Senpai Success Story #10: Kyle, The Shy Guy Who Could

Welcome to the 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.)

This article was first posted March 2019, but scroll down to get the July 2020 update! It’s a very inspiring story of the power of networking in finding a job.

From Shut-in to Cultural Ambassador: The Shy Guy Who Could

When I graduated high school, I would probably not have believed you if you told me that I’d be living in Japan as a cultural ambassador in a few years. My friends used to (still) joke that I was the ficus that would sit in the corner of the room saying nothing. Now, I’m finishing up my second, and final year on the JET Program, which has me helping teach English at a combined middle and high school. In my time here, I’ve joined a kyudo club, become Vice President of a committee dedicated to international exchange in Shizuoka Prefecture, volunteered in English classes in my city’s culture center, and the list goes on. This is all to say that despite having been a shy recluse for most of my life, I’ve (mostly) broken out of that and have been able to do and try things that would been unthinkable not too long ago.

It Takes Time

This change didn’t happen magically on the plane ride to Japan, it took years of pushing my boundaries and making countless mistakes along the way. To start, my first two years of college were spent studying programing and computer hardware, something I thought I was passionate about. I found that my peers had been learning this material long before starting college, and I simply wasn’t excited enough by it. So I changed majors and jumped to a university where most of my credits didn’t transfer. I was effectively at square one again, however, I had gained invaluable experience at my first college. Particularly from the public speaking course I had taken. Being a generally shy person, public speaking was my kryptonite. However, I knew that and wanted to make steps to overcome that. Thanks to the spectacular teacher leading the course, I learned techniques to overcome some of my social anxiety and was able to confidently give speeches and presentations by the end of the semester.

There were two points that I took to heart. First was that everyone, even political figures and actors, deals with stage fright. It wasn’t just me that was afraid to talk in front of people, and that was oddly comforting. Second was that in the professional world it is important to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. It’s when you are uncomfortable and afraid when you have the most chance to learn and grow.

Foreign Languages

At my new university, I had changed my major to psychology. I was, and still am, perplexed with how people tick, and what struggles we go through. Here I also was required to take a minimum of one year of a foreign language. Up to this point, I had thought language learning was just beyond me. In middle school, I had taken an introductory course for French, German, and Spanish, but I couldn’t retain it. By the time I was in high school I couldn’t even put together a basic greeting anymore, while my friends continued taking Spanish classes and seemed fully capable of conversing by graduation. I wanted it to be different this time. More than that, I wanted it to be a challenge to prove to myself what I could do. Two languages came to mind as challenging: Chinese and Japanese. Both would give me an opportunity to learn more about a part of the world I was always curious about, but never took the time to learn outside of school. Overall, I was more familiar with Japanese history and felt it was easier to access Japanese media if I wanted to study on my own after graduating, so my studies began. Immediately I realized it would take longer to learn than a European language and began to accommodate it as a minor.

Learning Japanese

The first year went by fairly smooth, and I felt comfortable with my pace. My second year soon became rough and I struggled as I lost confidence with what I knew, and with speaking in general. That summer I was fortunate enough to be placed in a study abroad program in Japan which would focus on Japanese language studies. The placement exams confirmed my fears and dealt a crushing blow to my confidence as I was placed in the level for those with no prior experience of the language. This was ultimately a blessing in disguise. I took it as a wake-up call to buckle down and utilize the advice I had learned before: get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I signed up for a host stay and took the opportunity to use what Japanese I knew to get through daily life with total strangers. I ran into countless communication barriers and said numerous things leading to misunderstanding and embarrassment. But I kept listening, learning, and trying again. I was exposed to different food and customs I wasn’t familiar with, and I forged ahead in spite the uneasy feeling that would rise in my gut. By the time I got back to the United States, I felt more comfortable with myself than ever before. I was ready to make mistakes and learn from them.

The JET Program

As I was finishing up my time at university, I decided to double major with psychology and Japanese because I felt I wasn’t ready to finish my time with the language. Thanks to one of my professors, I was spurred on to continue pursuing my interests, and she supported me as I attempted to catch up with my classmates. Eventually graduation drew near, and with it the whispers of the JET Program. Unsure of whether I wanted to make the plunge into graduate school or not, I took a shot at an application for the program. After a few months of waiting, an interview, and a few more months I was accepted into the program. It was exhilarating to know I would be going back to Japan for more than a few weeks. Then the reality of it started to set in, and I realized it is no easy task to move to a new country and set up a living. While the JET Program has more support for expats than other related programs, I’d not have the safety net I had when I studied abroad. Upon arriving, I had made it a point to explore as much of my new “hometown” as I could, something made easier with a lack of anything to do at home. Slowly I started building a new social network with other JETs in the area and others with similar interests. The first step was asking to join the “OB-kai” at my school’s kyudo-jyo. It meets twice a week, and the members were happy to teach me the basics. This helped keep me busy and feel rooted somewhere in a new place. 

Becoming The Kakehashi (Bridge)

After that, things to do piled up one after another. I got in touch with someone from city hall that coordinates events for foreigners living in Japan to get in touch with the community and do various cultural events. These were few and far between, but I meet many people happy to talk with me about our corner of Shizuoka prefecture, and they were equally interested in where I came from and how I came to be here. One of the people I met happened to run an English class at the city’s culture center and asked if I was interested in being the volunteer teacher for the class. So I did. While I was waiting for the classes to start, I was talking with another JET that organized events similar to what was organized by my city hall, but across Shizuoka prefecture. She asked if I was interested in joining Shizuoka AJET, so I did. Before I knew it, I was Vice President of the committee and liaising between National AJET and Shizuoka AJET. 


