Senpai Success Story #24: Wise Words from Charles, Risk Manager

Charles Demarest Japan

Experience Charles’ life journey vicariously through China, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, Ireland, New York and California, and see how his Japanese language and cultural skills have enriched it. Be sure to check his story out, especially if you’re interested in finance!

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


“Japanese language has opened many doors and made possible a career that has nothing to do with Japanese.” Charles Demarest

任せなさい Makasenasai (leave it to me)

I first went to Japan and China as part of a six-week high school senior trip in 1984. Wondering around Ueno, my classmate and I encountered a young Japanese man who taught me my first real Japanese word, “makasenasai, as he took us all around Tokyo replete with eating and sightseeing and bringing us back to the hotel just in time for our flight to Hong Kong the next morning.

As a result of the trip, I felt astounded at my ignorance in thinking Japan and China were pretty much the same deal. I was determined to learn more when I went to university in the fall.  

勉強の虫 Benkyo no mushi (bookworm)

During my undergraduate years, while majoring in economics, I continued to study mostly Chinese but also Japanese.

As I had taken classes every summer quarter and finished my degree in 3 years, my parents bankrolled me to spend a full year in China studying Chinese. I became a hardcore bookworm studying Chinese like my life depended on it and found it meditative to write characters over and over while listening to music.

The majority of my social activity was with the Japanese foreign students (we would speak Chinese together) drinking rice wine and singing karaoke in the dorm.

I decided to find a way to go to Japan, and teaching English seemed to be the ticket.

転がる石に苔むさず Korogaru Ishi Ni Koke Musazu (a rolling stone gathers no moss)

A year after returning from China, I flew to Japan without a job lined up, originally rooming with a missionary classmate from the states, then later two different homestays with Japanese families before getting my own apartment.

Several weeks after moving to Japan, I found a job teaching English at Japanese companies around Aichi prefecture. My social life was oriented around going to “snack bars” with my homestay father, carousing with other gaijin and being a groupie for a Beatles cover band, but I was always studying Japanese.

My next move was to Sydney, Australia. It was hard for me to find a job, particularly without a working visa, and I soon ran out of money. Fortunately, I stumbled upon an opportunity to work as a Japanese-speaking tour guide and did that for a year and half (despite being a tourist myself), making decent money and having a great time taking photos with koalas, getting free dinner cruises and kick-backs from duty free shops.

After that, I moved back to the US where my first job was also a Japanese-speaking tour guide. My next job was Japanese-speaking bilingual customer service at a bank branch, and then working as a Japanese-English translator for a trading company.


Sail the Japanese language conversation platform


ラジオ体操 Rajio Taiso (“Radio Calisthenics” – morning group stretches before work)

Just when I started feeling like I wanted to return to Japan, I noticed a job posting at the school where I was finishing my evening MBA for an overseas operations manager at a plastic packaging company in Japan. The CEO of the company had gone to the same school.

The company put me up in an usagi goya (“rabbit hutch” or tiny apartment) directly above the noisy parking lot of an all-night “Jonathan’s” restaurant. The office environment was all-Japanese language (emails, reports, etc.), which was great for me. The office culture, though, was often bringing out my inner John McEnroe: group calisthenics at 8AM, written apologies when you are as much as 1 minute late (due to the train), obligatory drinking after work and so on. I felt eager to find something else – particularly in finance if I could.

飛び石 Tobi Ishi (stepping stones)

After one year at that job, I found my next job as an “Applications Analyst” helping implement bond trading software at Japanese banks. It improved my ability to argue in Japanese. It was quite hard work with very long hours, but my coworkers and I regularly hit Tokyo nightlife until early morning even on weekdays. Sometimes people would stagger into the office wearing the same clothes as the day before, fresh from the bars.

I did that job for several years and the experience helped me get a similar job in Hawaii, and that job helped me get a job in financial risk management at a public finance bank in Ireland and then move to New York with the same bank. I then went to work for an accounting firm doing audit-assist work during the global financial crisis. Then I was happy to move back to Hawaii to the same financial analytics company, then to San Francisco where I worked as an analytics consultant for asset managers on the west coast of the US and finally, my current job in risk for an asset manager.

