Senpai Success Story #12: Translator/Interpreter Graeme, And How A Broken Nose Led Him To Japan

Graeme Lawrence Japanese-English Translator, Iaido

Meet Graeme Lawrence, martial artist and translator/interpreter extraordinaire from the UK!

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. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

If you were eighteen years-old and offered the chance to go to Japan for free on a cargo plane, would you take it? I did, but (in retrospect, probably thankfully) the airline was bought out just before I was due to go, so in the end I avoided what was probably a 20-hour flight via Anchorage in a freezing-cold aircraft, most likely sitting amongst boxes of freight and livestock, for all I knew. You think I’m kidding? These were the 1980s, when regulations were somewhat different from how they are today. The cargo company was called “Flying Tigers”, named after the American squad that was active in the Second World War.

In the end, I took the easy route and went to Japan on a direct flight on British Airways, but first I had to fund it. Fortune works in mysterious ways, for one day a car jumped a red light and crashed into mine, breaking my nose. As a result, my nose was now pushed across my face, so as compensation I was given the option of either 1) undergoing an operation to set it straight again, or 2) a £1000 (about 1600 USD) insurance pay out. I took the money, hoping that my nose would sort it itself out eventually (it kind of has done), and used it to buy my ticket to Japan.


How It All Began

My Japanese journey began in the middle of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s.

That was the era of “Japan as No. 1”, and Japan Inc. was on the rise. Japanese companies were expanding across the world, including of course in the United Kingdom, where I hail from. They seemed to be doing everything right. So learning Japanese, and helping to bridge the cultural gap at a successful and secure Japanese firm sounded like the way forward!

In this article I will look back on the last thirty-odd years in the hope that my story will be of interest (and some practical use!) to the next generation of budding Japanese linguists and business people. I should add the caveat that what I describe here is the personal path I embarked on a few decades ago, and in many ways, times were different then, so I present my story here for reference purposes only (in other words, I accept no responsibility for anyone using it as a guide!)

Anyway, back to business. I started learning Japanese as a teenager, using a teach-yourself audio-lingual course. In this method, one listens to a target sentence ten times or so, then repeats it along with the tape recording a few times (yes, we used cassette tapes in those days), before reproducing the sentence without the aid of the audio. It is laborious, repetitive and can be a bit boring, but (at least for me) it worked, because I can recall some of the sentences even now. (Although I don’t think I have ever actually used any of them for real.)

My first Japanese-speaking job was working for a major Japanese logistics company (hence the cargo plane story above). As the first non-Japanese employee in the department, I was given on-the-job training (‘OJT’ as they say in Tokyo), which was an invaluable opportunity to get first-hand experience of Japanese-style customer service and management style. The four years I spent there gave me a solid foundation for the rest of my career. Remember, this was in the eighties, when Japanese companies were still finding their feet overseas, so I was able to observe from the inside the types of issues they faced, not to mention the cultural differences and occasional friction which arose as a result.


Learning the language in Japan

Fast forward to my long-term stay in Japan. After having saved up sufficient funds (through lots of Japanese-style overtime), I bade farewell to my colleagues, and moved to Shizuoka to enrol in the advanced Japanese course at a full-time language school. The purpose of this two-year course was to prepare international students to enter Japanese universities, and my classmates were all from Asian countries such as China and South Korea. So as you can imagine, everyone was really motivated, and we were aiming to get as high a score as possible in Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Achieving a high mark in this exam was one of the mandatory requirements for taking entrance exams to national and prefectural universities, so the pressure was intense. These couple of years were a true Japanese language ‘bootcamp’. But I wouldn’t have changed that experience for the world.

Once again, fate took a turn, and the first time I took the test (at the end of the first year), I was one point short of passing. Just one point! But this was the best thing that could have happened, because it boosted my motivation to work even harder, and I went into overdrive and came back the next year with a vengeance*.

*I sat the JPLT N1 again in 2018, after a gap of 24 years. But this time just for fun! I got basically the same results as the first-time round, so that means I have either 1) successfully maintained my level, or 2) hardly improved in a quarter of a century- I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide!)


Lifestyle in Japan: From old-fashioned to amazing

My abode for the first year was a single-storey wooden building, which had no hot running water, heating or aircon; in fact, there wasn’t even a flush toilet. It was so ‘traditional’ that a truck came to pump out the neighbourhood sewage every so often. The water in the bath could be heated- but as there was a hole in the tub, one had to get in and out pretty sharp! Furthermore, it was ‘shared accommodation’- by that I mean the other occupants were cockroaches and huge spiders, which greeted me on my return every night. Oh well, I couldn’t complain, because I had wanted an authentic experience…As the proverb 若い時の苦労は買ってでもせよgoes, “hardship in youth pays dividends later on in life” (my translation).

However, things improved significantly in the second year, because I did a year-long homestay with a wonderful family. I felt a bit bad, because one of my host-family’s sons, who was only six years-old at the time, had to give up his room for me. By coincidence, he is now a teacher at my nephew’s middle school. I did a lot of homestays during the first couple years, and met some wonderfully hospitable families. As a way of gaining precious insight into everyday life, I cannot recommend homestays enough.