I also had a number of opportunities of volunteering at various events that came to my attention. Two in particular stand out in my mind. The first was a sort of disaster awareness festival on the anniversary of the earthquake that hit Fukushima. I helped at a stand where attendees offered their thoughts and goodwill on pieces of paper, be it through drawings, words, or a mix of the two. At sunset, we folded the papers into candle covers and dispersed them among the festival grounds in a pattern made by some university students. It was a struggle to keep them lit and standing, but we eventually finished and after taking time to look at the hundreds of candles we had set up, the university’s choir began their concert as a tribute to the victims of the disaster. I may have just been there for a short time, but I had felt a distinct connection with everyone there.

The second was another festival, this time in Atami. Each of the different wards of the city had their own, unique dashi with its members playing their own song. This dashi would also be pulled throughout the city for the entire day, so there were two shifts. I came in for the second shift and was elected to be the lead rope puller. After donning our team’s happi and following everyone else’s lead of tying the towel we received around my head, I lead our team through the city for the next 3 hours. As night fell, we made it to the end of the route where we performed our hearts out for some judges that would decree which ward best embodied the spirit of the city. As we were about to pull away, I was pulled away to two tengu that had been blessing the teams and the dashi as they passed by tossing some powder at them while striking fabulous poses. I was instructed to bow in front of them, where they placed some powder on my head and roared something I couldn’t decipher before I was brought back to my group and pulled us back to where our team started. 

3 Things That Made The Difference

My time on the JET Program has led me to many experiences that I couldn’t possibly list all of here. I still needed time to myself, but I was able to find an appropriate balance of leaving my house and staying home with the blinds drawn. While getting here was no easy road, I believe there were three things that have made all the difference in bettering myself for the next step I wanted to take.

1. I’ve said it several times now, but learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you can find the drive, whatever the reason may be, to regularly step out of your comfort zone, you’ll find you are capable of more than you may imagine.

2. Don’t be afraid to fail, or make mistakes. Those are the times where you can learn the most, so don’t always be so hesitant to try something you’re unsure of. I wouldn’t have made it this far without the countless failures I’ve had.

3. Be flexible and adaptable. No two circumstances are the exact same, so you need to be able to adapt to new environments. It goes without saying that working in Japan is unlike anything I’ve done before, so I had to be ready to learn how to do almost everything from scratch. Some may find this frustrating, but it’s an important step to make to keep a steady workplace flow.

I said before that this is my final year on the JET Program, so I’m already jumping around for the next step in my career in hopes that I’ll catch something before I return in August. This too is a great learning opportunity since I was fortunate enough to get through the JET Program application process the first time, so I’ve not have to send out job applications before. I’m scared, but ready to tackle this problem, just like so many others have done before me. If they can do it, I can too.

* 7/30/2020 Update *

My story last left off saying that my time on the JET Program was coming to a close and I was preparing to start job hunting in the summer. It would turn out that I’d end up networking without realizing it. 

The Magic Of Networking

About a month after I wrote that story, I organized a night out at a bar for expats in Numazu and things were going like usual until a few other Americans that I didn’t recognize came in and were dispersed around the bar since there wasn’t a table large enough to accommodate all of them, two of them were seated next to me. They clearly didn’t speak any Japanese, but were getting by with gestures and pointing at the menu for most of the night, so I didn’t pay much mind at first.

Some time passed and they were trying to ask the server how much time they had left on their all-you-can-drink wine special, but weren’t getting anywhere. So I stepped in and interpreted for them. After that we started talking and it turned out they were executives for company in Michigan of all places! So I mentioned that I was actually returning to Michigan in mid-summer, more amazed at the coincidence than anything, and they offered to set up an interview for a position at their company. If they still liked what I had to offer, they would bring me on board full time and provide training! Of course, I accepted and exchanged contact information. 


I was interviewed once in Japan (the headquarters of the company was actually in Numazu), and once in America after I returned. There was a lot going on, so it took a couple months before they processed everything, but eventually I was hired as a sales account manager at the car parts manufacturer last autumn. I’m still trying to learn everything involved as I’ve never studied or learned anything about the automotive industry, but my coworkers are understanding of my situation, and my bosses are very patient in constantly teaching everything I need to know. As it is a Japanese company, I do get to use my Japanese with my coworkers who speak it, or when I communicate with headquarters. I do struggle with the automotive vocabulary as my Japanese was much more general and culture focused, but I will be better for making the effort to learn the associated terminology.

Since I was hired on for my expertise in Japanese culture and customs, they mainly have me working with Japanese OEMs, though since I serve most a support role for now, I do help out in work with almost all OEMs. I’m also seeing what learned about computer science and graphic design paying off in subtle ways. I guess it goes to show you that nothing you learn is ever pointless.

In conclusion

I always heard that most jobs are obtained through networking, or that you are often one conversation away from new opportunities, but it always seemed like just a story that happened to other people. What are the odds, right? Though it’s hard to argue with that now. I think it’s important not to close yourself off from other people as you never know what could start from a simple “So what brings you here?”

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