振り返ってみれば Furikaette Mireba (looking back on it)

The totality of learning Japanese, living for six cumulative years in Japan, and the many cultural and work experiences has been wonderful (not universally so, of course). I wouldn’t trade them and have no regrets.

While Japanese language has not been a requirement in my last six jobs and I have not even spoken much Japanese in the past 15 years, there is no question that it has opened many doors that led to my modest career today. It’s hard to imagine what I would have done otherwise.

習った事を当てはまる Naratta koto wo atehamaru (applying what you learned)

When my eldest daughter was born 9 years ago, I had thought Japanese language had been so good to me that I should force her to learn it as well and she might have the same opportunities open to her. Now I realize that I was blessed with auspicious timing – being there when China was just opening up to the West, Japan was having their economic boom, Ireland was having their Celtic tiger moment, etc.

In retrospect though, this whole journey started not because I sensed professional opportunity, but because I felt ignorant and wanted to learn more and it grew from there. I opted not to force my kids to learn Japanese, but to try to be supportive of whatever curiosity drives them.


Japanese Jobs 100 Online Training Program


外国語学習アドバイス Gaikokugo Gakushu Adobaisu (language learning advice)

If you feel motivated to learn Japanese, I would recommend that you do so passionately. The language is very rich with humble and honorific ways of speaking we don’t have in English, borrowed words and bastardized expressions from English that will make you laugh, and parables that may make you see the world differently.

If your study brings you to Japan, you will have the opportunity to engage on a deeper level with a truly different and profoundly interesting culture: eat great sushi, visit awesome onsen, and see mind blowing historical sights and modern wonders along the way.

It’s not for everyone and it is a huge endeavor to get proficient to the point where your hard work can pay off professionally; the bar is less high to benefit you spiritually. That should be your goal out of the gate.

My language learning advice is that next to putting yourself in different physical contexts where you have to actually use the language to communicate, the next best thing is to use all the media available to you.

As for me, I watched overdubbed American movies over and over, and read translations of books I was already familiar with (that way you do not need to look up every word you don’t know) and then try to use in real life situations some of the expressions and vocabulary learned. I also used to learn J-pop songs and try to perform them at karaoke bars. Nowadays there are great apps for learning languages like Busuu and Drops, but these are no substitute for actual human interaction.

キャリアアドバイス Kyaria Adobaisu (Career Advice)

Someone advised me once if you love foreign languages, that’s great, but make sure that the foreign language is not your primary career skill. I’ve heard the same said about IT skills. Not that there are not good interpreter / translator jobs or pure IT jobs, but generally those tend to be supporting functions for bigger things or even worse, plug-and-play commodity jobs that can be outsourced, cost-pressured, or these days, replaced by technology.

After many jobs in a row where I was using Japanese, I felt vindicated in trying to heed this advice when I landed my first job where Japanese wasn’t relevant. (When I was in Japan, the term “almighty” was used for people with language, technical and business skills. See Yoshi’s Senpai Success Story, particularly the “Be Unique And Multiply” section. His point being that advanced language skills can increase your scarcity value in the job market, particularly when combined with other skills.)

At one job interview, the hiring manager asked me if foreign language not being a part of the job was a drawback for me, I said “not at all.” Honestly though, that’s not entirely true.

Thanks to Kasia and Ikigai Connections for hosting this blog with so many interesting personal stories. This is a super-abridged version of my experience and would be happy to share further.


Photo credit: Charles Demarest

2 thoughts on “Senpai Success Story #24: Wise Words from Charles, Risk Manager”

  1. Thomas Crawford

    This was an absolutely fantastic account of your life (albeit abridged) since our days together back in high school in Durango. I am so pleased to have reconnected with you and to see how you have navigated the international waters and multi-continents throughout your career and your life!

    1. Ikigai Connections

      Thomas – thank you for commenting! I’ll be sure that Charles sees your comment. (His story is great, isn’t it!)

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