Senpai Success Story #17: Jessi, Japan-Focused Budding Entrepreneur

Senpai Success Story's Jessi in a kimono

You can be a Senpai at any age! Read Jessi’s story and fall in love with Japan all over again.

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)

How I got started

My interest in Japan had started like most– through anime. I’ve been watching it since I can remember and I had never really thought too much about it until I was about 16. It was during summer break and I got this weird desire though the boredom to pick up a new language for fun! I had taken a semester of Mandarin when I was younger, so I would start there. But here’s the kicker– Mandarin is really hard! It was like diving into foreign waters and I couldn’t even distinguish one word from another audibly. I moved to other eastern languages, but I was sort of bewildered at how easily I picked up Japanese.

Of course, I’m no Japanese wizard, and even to this day my Japanese is only basic. However, it occurred to me that the reason it didn’t feel so foreign was because I had developed the ear for it through anime, it felt natural to listen to! My Japanese grew from learning vocabulary through various phone apps. I could apply the words I learned to the shows I watched– and in doing so, I used context clues to figure out the meaning of different phrases. Of course this became a hobby of mine, and it eventually expanded to learning about the culture.

Once I started studying about the culture, I was enamored. I loved the politeness, consideration for others, history, art, and all the natural beauty. Right after I turned 19 I found a program in my research– Workaway! It’s an online (and now app) platform to connect you to places all over the world where you can stay for free in exchange for working for them! They have all sorts of jobs: nannying, agriculture, teaching, building, cooking, etc. Workaway was my initial link to Japan.

So I had to go! I was so lost after not going to college and not knowing what I was going to do. This was something tangible, something I knew I wanted and could strive for with some hard work to save money for the flight. I got another job on top of the photography assistant job I already had, and just worked my butt off. My dad always told me, “The best way to save money is to work so much you don’t have any time to spend it!”, which has been keen advice to me even now!

In Japan

I had my trip all planned out, I’d get a tourist visa upon arrival, I was in correspondence with my host, and I had consoled my mom for the 100th time. I landed in Japan April 1st, 2019 in Osaka. I was sweating buckets– I had hardly been outside Texas, let alone on the other side of the planet! It wasn’t until I got in the taxi at the airport that it really sunk in, and all fear washed away. I’ll never forget my excitement staring at all the street lights and neon signs as we drove by (or the weird dysphoria from being on the opposite side of the road!). I arrived at my host’s hostel and settled in for the night. My host’s name was Kikuzono-san, his hostel is located in northern Osaka in Toyonaka. Music Uni Street backpacker’s Hostel, named after the local music college.

When I woke up in the morning Kikuzono-san and his girlfriend gave me a run down of my tasks. I would clean the hostel top to bottom after breakfast with Kiku-chan every morning at 8am. I found over the month that I stayed there that I found the deep diligent Japanese style cleaning to be therapeutic and a great way to start my mornings. After cleaning I was free to do whatever I wanted until 6! At 6pm every day we’d host an English Cafe, which entailed me sitting happily on the front porch waving at all the neighbors walking by, to show them I’m friendly, since most people felt wary about the hostel (and all the random foreigners in it) being in such a residential area. I did get the occasional customer though! Ritsuko-san was one of the regulars, except she wanted to practice Spanish! Luckily I had taken it in school for 8 years, so we became fast friends. She’d take me out to dinner all the time and we’d have so much fun walking to and from–I almost missed curfew…OFTEN!

I only ever had one other guest, my dear friend Yuzuru. Yu-chan is only a year younger than me, and somehow despite the language barrier I like to think we became close friends. Yu-chan would bring her twin sister Chizuru and older sister Satsuki by often, and after my cleaning duties they whisked me away on adventures to show me around! We went cherry blossom watching and ate baby castella’s, went to Dotonbori to eat takoyaki and take purikura (like a cutesy photo booth), went to Arashiyama park in Kyoto and rented kimonos, and every place we went they’d teach me more Japanese.