A chance encounter

Apart from being given the opportunity to experience Japanese life ‘as one of the family’, I also had an incredible chance meeting. The grandfather of the house came to potter in the garden every week, and I discovered he was the head of the Japan Karate Association in the prefecture, and he invited me to join his dojo! Karate was what had originally sparked my interest in Japan, and I had started learning Japanese with the intention of training there one day, something I was able to do so during a three-week training trip when I was eighteen (see the start of this article). At first, I was reluctant to accept the invitation to join the local dojo because I was out of training, and busy with my studies and part-time jobs, but the old master cleverly persuaded me by claiming that “foreign black belts were probably about the same level as Japanese purple belts.” How could I refuse a challenge like that? I would like to think I accounted for myself well, and maintained the honour of foreign karateka during my training there.


Enrolling in a Japanese university

After fulfilling all the entrance requirements, I spent the next four years as the only Western student at the University of Shizuoka, immersing myself in the language and culture, and taking advantage of any opportunity that came my way. Of course, there were some opportunities I failed to follow up, and I regret that now. When learning a language, it is important to put oneself in as many different situations as possible, because practical experience counts. There are some things you just can’t learn from the internet. So the takeaway here is, “When an opportunity comes knocking on your door, take it!”

The main reason I wanted to study directly ‘at the source’ in Japan as soon as possible was because I felt that there was a limit as to what could be achieved by studying in the U.K. In the case of Japanese, where the language and culture are so closely intertwined, I considered early, intense exposure ‘on the ground’ to be essential. My strategy was to take as wide a range of courses as possible, in the hope that doing so would expose me to diverse subjects and thus increase my vocabulary. This approach set me in good stead for my future career, because in the world of translation and interpreting, one never knows what word is coming next!


Learn through Japanese

I cannot stress enough how effective it is to learn subjects through Japanese. OK, one might not catch everything, but what does stick will come in handy later on. For example, a course in European or Asian history, or international relations policy, will expose one to a wealth of language that crops up in the Japanese news on a daily basis. So learning Japanese vocabulary associated with history can in fact help one to understand current affairs. In those days, all prospective international students had to sit a world history exam in Japanese, so we would read Japanese high school text books in order to prepare. That process gives an insight into how Japanese students are taught to perceive history, which is not the same as students in the West. And the fascinating thing is that one can also learn a lot about one’s own country and culture. Japanese teachers opened my eyes to much about the U.K., and this experience alone was invaluable. Of course, that is also one of the aims of cultural anthropology and cross-communication, which were my main areas of study.


Career using Japanese

I had decided whilst still at high school to build a Japan-centric career, and I have been fortunate enough to have achieved that goal. I have been able to carve out my own niche through working in liaison, coordination, and management roles in a number of quite diverse industries, including mobile communications, biotechnology, and nuclear power plant construction, to name a few. In fact, nowadays I am putting that experience to good use by providing consultation to, and running cross-cultural training workshops for, business people who work with Japanese colleagues and clients.

However, in no way has it been a smooth journey. I have worked for quite a few major players in the Japanese corporate world, and on several occasions, I have found my “dream job”, but the reality is that business can be harsh. Companies go bust, industries get reworked, global recessions come and go, and projects get cancelled.


Wisdom for your job search

Unfortunately, the Japanese ideal of ‘lifetime employment’ is just that, an ideal, which is no longer so relevant in today’s world. So the keyword here is “versatility”. Thankfully, Japanese language ability is a skill that is highly transferable. But I fully appreciate that getting one’s foot in the door at the beginning can be tough. Keep in mind that Japanese companies like to train up young employees in their own ways. In other words, new staff are like ‘blank slates’. Firms appreciate polite, well-presented, and friendly employees who are willing to listen and absorb the company culture. Japanese expats want to work with local people who they will be able to get on with, without confrontation. They will look for that in interviews. You can re-assure prospective employers by emphasising how you are willing to adapt to their working style, and that you are prepared to take on different responsibilities.

Liaison roles between Japanese headquarters and their overseas subsidiaries, and between Japanese expats and local staff are crucial in ensuring that workplace communication runs smoothly. But these are not the only positions that are open to people with Japanese language ability. The increased number of Western firms in Tokyo nowadays must surely present more opportunities than ever before. Remember, don’t hesitate to create opportunities to try new things and learn new language. You just never know when it might come in useful.


Graeme today

Of course, learning Japanese is a never-ending journey, just like martial arts. One has to polish one’s skills constantly. One way I found to do this was to enter the JETRO/SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) Business Japanese Speech Contest last year. This is a showcase event for Japanese-speaking business people, and the level of the entrants get higher every year. This year, a couple of the finalists delivered fluent speeches even though they had never lived in or visited Japan! I strongly recommend students of Japanese to take a look at the videos of the finalists (follow the links at the end of this article). It was certainly worth the effort competing, as I won top prize of a return JAL flight to Japan!

Back in the early days, we really struggled to get hold of Japanese language learning material, but one source was a newspaper for the local Japanese community called “Eikoku News Digest.” With a dictionary in one hand, I used to try to decipher the content, which was quite a painstaking exercise. Things have since gone full circle, and nowadays I am pleased to contribute to the publication myself , with a monthly column called “Graeme’s Business Culture Juku” (ビジネス文化塾). The magazine itself is great for students of Japanese, so please take a look at the online version.

Even now, after three and half decades of study, I still add up a whole bunch of new words to my “Anki” app glossary every day. I listen to Japanese business and news podcasts whenever I get a few minutes spare. But if it were too easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, right?

Check out these links:

Eikoku News Digest monthly column: the e-book:

Sir Peter Parker Awards Business Japanese Speech Contest: and

Podcast interviews: Business Success Japan and Simon & John Careers

Japan Consulting Office:

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