show the world that I could make something of this path that I had chosen, and failure here felt like it would have been failing in proving myself—and I was terrified.

Even more terrified when I got the call asking me to come in for an interview. An interview?! Not just any interview though, I was advised that the interview would be conducted with a mix of English and Japanese.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I had oversold my Japanese capabilities, what were they going to expect?  Walking into that interview was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced.  It was the moment of truth— before this moment the only native Japanese speaker I had ever had a conversation with was my professor, how could I hope to impress these people enough to get this job? 

The format of the interview was simple, I would be asked a question in English, respond in English, and then explain my answer again in Japanese.  If I’m being honest, I don’t remember any of the questions or any of my answers.  I only remember how nervous I was, my dream was riding on this.  And I walked out of the interview feeling like I had completely bombed.  I was certain that I was not going to be selected and that I would need to give up altogether and change my degree and start over again.  I was ready to throw in the towel and immediately began trying to think of a new future that didn’t include Japanese.

About two weeks later I got a call from the HR Manager that interviewed me offering me the position.  I was speechless.  “There must be some mistake,” I thought, “there’s no way that I showed any level of fluency!”  That was my opportunity though, and I took it.  Starting as an intern, I was thrown into many more situations that pushed my limits and strained both my abilities and my perception of my abilities.  I was interpreting Japanese into English within my first few months, and that led to a business trip to Japan (as an intern!) to help continue those initial discussions.  I took several more business trips to Japan on various projects, not just to interpret, but to communicate my own ideas and to assist in business development. 

And today, if you asked me, I still wouldn’t tell you that I’m fluent or bilingual.  I’m a student of the Japanese language and I always will be. I will never be done learning. 

You gave a “first piece of advice,” does that mean you have a second?

My second piece of advice is to just try.  If you have a dream, don’t let anyone, or anything, stand in your way. If there is an opportunity, no matter how slim the odds are, take it.  Sometimes your definition of something (fluency, for example) isn’t the same as someone else’s—and that can make all the difference.

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