During my free time if I wasn’t with the twins, I was usually out and about with the hostel guests. They became like a family to me and I became, despite being younger than everyone there, a “mother hen” of sorts. I knew basic Japanese like how to ask where things are, directions, how to work ticket machines for the trains, how to order at restaurants, etc.  Since I had been there longer than anyone in my month-long stay and knew more Japanese than anyone, I was the go-to gal. My favorite place to recommend/go to was the local onsen (bath house)! They’re mostly foreigner friendly and if you want to know the onsen “procedure” there’s a bunch of great youtube videos! I will say that I have a tattoo and none of the onsen workers or guests seemed to mind, granted it’s just a flower on my collar bone, but the stigma on tattoos is still prevalent. Although, according to the twins, that’s more the older generation now.

What I learned

So, you’re probably concerned about how much Japanese you “need” to know. Technically, you don’t need any! Of course going to a country without speaking the language is sort of a sketchy gamble and impolite, but I know plenty of guests who got by just fine. I’d say the more you know the better, only because that means you can make more friends and have more conversations with locals! If you had to ask me what’s most important to learn though, I’d say how to ask basic questions (where, when, what, how much, etc.), greetings, and a good self introduction (for example, my staple intro was “Hajimemashite, watashi wa Jessi-desu. Texas kara kimashita!  Watashi no Nihongo wa amari jouzu janai desu, demo ganbate-masu!” meaning “Nice to meet you, I’m Jessi. I’m from Texas! My Japanese really isn’t all that good, but I’ll do my best!”). Of course more Japanese means more opportunity, but I don’t think not knowing more than minimal should stop you, you’ll be just fine I promise! Especially in the cities/touristy areas where there’s some english, or at least romaji (Japanese in English letters instead of hiragana/katakana/kanji) so you can at least read (comes in handy on the trains especially!).

After coming home (and crying all the way there), I realized I loved Japan in a deeper, more nostalgic way than before. When I think of Japan now I think about calling out “Itterashai!” to the students walking to the station during breakfast with Kiku-chan on the porch, heated vending machines (a blessing), 7-Eleven meals, apple tea, walking to the park, the squeaky sound of Yuzuru’s bike (this is how I could tell the difference between her and Chizuru from far away), Ritsuko-san’s laugh, the scars on my elbow from failing miserably at riding a bike, and hanging my laundry up to dry. I never thought I could feel so at home anywhere other than home, I think it made me stronger, more confident. It’s completely possible to lay down roots and establish community anywhere you go, it’s all a matter of–not to dismiss the hard work– taking the leap of faith.

Where am I now?

Now I’m about to turn 21, and I have been working with a direct selling skincare brand called Rodan + Fields (from the makers of Proactive), and we’ve been working on launching in Japan! Unfortunately, due to the quarantine, our physical celebration event has been postponed, but we will begin selling and taking on Japanese consultants on June 1st! Of course my Japanese is still rough around the edges, but I can’t help but be ecstatic about getting to work closely with Japanese consumers and potential partners. Not to mention finding a way to take business trips to Japan with no degree at only 21! Yuzuru, Chizuru and I still keep in touch, with my broken Japanese and their broken English we meet in the middle and keep each other updated through messaging on Instagram! Even though my work will be in Tokyo, I plan on taking the train to Toyonaka to see everyone again and visit my home away from home again.

In Conclusion

I know sometimes traveling so far away can be nerve-wracking. You’re constantly doubting if you can even afford it, if it’s the right time, or if you’ve studied enough. If you prioritize saving, you’ll have enough. I promise, the “right time” will never fall effortlessly into your lap, you have to MAKE time (unless we’re talking about seasons, then cherry blossom season is definitely the right time for sure). Unless you’re fluent, you’ll never know enough Japanese, the more you know, the more opportunities you’ll have and the more memories you’ll make. But don’t let your insecurities stop you from going, even if you’re going alone, even if you barely speak the language, even if it’s expensive. Kindness is Universal, and I was never shy of kindness from Kiku-chan, the hostel guests, or the twins. Going to Japan changed me, it changed my life. You just have to dive in!

Thank you so much for reading my Senpai Success Story, CHASE YOUR JAPAN DREAMS! I promise it’ll be worth it.

Jessi Ijames

May 2020

IG: jessi_ijames

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top